True West’s Ultimate Historic Travel Guide: Great Basin and Rocky Mountains

Lower Falls, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
— Courtesy Library of Congress —

When William F. Cody died in Denver, Colorado, in 1917, they say he requested to be buried high on Lookout Mountain, west of the city, so that he could eternally see both the plains and mountains he loved.

From Montana’s snow-covered peaks to the labyrinth of canyons in Southern Utah, from Wyoming’s Yellowstone country to Colorado’s Continental Divide, the Great Basin and Rocky Mountains region was home to many Indian tribes before Europeans arrived in search of  furs.

The abundant natural resources of the region drove the conquest and settlement of the four states through the 19th century—and even continues today.

Travelers in search of the Old West in the region will discover why distance is relative to the time needed to cross over high mountain passes and sagebrush deserts on foot, horseback or wagon, by transcontinental train, or in a car on ribbons of historic highways under a seemingly endless blue sky.

Colorado

Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site

Entrepreneurism and courage were the touchstones of William and Charles Bent who in 1833 built their trading post with their partner, Ceran St. Vrain, along the Santa Fe Trail on the north banks of the Arkansas River in the middle of Indian country.

For 16 years, Bent’s Fort was the “castle of the plains,” and was the most important economic center between Kansas City and Santa Fe until it was abandoned in 1849.

The fort was reconstructed for America’s bicentennial, and serves as an active living history center.

35110 Colorado Hwy 194 East, La Junta, CO 81050
719-383-5010 • NPS.gov

Buffalo Bill’s Grave and Museum

In Golden, Colorado, high on Lookout Mountain is William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s final resting place. The Western showman died while visiting his sister in Denver in 1917.

His wife, Louisa, was buried next to him four years later and that same year Cody’s friend, Johnny Baker, started the Buffalo Bill Memorial Museum.

Today the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave is one of the most visited historic sites in Colorado, a true testament to the lasting importance of the beloved Western showman.

987½ Lookout Mountain Rd, Golden, CO 80401
303-526-0744 • BuffaloBill.org

Durango

Located in the heart of the San Juan Mountains on the banks of the Animas River in Southwest Colorado, Durango is home to the world-famous Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

Visitors who love Victorian inns will enjoy staying at the Historic Strater Hotel in the downtown district before taking a round-trip ride into history on the narrow-gauge railroad to Silverton and back.

The train runs year ’round, with special excursions in the heart of winter.

802 Main St, Durango, CO 81302
800-463-8726 • Durango.org

Fort Garland Museum & Cultural Center

Built in Colorado’s San Luis Valley in 1858, Fort Garland was an early outpost in the heart of the state when settlers began expanding their communities into the rich interior valleys.

A key military outpost until 1883, the fort was under the command of Kit Carson in 1866-’67 because of his knowledge of the region and relationship with the local Utes.

Today’s visitors will enjoy the rich heritage preserved at the fort, including regularly scheduled re-enactments and living history events.

29477 Colorado Hwy 159, Fort Garland, CO 81133
719-379-3512 • HistoryColorado.org / MuseumTrail.org

Fort Vasquez Museum

In 1835, fur traders Louis Vasquez and Andrew Sublette built Fort Vasquez about 35 miles north of modern Denver.

The adobe outpost was a busy site with many famous mountain men working for the frontier entrepreneurs.

Near Platteville, the museum inside the re-created fort rebuilt in the 1930s, has displays and exhibits on the fur trade, mountain men, Plains Indians and frontier life.

13412 U.S. Hwy 85, Platteville, CO 80651
970-785-2832 • HistoryColorado.org

Georgetown Loop Railroad and Mining Tours

Historic Georgetown’s business district is an enjoyable and informative place to begin a tour of the mining town known as the Silver Queen of the Rockies, built on the silver boom of the 1880s.

The Georgetown Loop Railroad & Mining Tours is an engineering marvel and provides today’s passengers views of the Clear Creek Canyon and the Rocky Mountains. For an additional fee, passengers may take a guided tour of one of three mines.

646 Loop Dr, Georgetown, CO 80444
888-456-6777 • GeorgetownLooprRR.com /Georgetown-Colorado.org

Leadville

At 10,430 feet, historic Leadville, the highest incorporated city in the United States, is a mining boomtown built near the headwaters of the Arkansas River.

Abe Lee discovered gold in 1860, which was followed by a silver boom in the 1870s. Start your tour at the National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum, then take the historic walking tour before boarding the popular vintage Leadville Train. Stay at the 1886 Delaware Hotel in Leadville’s historic district.

Leadville/Lake County Chamber: 809 Harrison Ave,
Leadville, CO 80461 • 719-486-3900 • Leadville.com

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site is a solemn site. The park is dedicated to remembering the tragic and unforgivable attack on Chiefs Black Kettle, White Antelope and Left Hand’s peaceful villages on November 29, 1864. Led by Col. John Chivington, 675 cavalrymen attacked at dawn, slaughtering 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho women, children, warriors and elderly.

Visitors should plan to attend an interpretive program and take the short walk out to the monument and overlook.

County Rd 54 & County Rd W (Near Eads), CO 81036-0249
719-438-5916 • NPS.gov

Silverton

Gold and silver were found in 1860, but miners didn’t return to the Animas River Canyon to seek their fortunes until after the Civil War.

In 1874, the town of Silverton was laid out and the boom was on. In 1882, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad reached Silverton.

At its height, over 2,000 called Silverton home, with more than 400 buildings, including 29 saloons. Today, historic Silverton is a popular tourist destination and the terminus of the internationally acclaimed Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

414 Greene St, Silverton, CO 81433
800-752-4494 • SilvertonColorado.com

Montana

Bannack State Park

When prospector John White found gold on Grasshopper Creek in 1862, the news of the discovery created a rush to Bannack, which in 1864 became the first Territorial capital of Montana.

Mining remained an important industry in Bannack until the 1930s, and in the 1950s, Montana made the historic community a state park.

Today visitors step back in time and can walk through most of the 60 historic structures. Don’t miss Bannack Days, held the third weekend of every July, which celebrates the early decades of the Montana Territory.

4200 Bannack Rd, Dillon, MT 59725
406-834-3413 • Bannack.org

Bear Paw Battlefield

Commemorating the final battle of the Nez Perce War of 1877, Bear Paw Battlefield is the site of Chief Joseph’s famous statement, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

Begin your tour at the Blaine County Museum in Chinook, 15 miles south of the battlefield. Call for hours of operation. Bear Paw Battlefield’s self-guided 1¼-mile moderately difficult interpretive trail is open to the public every day during daylight hours.

15 miles south of Chinook, MT, on Highway 240
406-357-3130 • NPS.gov
BlaineCountyMuseum.com

Big Hole National Battlefield

Near Wisdom, Big Hole National Battlefield is a unit of the Nez Perce National Historical Park and one of the most significant sites of the Nez Perce War of 1877. 

An extensive museum in the visitor center displays rare artifacts and detailed exhibitions on the tragic results of the battle.

Three self-guided trails take visitors onto the battlefield, to the village site and up onto the ridgeline where Col. John Gibbon’s soldiers retreated and held out under duress from a Nez Perce siege while the tribe buried its dead and escaped.

16425 Hwy 43 W, Wisdom, MT 59761
406-689-3155 • NPS.gov

Fort Benton

Fort Benton on the Missouri River is a crossroads of history. Visitors should stay a while in the national historic landmark, the terminus of three major trails and a key stop on the Lewis and Clark and Nez Perce National Historic trails.

Museum lovers will enjoy Historic Old Fort Benton, the Museum of the Upper Missouri, Museum of the Northern Great Plains, the Missouri River Breaks Interpretive Center, the Historic District and Levee Walk, the Shep Memorial and the State of Montana’s Lewis and Clark Memorial.

U.S. Hwy 87, 40 miles northeast of Great Falls or
72 miles south of Havre, MT
406-622-3864 • FortBenton.com

Great Falls

Upriver from Fort Benton, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail leads to Great Falls, a key stop for heritage travelers to view and tour the site of the Corps of Discovery’s portage of the five waterfalls on the Missouri River.

Travelers should visit the C.M. Russell Museum, Giant Springs State Park and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and enjoy a short or long walk, run or bike ride on the 48-mile River’s Edge Trail.

1106 9th St South, Great Falls, MT 59405
406-771-1180 • GenuineMontana.com

Glacier National Park

Known as the Crown of the Continent, Glacier National Park was a traditional homeland to Native Blackfeet, Kootnei, Pend d’Oreillie and Salish tribes.

With the Blackfeet controlling the region into the 1870s, American settlers were slow to homestead the area, but with the arrival of the Great Northern Railroad in 1891, homesteading and prospecting increased pressure on the natural beauty of the area.

Tourism became a source of income, and with the rise of the national park movement, President William H. Taft made Glacier the 10th national park in 1910.

64 Grinnell Dr, West Glacier, MT 59936
406-888-7800 • NPS.gov

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

Little Bighorn remains one of most significant battles in American history. Located on the Crow Agency, the June 25-26, 1876, battle between Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse’s Sioux and Cheyenne allies and Lt. Col. George A. Custer’s 7th Cavalry, led to the death of 263 soldiers, including Custer.

Visitors will discover a solemnity that imbues the park, whether one is touring the national cemetery, the visitor center museum, the walkways, the 1881 7th Cavalry Memorial or the 2003 Indian Memorial.

Ranger-led programs provide expert analysis on the battle, while a drive out to the Benteen-Reno Battlefield provides a great view of the Little Bighorn River Valley.

After touring the monument, don’t miss an opportunity to visit the Custer Battlefield Museum, in Garryowen, Montana, or a chance to stay the night at the fully restored, historic Sheridan Inn in Sheridan, Wyoming.

756 Battlefield Tour Rd, Crow Agency, MT 59022  406-638-3224
NPS.gov / CusterMuseum.org/SheridanInn.com

Virginia City

In 1863, prospectors looking for the next bonanza discovered gold in Alder Gulch. Soon Virginia City was the latest Western boomtown that brought settlers deep into the Northern Plains.

Within a year, 8,000 to 10,000 miners were living in the wild town. Soon thereafter Virginia City was made the Territorial capital.

Today, visitors can walk the historic streets of the Victorian mining town, tour several historic structures, be entertained by re-enactors, take a ride on a train and learn how Virginia City, Montana, changed the course of history in the West.

800-829-2969 • VirginiaCity.com

Utah

Bluff Fort

In 1879-’80 Mormon pioneers built a 250-mile trail from Parowan to Bluff that remains symbolic of the determination of the missionaries and their loyalty to themselves and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Soon after the pioneers settled along the San Juan River they built Bluff Fort and moved the community members into cabins inside the fort to protect them from Indian attacks.

Visitors can tour a replica of the fort, an original cabin, and replicas of other buildings, including the Co-op Store, which now serves as the visitors center and gift shop.   

550 Black Locust Ave, Bluff, UT 84512
435-672-9995 • BluffUtah.org / HIRF.org

Fort Douglas Military Museum

The Army post was built in 1862 just east of Salt Lake City to guard the Central Overland Route.

In the early years, soldiers at Camp Douglas played an important peacekeeping role in the region and served to protect the construction of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. The fort served the regular Army until 1991, although the Army Reserve still maintains a 51-acre site.

Today, visitors can enjoy the Fort Douglas Military Museum on the campus of the University of Utah.

32 Potter St, Salt Lake City, UT 84113
801-581-1251 • FortDouglas.org

Golden Spike National Historic Site

On May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads completed the engineering feat of the first transcontinental railroad in North America at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory.

Today, the Golden Spike National Historic Site protects, interprets and promotes the memorable moment with visitor center exhibitions and film, interpretive hiking and walking trails, and living history re-enactments, including a regular re-enactment of the meeting of the two steam locomotives Jupiter and No. 119 nose-to-nose, and the driving of the Golden Spike.

6450 N 22000 W, Corinne, UT 84307
435-471-2209 • NPS.gov

Goulding’s Trading Post

In the early 1920s, sheep trader Harry Goulding and his wife, Leone, known to all as “Mike,” came to Monument Valley and started a trading post.

During the Depression, Harry and “Mike” went to Hollywood with photographs of their beautiful valley to drum up business for the impoverished area, and John Ford agreed it was perfect for his upcoming film, Stagecoach.

Ever since, Monument Valley has been a favorite location for movie companies, and Goulding’s quickly became Ford’s headquarters in the picturesque valley.

Today, visitors can stay in the lodge, tour the museum in the original trading post, and enjoy the spectacular views of Monument Valley known worldwide.

1000 Main St, Monument Valley, UT 84536 435-727-3231 • Gouldings.com

Moab

The earliest Mormon settlers of Moab in the 1850s were driven out by Indian attacks. In
1878, a new wave of settlers restarted the community.

The isolated, rural river town attracted its share of miscreants, including Harvey Alexander Logan, aka Kid Curry, who on May 26, 1900, went on a killing spree of revenge in Moab, killing Grand County Sheriff Jesse Tyler and Deputy Sam Jenkins.

Tyler had killed his friend George “Flatnose” Curry (Logan’s adopted last name) and his brother, Larry Logan.

Visitors should start their tour at the Museum of Moab before venturing out to drive three scenic byways and visit Canyonlands and Arches National Parks and Dead Horse Point State Park.

217 Center St, Moab, UT 84532
435-259-5121 • DiscoverMoab.com

Meadow Mountains Massacre Site

The site commemorates an attack on an Arkansas emigrant wagon train by Mormon settlers with local Paiute Indians.

The local Latter-day Saints pioneers were suspicious of the federal government’s anti-Mormon policies, and on September 11, 1857, the Mormon militia attacked and killed 120 men, women and children of the Baker-Fancher wagon train. Seventeen children survived.

The National Historic Landmark is 40 minutes north of present-day St. George on State Highway 18.

MountainMeadowsMassacre.com
MTN-Meadows-Assoc.com

Monument Valley

Monument Valley became known internationally after Harry and Leone “Mike” Goulding convinced John Ford to make his movie Stagecoach amidst the valley’s beautiful buttes in 1938.

Today, nearly 80 years later, Monument Valley is one of the most iconic sites in the American West. Visitors can stay at the Navajo Nation’s recently built View Lodge, in which every room has a balcony view of the sunrise over Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.

Tourists can take a 3.2-mile self-guided walking tour, a 17-mile scenic loop drive or hire a Navajo guide for a personal tour through the park.

Navajo Nation Reservation accessible from U.S. Highway 163. • 928-871-6647 • NavajoNationParks.org

Robbers Roost

Butch Cassidy’s gang found refuge in Utah Territory’s rugged Capitol Reef Country. North of Hanksville, visitor

rive north on State Highway 24 and follow the Robber’s Roost Trail, a 28-mile dirt road for ATV and ORV and four-wheel-drive vehicles only. From the parking area, trails lead into historic sites in the back country, including Butch Cassidy’s cabin and camping area.

Hanksville, UT  • 800-858-7951
NPS.gov / CapitolReef.org

This is the Place Heritage Park

A living history village dedicated to the Mormon settlement in Utah, This is the Place Heritage Park commemorates where Brigham Young and his Church of Latter-day Saints pioneers viewed the Salt Lake Valley from the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains at the mouth of Emigrant Canyon.

Young declared “this is the place,” and today the location is an interactive history center, where visitors can tour a Pioneer Village of restored and replicated 19th-century homes, buildings and businesses, an Indian Village and ride around the park on two miniature trains.

2601 Sunnyside Ave, Salt Lake City, UT 84108
801-582-1847 • ThisIsThePlace.org

Wyoming

Buffalo

Visitors who walk the downtown district of Buffalo, Wyoming, should consider spending the night and dining at the Occidental Hotel, where Owen Wister may have written part of his famous novel, The Virginian.

The Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum’s exhibits chronicle local history, including the Johnson County War. Just outside town is the TA Ranch, a historic guest ranch that was the site of a major conflict during the cattle war.

Don’t miss Longmire Days every July in celebration of writer Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire mystery novels and television series set in Big Horn Country.

55 N. Main St, Buffalo, WY 82834
800-227-5122 • BuffaloWyoming.org

Cody

Cody, Wyoming, is one of the preeminent Western destinations. Founded as a land venture to attract the railroad near the east entrance of Yellowstone, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody lent his name to the town.

Begin your tour by checking into Cody’s Historic Irma Hotel (don’t miss the cherry wood bar given to Cody by Queen Victoria), named after his daughter, and then visiting the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s complex of five museums, library and archive, the most significant Western history museum center in the United States.

Schedule a couple of days to tour the Buffalo Bill History Museum, Cody Firearms Museum, Plains Indian Museum, Draper Museum of Natural History and the Whitney Gallery of Western Art.

836 Sheridan Ave, Cody, WY 82414
307-587-2297 • CodyChamber.com

Fort Bridger State Historic Site

In 1843, mountain men Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez opened a trading post along the Oregon Trail.

In the early 1850s, it became a Mormon outpost and then an Army camp in 1858. Visitors can walk along the Oregon Trail at the site, tour restored and reconstructed historical buildings and the museum in the 1888 stone barracks.

Every Labor Day Weekend, the annual Fort Bridger Rendezvous brings the park alive with an encampment of re-enactors.

37000 I-80 Business Loop, Fort Bridger, WY 82933 
307-782-3842 • WyoParks.State.WY.us

Fort Caspar Museum

Originally built in 1865 as Platte Bridge Station, the city of Casper manages the reconstructed fort as a living history museum.

Adjacent to the North Platte River and the national emigrant trails, Fort Caspar was an Army camp for just two years before the post was closed and the troops transferred to Fort Fetterman.

Rebuilt by the WPA in the 1930s, visitors to the Fort should tour the museum and the fort’s well-furnished complex of historic army facilities and barracks.

200 N David, Casper, WY 82601
307-234-3260 • FortCasparWyoming.com

Fort Laramie National Historic Site

Established in 1834 to serve the transcontinental fur trade, Fort Laramie’s location on the North Platte River and the overland trail assured its role as a military fort, trading post and key stopping point for hundreds of thousands of emigrants traveling to the West.

A strategic post during the Plains Indian Wars, Fort Laramie also was a station stop for the Pony Express and Overland Stage.

Visitors to the who take the self-guided or guided tour will learn the importance of Fort Laramie to U.S. history until its closure in 1890.

965 Gray Rocks Rd, Fort Laramie, WY 82212
307-837-2221 • NPS.gov

Fort Phil Kearny State Historic Site

In the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains, the Fort Phil Kearny State Historic Site commemorates the ill-fated 1866 fort built on the Bozeman Trail during the Red Cloud War. The fort was burned after the Army abandoned it in 1868.

Today, visitors can tour a replica of the fort and take a walking tour of interpretive sites about Red Cloud’s Indian who wiped out Capt. William Fetterman’s entire command of 80 soldiers.

528 Wagon Box Rd, Banner, WY 82832
307-684-7629 • FortPhilKearny.com

Hole-in-the-Wall

Forty miles southwest from Kaycee in the Big Horn Mountains, the legendary Hole-in-the-Wall outlaw hideaway is managed by the BLM.

Outlaws Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch Gang were known to ride through the “hole” in the sandstone wall to escape from the law.

The site is accessible only by primitive roads and a 2.5-mile cross-country hike. Always check with the field office for current conditions, a map and directions.

Interstate 25 south from Kaycee to the TTT Road exit. At TTT Road exit, drive south about 14 miles to Willow Creek Road (County Road 111). Take this road west for about 18 miles to a primitive two-track road which bears north. This is County Road 105, which has a number of livestock gates. • BLM.gov

Sheridan

In 1882 John D. Loucks founded Sheridan, which he named in honor of his commanding officer in the Civil War.

The gateway city to the Big Horn Mountains and Little Big Horn country of Montana, Sheridan became an economic center for the bi-state region after the railroad arrived in 1892.

Today, visitors can stay at the fully restored Sheridan Inn, stroll historic downtown and tour the Brinton, Sheridan County and Bozeman Trail museums.

1517 E 5th St Sheridan, WY 82801
307-673-7121 • SheridanWyoming.org

South Pass City

South Pass City is one of the best preserved mining towns in the state. Gold Rush Days are held every July in the boomtown adjacent to the famous pass through the Rocky Mountains.

The town is open to tour, with a small admission fee, May 14 through September 30. Prior to the 1867 gold rush, South Pass was best known as the key crossing point of the Continental Divide for emigrants and travelers on the Overland Trail.

Fremont County, WY. T27N/R102W. The Buttes are visible from the BLM interpretive overlook for South Pass located about 47 miles southwest of Lander on State Route 28. • SouthPassCity.com

Yellowstone National Park

The nation’s—and world’s—first national park, Yellowstone National Park was created on March 1, 1872, when President Ulysses S. Grant signed it into law. Yellowstone is also one of the largest national parks, at 2,291,791 acres.

The first rangers to patrol the park were members of a U.S. Cavalry troop, which in 1877 was called out to protect tourists from Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce warriors.

Visit the Albright Visitor Center to learn about the role of the U.S. Cavalry at Yellowstone.

Mammoth St, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190
307-344-7381 • NPS.gov

Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Site

Built in 1872, the Wyoming Territorial Prison held the West’s most violent and desperate outlaws (including the notorious Butch Cassidy) during the dramatic time of Wyoming’s federal Territorial days and early statehood.

The Wyoming Prison is now a museum, and includes a new exhibit on Butch Cassidy. Visitors can tour the warden’s quarters, the horse barn, prison industries broom factory, visitor center, historic buildings, as well as picnic and enjoy a nature trail.

975 Snowy Range Rd, Laramie, WY 82070
307-745-3733 • WyomingTerritorialPrison.com

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