Riding High in Cody, Wyoming: Where Rodeo Meets Western Art

Cody, Wyoming, a picturesque gateway to Yellowstone National Park, embodies the essence of an authentic Western town. Locals don cowboy hats, paint and photograph western scenes, compete in nightly summer rodeos, and enjoy live bands in outdoor beer gardens. Horse-drawn stagecoaches parade through town, and world-class Western art museums attract visitors seeking a genuine Western experience. Founded by Buffalo Bill, who created his Wild West Show to share his love of the west and preserve western heritage, Cody today boasts five Smithsonian-affiliated museums. These institutions attract tourists, offer programs to the local community, and preserve the history of the west.

William Frederick Cody, known as Buffalo Bill, founded the town in 1896, aiming to create the perfect Western town near Yellowstone National Park. Today, with a population of 10,224, Cody boasts a reputation that far exceeds its size. It frequently appears in national media “best-of” lists, with Travel & Leisure Magazine naming it “One of the Most Beautiful Towns in the U.S.” and “A Top Art Town.” Other accolades include being named the #1 Small Town Beer Scene by USA Today. 

A Top Small Town Arts Scene with Connections to the Community

Cody has repeatedly ranked among the “10 Best Small Town Art Scenes” by USA Today. The Cody Country Art League is a favorite stop, featuring works by local artists of pottery, photography, mosaics, jewelry, and other artworks. Anyone can afford the photograph note cards, Christmas tree ornaments or earrings made by local artists. The biggest art event of the year is the Buffalo Bill Art Show and Sale, a celebration of fine art interpreting the land, people, and wildlife of the American West, staged every September.

The Capital of Western Art

The Buffalo Bill Center of the West, a complex of five Smithsonian-affiliated museums and a research library, offers an immersive experience in Western art and history. Spanning seven acres, it houses a fraction of the 100,000 artifacts of the American West, including live birds of prey, special exhibits, stunning paintings, dynamic sculptures, a buffalo hide teepee, movies, bi-weekly cowboy chuckwagon dinners, and endless family-friendly activities.

The center includes five museums: Whitney Western Art Museum, Plains Indian Museum, Buffalo Bill Museum, Draper Natural History Museum, and Cody Firearms Museum. Nearby, the Heart Mountain World War II Interpretive Center offers insight into the incarceration of 14,000 Japanese American citizens following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.

As you approach the museum complex, you’re greeted by a monumental statue of Buffalo Bill – “The Scout” – sculpted by famed artist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and dedicated on July 4, 1925. The Whitney Western Art Museum is named in her honor.

Exclusive Tours

For a truly enriching experience, sign up for one of the museum’s Exclusive Tours, led by an expert curator. The tours offer a behind – the -scenes look at the archives and allow you to tailor your visit to your specific interests. 

Whitney Western Art Museum Highlights

“The Western Whitney Art Museum has the largest collection of western art west of the Mississippi,” stated Ryan Hauck, Executive Director of Cody Yellowstone. 

Recently voted the best museum in the country by readers of Newsweek Magazine, the Whitney Western Art Museum houses notable works like the Bronco Buster sculpture by Frederic Remington. Remington (1861-1909) is one of the most renowned Western artists, known for his dynamic sculptures of cowboys, American Indians, and cavalrymen. His debut bronze sculpture, the Bronco Buster, earned him immediate recognition as a sculptor.

Another standout piece is a 1915 oil painting by Charles Russell. The museum holds 50 of Russell’s works, including paintings, illustrations, and sculptures. Russell (1864-1926) moved to Montana at 16 and spent 11 years sketching Western life in his free time. His 1915 painting, “When Law Dulls the Edge of Chance,” depicting two Canadian Mounted Police discovering horse thieves, is a highlight.

The Plains Indian Museum

Founded in 1979, this museum explores the cultural histories and art of the American Plains Indians, celebrating their struggles, victories, and present-day traditions through artifacts, videos, and one of only 14 painted buffalo hide tipis still in existence. Highlights include a Nez Perce buffalo hide tipi from circa 1850 and a Bear Paw Necklace from circa 1860. 

Firearms Museum

The Cody Firearms Museum showcases over 800 years of history with more than 10,000 objects. It exhibits firearms dating from the 1400s to the present, explaining their mechanics and roles in conflicts, wars, sports, science, and technology. Notable items include General George Patton’s M1 Garand Semi-automatic Rifle and President John F. Kennedy’s Winchester Model 70 Bolt Action Rifle.

Buffalo Bill Museum

This museum chronicles the life and legacy of William F. Cody, known as Buffalo Bill. A bison hunter, stage actor, and civilian scout during the Indian Wars, Buffalo Bill became one of the most well-known figures of the West through his Buffalo Bill Wild West show, an outdoor performance depicting scenes from the American West.

Buffalo Bill was a born showman, once earning $1 million in just two weeks, equivalent to about $30 million today. He performed before Queen Victoria in 1887 and again in 1892. The Queen gifted him a stunning jewel, composed of gold, diamonds, and bloodstone, which is now displayed in the museum.

 “You buy a two-day pass, and it gives you access to all the museums. Many people don’t know about the McCracken Library, a research library dedicated to Western history, including the genealogy of figures such as Buffalo Bill, Butch Cassidy, Annie Oakley, and Amelia Earhart,” added Ryan Hauck.

Rodeo Town

Cody, dubbed the Rodeo Capital of the World, owes this title to Buffalo Bill’s showmanship. The Cody Night Rodeo, the only nightly rodeo in the country, runs from June 1 to August 31, providing a two-hour spectacle. Attending the rodeo and watching local cowboys, cowgirls and school kids compete is a highlight for most visitors. There is often a live bull, an old pro well beyond his bucking days, in a small enclosure at the entrance where kids and adults can take a memorable photo.

Gateway to Yellowstone National Park

Cody’s proximity to Yellowstone National Park (approximately 1 hour 5 minutes or 52 miles) is no accident. Buffalo Bill chose the town’s location with future tourism in mind. Visitors have two park gates to choose from. There are five Scenic Byways that pass through and around Cody Yellowstone, including the breathtakingly beautiful Buffalo Bill Scenic Byway and the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway.

Food and Beer Scene

Named the winner of USA Today’s “10 Best Readers’ Choice Awards” for “Best Small-Town Beer Scene,” Cody’s craft breweries are a must-visit. The popular “Sippin’ Trail” includes stops at many of the town’s breweries and saloons. Cody also offers a variety of dining choices and an active nightlife. Every night the pre-rodeo all-you-can-eat dinner and musical show: Wild West Spectacular: The Musical, Dan Miller, Cowboy Music Review at the Cody Cattle Company is packed.  

The Irma Hotel, named after Buffalo Bill’s daughter, is a must-see for its cherry wood bar, a gift from Queen Victoria, who was quite taken with the dashing American showman. 

Western Accommodations

The K3 Guest Ranch B&B is nestled in its scenic valley, six minutes from downtown Cody and one hour from Yellowstone National Park. Choose between five Western-themed stand-alone, quiet guest rooms. Fish in their trout streams, hike, shoot at their private gun range, and meet the barnyard animals, from horses to dogs. Enjoy the warm hospitality of this family-owned and operated ranch. 

The Chamberlin Boutique Hotel in downtown Cody is a charming establishment owned by residents who take great pride in maintaining the historic hotel. Back in the 1920s and 30s, the Chamberlin Inn was the preferred accommodation in Cody, attracting a plethora of distinguished guests such as actors, authors, politicians, opera singers, movie stars, and tycoons, including the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Marshall Fields. The hotel offers an opportunity for Ernest Hemingway fans to stay in the very room where he completed the manuscript for “Death in the Afternoon” in 1932, after a fishing trip on the Clark’s Fork River. The room has been beautifully restored. Visitors can also explore the Irma Hotel across the street, where Hemingway spent time at the cherry wood bar, exchanging stories with the locals. 

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Admission at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, for a two-day pass, is $23 for adults with discounts for seniors and veterans. The private tours are $45 per person for an hour or 2 hours for $75 for 2 or more people. The entire campus is ADA wheelchair accessible including marked parking spaces, ramps, and elevators. 

By Marybeth Bond, National Geographic author, writer, founding editor GutsyTraveler.

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