The West’s best cowboy destinations often are not along the Interstate or near a major airport. Here are 10 small towns that continue to honor their horse, cattle and cowboy heritage.

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Illustrations by KEVIN CORTDZ

As the west was being settled in the mid-1800s, frontier towns sprouted to support the mining, military and cattle industries. These were the places where battles were won and lost, history was made and legends emerged.

Some of these once-booming, rough-and-tumble outposts have become ghost towns; others successfully transitioned into contemporary culture while still embracing their cowboy connection through annual festivals, rodeos, horse events and historic preservation. Here, Western Horseman’s staff identifies its 10 favorite small towns with the most authentic cowboy ambiance.

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1. Sheridan, Wyoming

King of Cowboy Towns

History and cowboy collide in this northern Wyoming town, where rough riders and legendary craftsmen share the main street with modern-day cuisine and historic saloons.

Industry Insider: Tom Balding, owner of Tom Balding Bits & Spurs, and a 30-year Sheridan resident.

“One thing I like, it is not an obvious tourist town,” Balding says. “Sheridan is one of the more genuine Western towns in America.”

Then and Now: Established in 1884 and named for a Civil War officer, General Sheridan, the town was once the home of “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Annie Oakley and the performers in Cody’s Wild West Show. Here, Don King pioneered the Sheridan style of carving saddles, and his museum and store still bring in Main Street visitors. It also is home to the oldest polo club west of the Mississippi River, so Sheridan’s nearly 30,000 residents see some of the best polo ponies and rodeo horses year round.

See: Bozeman Trail Museum; Trail End Historic Site; the Bradford Brinton Memorial and Museum; the T-Rex Natural History Museum; Don King Saddle Shop; Sheridan Inn.

Attend: 20th Annual Rocky Mountain Leather Trade Show (May); Eatons’ Annual Horse Drive (early June); Sheridan WYO Rodeo (July); Don King Days (September).

For more information: sheridanwyoming.org.

Cheney Bar
Cowboy poet Walt “Bimbo” Cheney bellies up to the bar at the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada, home of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Photo by Ross Hecox

2. Elko, Nevada

The Mother Lode of Cowboy Culture

The fourth-largest county in the United States, Elko County is home to some of the West’s largest working ranches, as well as the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Industry Insider: Cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell, Elko County resident and lifelong advocate of the buckaroo.

“Elko is a hub for the bigger buckaroo outfits around northeastern Nevada,” says Mitchell. “Though it’s mostly a mining community now, the residents haven’t disenfranchised the buckaroo and are open to keeping the ranching and buckaroo spirit alive in Elko.”

Then and Now: Pioneers first passed through Elko in 1841, following the Humboldt River and the California Trail. Eastward expansion of the Central Pacific railroad created the town in 1868. Basque sheep herders from the Pyrenees Mountains in
Spain and France, and cattle ranchers used the arid high-desert country to graze livestock. Legendary bit and spur maker G.S. Garcia arrived in Elko in 1896, opening G.S. Garcia Harness and Saddle Shop. One of Garcia’s apprentices, Joe Capriola, opened J.M. Capriola Co. in 1924, and it continues to be a destination for horsemen.

See: The Northeastern Nevada Museum, home to one of the largest private collections of Will James memorabilia; Western Folklife Center; J.M. Capriola Co.; Anacabe’s Elko General Merchandise; the Star Hotel, known for its Basque dinners.

Attend: Great Basin Cowboy Gear Show & Sale (January); National Cowboy Poetry Gathering (late January – early February); Bronc Bash (New years Eve); Spring Creek Ranch Rodeo, (April); National Basque Festival, (July); Silver State Stampede (July); Elko Leather Show (July); Elko County Fair (August); Van Norman Horse Sale (September); Annual Will James Society Gather (October).

For more information: elkonevada.com.

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The Trappings of Texas, held each February in Alpine, showcases some of the finest cowboy artistry. Photo by Kate Bradley

3. Alpine, Texas

Big Bend Hideout

Wild West Texas is tamed and refined in Alpine, home of Sul Ross State University and its award-winning rodeo team, and a stone’s throw from a few of the state’s oldest ranches.

Industry Insider: Joel Nelson, cowboy and poet, has called Alpine home since 1975.

“I can’t foresee ever leaving here,” Nelson says. “There are still big ranches operating here, and they do so pretty much as they did in 1970. But, it is now also an art community.

A large percentage of the people moved here strictly because of the beauty, scenery and elevation. Change is inevitable, and it will happen to every community that has the atmosphere Alpine does. This country has always felt right for me.”

Then and Now: Once a small ranching community, Alpine and nearby towns Marfa and Marathon have bloomed into art communities, with galleries and a variety of restaurants.

See: Alpine’s Maverick Inn and The Holland; Marfa’s Hotel Paisano and El Cosmico; Marfa Lights; Marathon’s historic Gage Hotel; Big Bend Saddlery; Spradley Hats; the original Reata Restaurant; Shirley’s Burnt Biscuit.

Attend: Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering (February); Trappings of Texas (April); Viva Big Bend Music Festival (July); Big Bend Ranch Rodeo (August).

For more information: alpinetexas.com.

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4. Cody, Wyoming

Where the Wild West Still Exists

Located in the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming, Cody is the eastern entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Old West history meets contemporary Western culture along the streets of this bustling tourist town.

Industry Insider: Ike Sankey, rodeo stock contractor, who has had a ranch there since 1981.

“There are still ranches in the area,” Sankey says. “There is still a lot of land in the area that will likely not make anything other than horse and cow country, which is good for the ranchers and wildlife. It’s still a cow town, and downtown is still pretty Western.”

Then and Now: Founded in 1896, Cody is named for Colonel William F. Cody, also known as “Buffalo Bill.” Colonel Cody opened the famous Irma Hotel, named for his youngest daughter, in 1902, and worked with the Burlington Railroad to build a branch into the town.

See: Buffalo Bill Historical Center; the Irma Hotel and the cherry- wood back bar given to Buffalo Bill by Queen Victoria in 1900; Old Trail Town; Tecumseh’s Old West Miniature Village, Museum and Trading Post; Dan Miller’s Cowboy Music Review; Cody Cattle Company Chuckwagon Dinner & Live Music Show; Cody Dug Up Gun Museum; Cody Mural Museum; Buffalo Bill Dam Visitor Center; Seidel’s Saddlery; Custom Cowboy Shop.

Attend: Buffalo Bill’s Birthday Ball (February); Cody Wild West Days (first weekend in May); Cody Night Rodeo (every night from June 1 to August 31); Buffalo Bill Days (July); Cody Stampede (July); Buffalo Bill Art Show & Sale (September).

For more information: codywyomingnet.com.

Pendleton
For more than 100 years, the Pendleton Round-Up has drawn cowboys from near and far to Pendleton, Oregon. Photo by Ross Hecox

5. Pendleton, Oregon

Still Letting ’Er Buck

With its ranching heritage, legendary saddle makers, and one of the wildest rodeos in the world, Pendleton keeps a firm grip on its cowboy tradition.

Industry Insider: Randy Severe, a noted saddle maker and former president of the Pendleton Round-Up.

“We’ve hung our hat on tradition here,” he says. “We still buck out of our old wooden chutes. There’s a big grass infield, so it takes six pickup men to work Pendleton. You’ve got to cowboy up to compete here. People who live here are Western at heart, and they live and breathe rodeo.”

Then and Now: Settlers on the Oregon Trail stopped near Pendleton to rest their teams before crossing the Blue Mountains. By the time the town was established in 1868, a strong ranching industry was developing. The Pendleton Round-Up began in 1910 and has shaped the community’s wild and wooly character. The legendary saddle shop Hamley & Co., which developed the Association bucking saddle, is still in operation.

See: Hamley & Co. Western store; Pendleton Underground Tours; Pendleton Woolen Mills; Severe Brothers Saddlery.

Attend: Cattle Baron’s Weekend (May); Pendleton Round-Up (September).

For more information: pendletonchamber.com.

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The cowboy heritage of Wickenburg, Arizona, is explained in exhibits at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum. The museum also hosts the annual Cowgirl Up! art exhibition and sale for women Western artists. Photo by Jennifer Denison

6. Wickenburg, Arizona

Western Winter Oasis

Longtime Western Horseman editor Dick Spencer spent a lot of time in Wickenburg and was a fixture on the annual Desert Caballeros Ride. The art, ranches, Western hospitality and ample riding opportunities that drove him to visit the area still make Wickenburg a prime Western destination in the winter.

Industry Insider: Artist Robert “Shoofly” Shufelt, who lived and worked on a ranch there from 1975 to 1982.

“That’s where I started my Western art career,” Shufelt says.

“At the time, there were ranches all around, and it was pretty tough cattle country. It’s where I learned to [ride the] rim. If you brought in two pairs a day, you had a good day.”

Then and Now: A gold strike in 1862 drove prospectors to the area, including Austrian Henry Wickenburg, who discovered the prosperous Vulture Mine. Along with the miners, ranchers and farmers cultivated the land along the Hassayampa River, driving out the native tribes. The 1920s led to development of dude ranches for families seeking Western vacations. It wasn’t long before Wickenburg was dubbed the “Dude Ranch Capital of the World.” Guest ranches still drive tourism in the area, as well as “snowbirds” who flock to the town in the winter with their horses for its mild climate and ample roping and recreational-riding opportunities.

See: Desert Caballeros Western Museum; Hassayampa River Preserve; Vulture Mine; Joshua Forest; Frontier Street; Jail Tree.

Attend: Gold Rush Days (February); Cowgirl Up! Invitational Exhibition and Sale (March); Cowboy Christmas Poets Gathering (early December); Arizona Cowpuncher’s Reunion Association spring rodeo (April), and the Reunion Rodeo in June in nearby Williams, Arizona.

For more information: outwickenburgway.com.

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7. Ruidoso, New Mexico

Cattle Barons and Outlaws

Many may know Ruidoso for its snow skiing and resort areas, but the town and the surrounding area maintain a rich cattle-baron heritage, and ranching remains a vital industry.

Industry Insider: Craig Cameron, well-known horseman and clinician who owns a ranch in nearby Lincoln.

“This area of the country is as cowboy as it gets,” Cameron says. “It was the home of Billy the Kid, and there are a lot of really good cowboys that live here. A person feels at home in his boots and his hat. It’s still a little untamed. It has a little bit of outlaw flavor to it.”

Then and Now: The area was first settled in the mid-1800s by ranchers and farmers, and today 1.9 million acres in Lincoln County are devoted to farming and ranching. Ruidoso’s history began with the establishment of Fort Stanton, built in 1859 to protect settlers from Apache warriors. The famous Lincoln County War, a conflict in 1878 between ranchers and owners of the country’s largest general store, gave notoriety to a local ranch hand, better known as the outlaw Billy the Kid.

See: Flying J Ranch Chuckwagon Dinner and Show; Hubbard Museum of the American West; Old Lincoln County Courthouse Museum.

Attend: “Last Escape of Billy the Kid” pageant (August); All American Futurity for Quarter Horses (September); Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium (October).

For more information: ruidosonow.com.

8. Miles City, Montana

Broncs and Big Country

For more than a century, horses and cattle have shaped this eastern Montana cowboy mecca. Cattle sales, rodeos, Miles City Saddlery and the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale are timeless traditions that enable the community to maintain its rich, colorful cowboy heritage.

Industry Insider: Native Montanan and horseman Curt Pate, who spent a summer partnering on a ranch and grazing operation in the area.

“Horses and cattle are what made Miles City a unique cowboy town,” Pate says. “It was a remount station and cow town. The big country required horses that could cover a lot of ground. I was there recently, and it’s still big ranch country and still has a cowboy feel. I think of it as the Texas of Montana.”

Then and Now: Named after General Nelson A. Miles, commander of Fort Keogh, Miles City evolved from a military post after the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. The extension of the railroad through Miles City in the 1880s built the cattle industry, as Texas cowboys drove thousands of cattle to eastern Montana’s open ranges, where the cattle were fattened and then loaded onto trains and shipped to slaughterhouses in Chicago. When the brutal winter of 1886–1887 devastated the local cattle industry, ranchers turned to raising horses. Fort Keogh became a remount station in 1907.

See: Range Riders Museum; Miles City Saddlery; Fort Keogh; 600 Cafe and its collection of photos by frontier photographer L.A. Huffman; Olive Hotel; historic watering holes such as the Montana Bar.

Attend: Miles City Bucking Horse Sale (May); Miles City Bluegrass Festival (September).

For more information: milescitychamber.com.

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9. Paso Robles, California

“Pass of the Oaks”

The spirit of the California vaquero is still alive and well in this coastal town, which also is home to more than 200 wineries. Located on historic Highway 101, between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Paso Robles is home to 30,000 residents.

Industry Insider: Les Vogt, reining and cow horse world champion, and two-time National Reined Cow Horse Association Futurity winner.

“Paso Robles has a lot to offer,” says Vogt. “It’s been a magnet for horse people. The town itself is designed in somewhat of a Spanish flavor. In the early days, it was part of the mission system. There are always colorful events going on. It’s a good place to take a family. It’s a very Western culture. Whatever they do in Paso Robles, believe me, it’s going to be good.”

Then and Now: For more than 200 years, the Paso Robles area has been known for its thermal springs. The town was established in 1886, and for many years was known for its almond orchards. But cattle, horses and ranching all have played a large part in the development and success of Paso Robles. Today, ranching and vineyards that supply the area’s successful wine industry are hallmarks of the town.

See: Paso Robles Pioneer Museum; California’s Historic Mission Trail, which runs along Highway 101 and includes 21 missions.

Attend: Cattlemen’s Western Art Show (late March – early April); California Mid-State Fair (July); National Reined Cow Horse Association Derby (June); Pacific Coast Cutting Horse Association Futurity (October).

For more information: pasorobleschamber.com.

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10. Prescott, Arizona

Art and Cowboy Colony

With its historic brick buildings and hotels, bronze monuments and art galleries, and close proximity to desert ranchland, Prescott offers diversity to Western art and heritage enthusiasts.

Industry Insider: The late Artist Bill Owen, who has lived, painted and ranched in the area all of his life was quoted,

“Prescott has always been a cowboy town, A cow boss used to be able to come to town and hire a whole crew of cowboys. Their bedrolls used to line the hotel hallways.”

Then and Now: Once the Arizona Territory capitol, Prescott was settled by prospectors staking claims. In 1900, the town burned to the ground and the buildings were rebuilt in brick. The surrounding area’s scenic beauty and many galleries have made it a popular artists’ colony.

See: Sharlot Hall Museum; The Phippen Museum; Savoini’s Western Wear; the historic Hassayampa Inn, Hotel St. Michael and the Palace Hotel.

Attend: World’s Oldest Rodeo (July 4 weekend); Phippen Museum Western Art Show & Sale (May); Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering (September).

For more information: prescott.org.

Bright Lights, Cowboy Nights

For those who prefer city lights, nightlife and ample cultural experiences, here are our picks for seven big cities that still embrace their cowboy roots.

Abilene, Texas
In the 1880s, Abilene was promoted as the “Future Great City of West Texas.” The city hasn’t forgotten its ranching and agricultural roots. The Expo Center of Taylor County hosts several major horse events annually, including the Abilene Spectacular Cutting, the Western Heritage Classic and the West Texas Fair & Rodeo. abilenevisitors.com

Amarillo, Texas
The Big Texan Steakhouse is one of Amarillo’s landmarks, but the city is home to the American Quarter Horse Association (and its Hall of Fame and Museum), along with the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in nearby Canyon. The Working Ranch Cowboys Association has its world championship rodeo here, drawing cowboys from around the country. visitamarillotx.com

Fort Worth, Texas
The city lives up to its “Cowtown” image with the Stockyards National Historic District and landmarks like M.L. Leddy’s. The National Cutting Horse Association’s three major annual events and the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo are highlights at the historic Will Rogers Equestrian Center. And don’t forget the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, and the Amon Carter Museum with its Western art collection. fortworth.com

Kansas City, Kansas
Two states claim Kansas City—Missouri and Kansas—but there is a wealth of Western history between them. The Kansas side includes the historic stockyards, which comprised a main hub for the livestock industry from the 1870s until its closing in 1991. The Livestock Exchange Building remains and is a business and retail center. The Missouri version boasts the American Royal, an events center that hosts annual Quarter Horse shows, rodeos and cuttings. visitkc.com

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
History, horses and cowboys converge in Oklahoma City, home of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. The historic stockyards have been renewed in Stockyards City. Thousands of horses are in the spotlight annually at the American Quarter Horse Association’s World Championship Show, the National Reining Horse Association’s Futurity and Derby, and the U.S. Team Roping Championships. visitokc.com

Rapid City, South Dakota
Nestled between the Black Hills and the Badlands, Rapid City is a mix of past and present, of cowboy and Indian legends. From modern art museums to Indian trading posts, the city is abundant in culture and only a stone’s throw from some of our country’s most historic monuments. visitrapidcity.com

Salinas, California
Vaquero heritage meets modern day California life in Salinas, where the cowboys come for the California (Ro-day-o) Rodeo, which has been held for more than 100 years, and culture at the Cowboys & Cabernet poetry and wine tasting. seemonterey.com/salinas-california

This article was originally published in the February 2012 issue of Western Horseman.

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