Cowboy at Heart

Where cowboys and horses and cattle connect, there are still Western towns across the country. Here are 10:

In today’s hustling world, many towns and cities across the American West seem distant from their Western roots. But where cowboys and horses and cattle connect, there are towns that still speak “cowboy.” We highlight 10 here.

The West is filled with towns built by men and women whose livelihood depended on their stock—horses, cattle and sheep. In many places, that past remains established in thriving rodeo arenas, fairgrounds, stockyards, murals, museum galleries and street names.

Others shout “cowboy” at every corner in saddle and gear shops, feed stores and ranch trucks. If you’re hunting a Western experience in genuine cowboy country, here are 10 spots we recommend you point your truck toward. They all have more to offer than we could list; we picked out some highlights. Unique in their own ways, they still have “cowboy” at their hearts.

Alpine, Texas

Cowboy History: The town grew from a cowboy campsite to a railhead settlement in the late 1800s, eventually becoming home to Sul Ross State Normal College (now University). It remains the heart of the legendary West Texas ranching country between the Davis Mountains to the north and the Big Bend National Park on the Rio Grande River to the south.

Big Events: In February, the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering fills Alpine with the best in cowboy music, poetry and chuckwagon cooking; in April, Trappings of Texas is one of the West’s premier Western art and cowboy gear shows and sales; come back in August and watch top ranch cowboys compete in the Big Bend Ranch Rodeo.

Where cowboys and horses and cattle connect, there are still Western towns across the country. Here are 10:
Photo by Jennifer Denison

Watering Hole: Since the 1970s, the Ole Crystal Bar has been a local cowboy staple for live music, a game of pool and a cold beer.

Rest Your Head: Originally built in 1912 and a Texas Historic Landmark, the Holland Hotel offers colonial Spanish style with 24 rooms and a white linen restaurant, the Century Bar and Grill.

Gear Up: Big Bend Saddlery is second to none for gear, tack and gifts from canvas bedrolls to high-end knives, and you can get your saddle repaired. Head to Spradley Hats and order a new custom-built felt.

History Buffs: Dive into Western art and lore at the nationally respected Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross State University or experience frontier life at the Fort Davis National Historic Site.

Cimarron, New Mexico

Cowboy History: A stage stop on the Santa Fe Trail on the Cimarron River in the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Cimarron was the quintessential wild frontier town. Western legends from Kit Carson to Lew Wallace traveled through it, and it remains a destination for die-hard cowboys. Once home to cowboy artist and writer Will James at the nearby UU Bar Ranch, some of today’s authentic cowboy musicians, like R.W. Hampton, Gary Reynolds and Rod Taylor and The Rifters, also call it home.

Big Events: Head to the Cimarron Cowboy Music & Poetry Gathering at Philmont Scout Ranch for a jam-packed lineup of Western performers, such as cowboy poets Terry Nash and Deanna McCall, this year. Or experience gritty, small town rodeo—the Fourth of July Maverick Club Rodeo or the Working Ranch Cowboys Association Maverick Ranch Rodeo in August.

Rest Your Head: Take a lantern-lit tour of the beautiful St. James Hotel’s haunts where legends such as Buffalo Bill Cody, Jesse James, Wyatt and Morgan Earp, Black Jack Ketchum and more stayed. Book a room, if you dare.

Watering Hole: Lambert’s Saloon (at the St. James) opened in 1872, when French chef Henri Lambert brought good food to the frontier, a tradition that remains.

History Buffs: Stop by the renovated guesthouse-turned-educational-center on the historic Chase Ranch, managed by the Boy Scouts of America’s Philmont Scout Ranch and learn how the Chase family survived for 143 years. Don’t miss the Old Aztec Mill Museum, a grist mill filled with artifacts from locals such as cattle baron Lucien Maxwell who built the mill.

Elko, Nevada

Cowboy History: Elko found its start as a railroad camp for the Central Pacific Railroad Company in building its portion of the Great Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s. It grew as a frontier town supporting mining camps and cattle and sheep ranching, and remains the central urban spot for a high desert region bigger than many Eastern states.

Where cowboys and horses and cattle connect, there are still Western towns across the country. Here are 10:
Photo by Jennifer Denison

Big Events: Since 1985, the Western Folklife Center has hosted the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in late January, showcasing the West’s premiere cowboy performers, artisans and storytellers; in July, catch the Silver State Stampede, the oldest rodeo in Nevada; and then horse racing and Nevada Stallion Stakes at the Elko County Fair in late August.

Watering Hole: The Pioneer Saloon originally opened in 1869 and the old building now also houses the Western Folklife Center; try to catch one of its monthly jam sessions.
For Foodies: Head to The Star Hotel restaurant for Basque, family-style fine dining. In operation since 1910, it’s a testament to the area’s sheepherding history.

Gear Up: Opened in 1924 as a saddle shop, J.M. Capriola Co. has been the cowboy’s place to buy tack and gear for decades and is the home of legendary G.S. Garcia Bit and Spur Co. Head to historic Anacabe’s Elko General Merchandise Co. for work clothes and mercantile goods.

History Buffs: Hunt up the Cowboy Arts & Gear Museum that celebrates the bitmaking legacy of G.S. Garcia, and the California Trail Interpretive Center to experience pioneer travels. Find the original Pony Express cabin at the Northeastern Nevada Museum along with works by artists such as Will James, Edward Borein, Ansel Adams and more.

For Caffeine: Cowboy Joe Coffee attracts cowboy hats and mountain bike helmets alike.

Fort Worth, Texas

Cowboy History: Founded by the U.S War Department in 1849 for frontier defense, Fort Worth became a hub of the cattle industry as a crossroad for the mighty Chisholm Trail of Texas herds driven north toward railheads. Packing plants built north of the Trinity River further drove the city’s economy, and ranching interests filled downtown. It still lives up to the nickname “Cowtown.”

Big Events: The list is too long to mention all the Western and stock horse events happening at Northside Coliseum in the Stockyards or the Will Rogers Equestrian Center. Our picks include the National Reined Cow Horse Association World’s Greatest Horseman in February and Snaffle Bit Futurity in October; the Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering in October; and the National Cutting Horse Association Futurity in November and December.

Where cowboys and horses and cattle connect, there are still Western towns across the country. Here are 10:
Photo by Ross Hecox

Famous Haunt: Take a tour at Thistle Hill, the residence of Electra Waggoner Wharton, daughter of William “Tom” Waggoner of the historic Waggoner Ranch. Tours of the house are given Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.

Watering Hole: Notable bars line the brick streets of the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District. Local favorites include The While Elephant Saloon and “The World’s Largest Honkey Tonk,” Billy Bob’s Texas.

Cowboy Culture: Find legendary works by Frederic S. Remington and Charles M. Russell at the Sid Richardson Museum downtown and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art near the Will Rogers Equestrian Center. Don’t miss the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum, and the Texas Cattle Raiser’s Museum.

For Foodies: The only thing better than tacos and burritos at Joe T. Garcia’s are the margaritas. (They only take cash!) Check out Horseshoe Hill Cowboy Café, which is owned and operated by famed cowboy cook Grady Spears, and known for its chicken-fried steaks.

Great Falls, Montana

Cowboy History: Named for a series of waterfalls on the Missouri River that the Lewis and Clark Expedition had to avoid in 1805, the potential for the river’s hydroelectric power drove the town’s founding in 1883. The surrounding mountains and big sky came to be known as Charles M. Russell country, the backdrop for the paintings and sculptures the legendary cowboy artist created at his studio.

Photo by Kate Bradley Byars

Big Events: In January, head to the Montana Pro Rodeo Circuit Finals and the North 40 Ranch Rodeo; in March, don’t miss the Russell Exhibition and Sale; or time your trip in early August and catch the Big Sky Pro Rodeo Roundup.

Watering Hole: Hang on to your hats, because the mermaid-themed Sip ‘n Dip Lounge doesn’t look cowboy. But it’s where all the locals go to people watch. Watch the glass wall between the bar and swimming pool and you might see “merfolk.”

Little Known: Talk about fast weather changes! In January of 1980, temperatures rose from minus-32 degrees Fahrenheit to a balmy 15 degrees in only seven minutes.

Famous Haunt: Russell created masterpiece oils and bronzes from his log cabin studio and later his two-story wood-framed home in Great Falls. Visit the studio and find his work at the C.M. Russell Museum.

For Foodies: Find the Celtic Cowboy Pub & Restaurant in the historic Arvon Block built by the pub’s namesake in 1890, Welsh immigrant and rancher Robert Vaughn. Western singer-songwriter Trinity Seely takes center stage once a month.

Gear Up: Stop in at Grizzly Saddlery to see the fine craftsmanship of Jeff Gollehon. Horsemen will appreciate the custom saddles and chinks built with beauty and function.

Medora, North Dakota

Cowboy History: The French nobleman, the Marquis de Mores, founded the town along the Little Missouri River in 1883 and named it for his wife, Medora, building a packing plant and other businesses. Surrounding Native American hunting grounds became ranches, and cattlemen trailed herds to the railhead in town. Medora borders Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt’s former ranch now a U.S. National Park showcasing the North Dakota Badlands and Little Missouri National Grasslands.

Big Event: Debuted in 1965, the Medora Musical outdoor show runs nightly from June 1–September 7 in the Burning Hills Amphitheater, a live musical tribute to rancher and American President Teddy Roosevelt and the West with variety acts, horses, fireworks and more.

Watering Hole: You’ll likely see cowboy hats at the Little Missouri Saloon & Dining Room, either on heads or in the décor—dollar bills and old hats decorate its walls. It’s worth a stop for a craft beer and good pub fare.

Gear Up: Find cowboy boots and more at Medora Boot & Western Wear. Locally owned and operated, the store stays open year-round in the seasonal town.

Find Legends: The North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame and Center of Western Heritage & Cultures preserves the history and culture of the state’s ranching, rodeo and Native American peoples. Honorees include North Dakota greats from Roosevelt to Brad Brettin’s No. 18 War Paint bucking stallion.

Famous Haunt: The two-story, 26-room Chateau de Mores is the summer home of the Marquis and Marquise de Mores, Antoine and Medora de Vallombrosa. Restored to its 1883 frontier glory, the museum is an official North Dakota State Historic Site.

Bunkhouse Reads: Western Edge Books has a great selection of historic, hard-to-find books on Western lore.

Pendleton, Oregon

Where cowboys and horses and cattle connect, there are still Western towns across the country. Here are 10:
Photo by Ross Hecox

Cowboy History: Originally a trading post on McKay Creek and the Umatilla River, a U.S. Post Office opened in the community in 1865. Dubbed Pendleton, after 1864 Democratic vice-presidential candidate George Pendleton, it was incorporated in 1880. Pendleton Woolen Mills, established in 1893, grew alongside the region’s sheep industry, and demand for its woolen blankets spread across the West.

Big Event: The rodeo that needs no introduction—the Pendleton Round-Up, established in 1910. Every second week of September, Pendleton quadruples in size to host the iconic event, which includes four days of rodeo, two parades, a concert and more. The legendary Round-Up arena is completely grass and doesn’t allow any advertising.

Rest Your Head: No reservations needed at the Hotel de Cowpunch, the affectionately named crash pad for cowboys located conveniently on the second floor of the Severe Brothers Saddlery. If you can find a spot to sleep, it’s free.

Watering Hole: Hamley wheat whiskey is poured straight from the barrel at The Hamley Saloon in Hamley’s Steakhouse. The 100-year old mahogany bar, a bank wall from the mid 1800s, and other Old West artifacts are sure to impress.

For Foodies: Originally founded in 1959 by champion steer roper and former Round-Up Director Paul Cimmiyotti and his wife, Ann, Virgil’s at Cimmiyotti’s maintains the original décor and fine dining tradition.

Gear Up: Since 1883, Hamley’s & Co. has offered the highest quality tack, gear and custom saddles bearing the legendary Circle H brand for those who live horseback. Stop to watch Traditional Cowboy Arts Association saddlemaker Pedro Pedrini at work in the shop.

Sheridan, Wyoming

Cowboy History: Originally a cabin and U.S. Post Office in the Goose Creek Valley east of the Big Horn Mountains, U.S. Civil War veteran John Loucks planned out a town and named it after General Philip Sheridan. The railroad arrived in 1892, and the town boomed, ever a hub for miners, farmers and ranchers.

Big Events: In June, watch ranch horses and ranch bronc riders in action at Powder River Days or head to the Buck Brannaman Invitational Colt Start at Houlihan Ranch; in July, hit the Sheridan WYO Rodeo; and over Labor Day weekend, Don King Days celebrates area horse events from bronc riding to polo.

Photo by Jennifer Denison

Rest Your Head: Originally owned by William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the Sheridan Inn maintains its frontier style. Cody reportedly auditioned acts for his Wild West Show on the Inn’s wide porch.

Watering Hole: Since 1907, cowboys have said “I’ll meet you at The Mint,” the oldest bar in town.

Gear Up: Stop at King’s Saddlery for all the tack and equipment you need. It’s also the home of King Ropes and the amazing collection of cowboy and Western memorabilia in the Don King Museum. Or head to Tom Balding Bits & Spurs and meet the legendary craftsman at work.

Cowboy Culture: Explore the region’s ranching and Native American history and Western art at the Brinton Museum on the historic Quarter Circle A Ranch in nearby Big Horn.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Cowboy History: Named for hot springs along the Yampa River, Steamboat Springs began with James Harvey Crawford’s homestead claim in 1874 and grew into a mining and ranching community that finally incorporated in 1900. Skiing in town shifted from transportation to tourism with the first ski jump built on Howelsen Hill in 1914. Recreation and ranching still drive its engine.

Big Events: There’s nothing like watching cowboys race on skis for the Cowboy Downhill in January; the Steamboat Springs ProRodeo Series runs all summer at the downtown arena on the river; celebrate the Fourth of July during Cowboy Roundup Days.

For Foodies: The Ore House at the Pine Grove is housed in a barn built in 1889 that was converted into the restaurant in 1971 and has been a Yampa Valley favorite since.

Where cowboys and horses and cattle connect, there are still Western towns across the country. Here are 10:
Photo by Jennifer Denison

For Shoppers: Frank M. Light opened F.M. Light & Sons in 1905 and the store continues to outfit Westerners, and is run by the Light family. Its small, yellow hand-painted billboards with a brown bucking horse are a common sight on Colorado highways.

Famous Haunts: Hunt up the town’s iconic Arnold Barn at the base of Mount Werner. In 2018 it was relocated down the road to the Steamboat Grand to preserve the 90-year-old wooden structure.

Wickenburg, Arizona

Cowboy History: Henry Wickenburg struck gold at the Vulture Mine and helped found the community that took his name in 1863, with the railroad arriving in 1895. After the opening of the Bar FX Ranch in 1923, the town became known for its many guest ranches as the “Dude Ranch Capital of the World.” These days, trucks and trailers flood town in winter, as team ropers flee the northern cold for roping action in a sunny climate.

Big Events: So many ropings, not enough time! From November through April, Wickenburg hosts ropings and jackpots galore. Popular arenas include the Everett Bowman Rodeo Grounds, Simpson Ranch Team Roping, the Rancho Rio Equine Facility, The Downtown Arena and McFarland’s Arena.

Photo by Ross Hecox

Cowboy Culture: Dive into history and art at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum. In March, the museum’s Cowgirl Up! event showcases contemporary Western women artists and includes a live auction, shopping and artists’ quick draw.

Find Legends: ProRodeo Hall of Fame member Everett Bowman stands next to his beloved mule, “Trixie,” in a bronze sculpture by artist Clyde “Ross” Morgan outside Wickenburg City Hall. The 10-time world champion spearheaded several movements in rodeo, including humane livestock handling and adding entry fees to prize money.

Watering Hole: Play a round of shuffleboard at the Rancho Bar 7 restaurant and cocktail lounge on East Wickenburg Way. It has quenched cowboys’ thirsts since 1937.

For Foodies: Cowboy Cookin’ serves breakfast classics like steak and eggs, chicken fried steak, and breakfast skillets. The chuckwagon out front is a sure sign of good food.

This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of Western Horseman.

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