Walk in the footsteps of the Wild West’s most notorious gunslingers.
It wasn’t so long ago that the West was the stuff of legends, a place where bandits and lawmen mixed it up in shoot-outs on Main Street and high-speed chases across the Plains. More than a century after they wreaked havoc, characters like Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickock, and Calamity Jane are still household names; and the towns they haunted, well those are still around, too. Though more civilized than their earlier selves, the thrill of the American frontier lives on in the rodeos, cattle drives, and gunslinging battles that range from South Dakota’s Deadwood to Arizona’s Tombstone. Mount up and head West to these 10 iconic towns where it is still perfectly OK to play outlaw.
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WHERE: South Dakota
Deadwood was bad from the day it was born. When gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, miners and opportunists swarmed, illegally, to take over Lakota land. They named their settlement Deadwood and within two years the mining camp had grown into a lawless haven for nefarious dealings by characters like opium magnate and pimp Al Swearengen and gunslinger Wild Bill Hickock. Deadwood has grown up over the years—the town is now governed by actual laws, for one—but the spirit of its gold rush days live on. Dig into the magical ore that started it all on a candlelight tour of the 100-year old Broken Boot Gold Mine or take a guided historical tour through town; in the summer months, gunfighters recreate historic shoot-outs on its streets several times a day. Though the original saloon where Wild Bill was killed mid-poker game burned down in 1879, the chair that held him during his last moments supposedly didn’t. Raise a shot of whisky to the legend (or to his chair, at least) which is now encased in glass at Saloon #10 on Main Street.
The phrase “get out of Dodge” may have been born of Hollywood Westerns, but with more gunfighters calling the town home than any other frontier settlement in the Old West, getting out of Dodge City, Kansas would have been high on the list of priorities for many an outlaw in the 1880s. Located on the Great Western Cattle Trail, the steer trade rose Dodge City to the royal status as the “Queen of the Cow Towns.” Flush with money from the thousands of cattle driven through its stockyards annually, the town bloomed with saloons, gambling halls, brothels, and even a bullfighting ring, which attracted some of the day’s most down-and-dirty cowboys. While Dodge City’s bad behavior is mostly restricted to spots like the Boot Hill Casino and the historic Long Branch Saloon at the Boot Hill Museum today, its cattle culture has remained alive and well. Each August, hoofbeats fill the streets during the Longhorn Cattle Drive, a throwback event filled with bullfighting, cow roping, and the crowning of Miss Rodeo Kansas.
INSIDER TIPFor a look back at the cowpokes of yore, head to the Wild West Heritage Foundation and the new Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame at the Boot Hill Museum.
It was silver that made Tombstone, Arizona, the stuff of legends. Less than a decade after its founding, the town had grown from a tiny 100-person settlement to a booming 14,000-person outpost packed with 110 saloons, a bowling alley, and a cutting-edge ice cream parlor–not to mention all the dance halls, brothels, and gambling halls. But all was not well in Tombstone. Tensions between mining entrepreneurs from the Northern states, Confederate-sympathizing ranchers, and cowboy outlaws bubbled over regularly. Lawmen like the Earp brothers (Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan) and Doc Holliday worked double duty to keep criminals at bay, but it was a losing battle of the whack-a-mole variety. Tombstone has worked hard to recreate its Old West roots and, while things skew more towards kitsch than authenticity, the false-front theaters, hotels and saloons, and the shootouts and showdowns staged by the Tombstone Vigilantes every other Sunday on Allen Street do have their charm. Play outlaw with your own classic Colt 45 at the Big Iron Shooting Gallery, then head to Boothill Graveyard, Tombstone’s first cemetery, to remember those who lived and died by the gun.
INSIDER TIPGunslinging aficionados will get a kick out of the O.K. Corral, which recreates the iconic gunfight between the Earp brothers and their nemeses, The Cowboys, daily.
The city of Cheyenne grew up in anticipation of the Union Pacific Railroad, which began its slow creep across the American Plains in the 1860s. When the tracks finally met the settlement in 1867, its tents, shanties, and businesses multiplied so quickly that it earned the moniker the “Magic City of the Plains” along with an anything-goes reputation. The “Hell on Wheels” railroad town wasn’t lawless exactly, it is just that its outlaws and gunslingers, including the notorious Calamity Jane, well outnumbered its lawmen. Cattlemen taking advantage of the railroad made Cheyenne the richest city in the world per capita in the early 1880s. By 1897, although the cattle industry had gone bust, Cheyenne was coming into its own as the fully-functioning capital of the new state of Wyoming. To drum up new revenue, the city came up with Cheyenne Frontier Days. More than a century later, the festival is still going strong. Part hometown celebration, part carnival, Cheyenne Frontier Days boasts the largest rodeo in the world and a slew of horse-packed parades, chuckwagon cookoffs, and country music superstars. The 10-day event kicks off each July with a Cattle Drive through town and ends with Cowboy Church.
Like Dodge City, Bandera, the self-styled “Cowboy Capital of the World” and southernmost stop on the Great Western Cattle Trail, was not just a cowtown on the cattle drive circuit. Somewhat more civilized than its Kansas counterpart, Bandera’s early days were shaped by Spanish cowboys, Mormon settlers, and Polish immigrants, the latter of which were responsible for building the elegant St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in 1876. Bandera’s modern identity is just as rooted in ranching and horseplay as its 19th century one, all rodeos, country-and-western saloons, and horses hitched in front of stores on Main Street. The best way to play cowboy here is on horseback at a working dude ranch like Rancho Cortez, which offers not just the average plodding trail ride but cattle roundups and lasso lessons.
INSIDER TIPBandera’s oldest honkey-tonk, Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar Saloon, serves up cold beer and live music in true Western fashion (keep an eye out for bullet holes in the ceiling).
Durango and Silverton
Silver and gold in the San Juan Mountains brought the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad to southwestern Colorado in the 1880s. Organized by railroad magnates, from day one downtown Durango was an efficient grid that, within a year, boasted 114 businesses and at least 20 saloons. The town’s expenses were conveniently paid for by the ore coming out of the mountain mining camp of Silverton less than 50 miles away, some veins of which were so vast that they kept producing valuable nuggets into the 1990s. As Durango boomed into “Smelter City,” Silverton continued to ship its ore via train for high-rolling at the gambling halls and brothels, and, eventually, for more modern conveniences like an electric plant. Though it only carries tourists now, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad still travels the same, often terrifyingly precarious route from Durango’s historic train station, through the stunning Animas Valley, to tiny Silverton via steam locomotive. There visitors can enter the bowels of the priceless mountain through the Old Hundred Gold Mine or explore the nearby ghost town of Animas Forks. Back in Durango, find a good night’s sleep at the historic Strater Hotel, a Victorian gem from 1887.
Named for Olive Oatman, a young girl from Illinois kidnapped by Native Americans and forced into slavery as her pioneer family traveled west in 1851, this western Arizona town began much the way other Wild West towns did—with gold. The nearby Black Mountains fed Oatman’s early prospectors and outlaws in fits and starts through the 19th century, but when a massive vein of ore was discovered in 1915, the town exploded into the sort of untamed frenzy on which legends thrive. Oatman survived a 1921 fire that destroyed only a small portion of the original town, but forty years later, when a Route 66 bypass shut the town out, it was virtually abandoned. Less than 150 people live in Oatman today but its Wild West heritage looms large. Burros descended from original mine-working donkeys roam the streets and gunslingers shoot it out every day at noon. Admittedly, most of the shops and saloons are modern approximations of a long-gone town but at least one historic structure, the (haunted) two-story adobe Oatman Hotel, still stands. Inside, find an unexpected homage to Clark Gable and Carol Lombard, who stayed here on their honeymoon in 1939.
Begun as the northernmost fort protecting the American Frontier after the Mexican-American War in 1849, Fort Worth didn’t really hit its stride until the cattle industry came to town in the 1870s. Along with new saloons and general stores came Soapy Smith, a con-artist and future Denver crime boss, as well as other unsavory characters eager to milk Fort Worth’s economic boom, a job which became all the easier when the Texas and Pacific Railway hit town in 1876. Fort Worth’s “Wall Street of the West,” its stockyards and the industry that grew up around it, still exist today as the Stockyards National Historic District. Longhorn steer walk the neighborhood’s Exchange Avenue twice daily (at 11:30 am and 4 pm), a lowing, mooing parade best seen with a cold beer in hand from Fort Worth’s oldest saloon, the White Elephant.
INSIDER TIPLearn more about how women shaped the West at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.
WHERE: New Mexico
Originally just a stop along the Santa Fe Trail, an early 19th-century north-south pioneer route, it wasn’t until the railroad arrived in Las Vegas that things got dark. A magnet for murders, thieves, and gamblers, historian Ralph Emerson Twitchell once said, “Without exception, there was no town which harbored a more disreputable gang of desperadoes and outlaws than did Las Vegas.” Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, and others made up the rotating cast of notorious characters that frequented the town. While modern Las Vegas has cleaned up its act, it remains very much rooted in those early days, with over 900 buildings in town listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Ranching heritage is widely celebrated here too, with a series of annual events that include a rodeo, Heritage Week (seven days of historical tours and buffalo stew dinners), and Fiestas, a New Mexican celebration dating back to the 1880s.
Founded by Colonel William “Buffalo Bill” Cody in 1896, Cody, Wyoming, escaped much of the lawlessness of other early towns of the American West. Even after the railroad came to town in 1909 and the population grew, things remained fairly civil. Even so, Cody was a poster child for the country’s romanticized vision of the West. Buffalo roaming the plains? Check. Wide-open ranches worked by sun-wizened cowboys? Check. Even a few outlaws came to town, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The cabin in which they stayed, along with other surviving frontier-era buildings from around the state, are now housed at Wyoming’s Old Trail Town. At the Cody Firearms Museum, find deadlier relics from the town’s early frontier days, a massive assemblage of guns dating back to the 16th century. In the summer, see classic roping, cutting, and bronc-breaking in action at the Nite Rodeo, a two-month-long event that helped earn the town the nickname “Rodeo Capital of the World.”
INSIDER TIPThe patio of the Irma Hotel, Buffalo Bill’s “Hotel in the Rockies” built in 1902, is the stage for Cody’s Gunfighters Show which plays for free at 6pm Monday through Saturday, June through September.