The western portion of the United States is one of the most diverse regions of the nation, with landscapes and cultures varying dramatically from state to state and, in some cases, from town to town. Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Utah and Idaho are rising in popularity as travel destinations not only for U.S. domestics, but for foreigners as well. With a host of outdoor adventure activities from which to choose, historical sites and a folksy art and food scene seeming to grow out of the sweeping landscapes like wildfire, the West has more to offer groups and individuals than ever.
Here are five great small towns to visit on your group’s next journey West.
Buffalo, Wyoming, is, surprisingly, not named after the wild bison that used to roam its nearby plains by the thousands. Locals believe that the name was drawn out of a hat one night at the famous Occidental Hotel.
“Legend has it that a group of settlers were all sitting around playing poker,” said Angela Fox, CEO of the Buffalo Wyoming Chamber of Commerce. “A man named Will Hart, who had previously hailed from the city of Buffalo, New York, put the name into the hat because he missed his home.”
Many cities like to brag that they are an outdoorsman’s paradise, but Buffalo lets its surrounding 900,000 acres of natural beauty do the talking. The town is nestled among the Big Horn Mountains and the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area, both of which provide residents and visitors with the chance to hike, camp, backpack, bike and snowmobile through hundreds of miles of trails.
However, there is nothing like exploring Buffalo’s great outdoors from the back of a horse. Several ranches in the area, including the Triple Three Ranch, the Klondike Ranch and the South Fork Mountain Lodge, offer guided tours during the summer on horseback, and some even have overnight options.
For visitors that are seeking calmer respite, the charming downtown of Buffalo is a quaint glimpse into the old West. Walk down Main Street and poke in and out of country stores and bars to walk in the footsteps of Western figures such as Butch Cassidy, Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane, Teddy Roosevelt and others who once traveled through Buffalo or called it home.
“We have many original buildings still standing,” said Fox. “Everything is authentic; it looks much like it would have in the days of Butch Cassidy.”
Helena, Montana’s history is anchored in time alongside the golden age of 1800s prospecting. Miners flocked to the region between 1862 and 1875 after four lucky prospectors struck it rich in the aptly named Last Chance Gulch. The city grew at a rapid pace to support the influx of miners and settlers, and in 1894, became the capital of Montana.
Mike Mergenthaler, director of the Helena Convention and Visitors Bureau, noted that one of the best ways to experience the city’s gold-rush history is aboard the Last Chance Tour Train.
“It takes you all through the town, so you see everything,” he said. ‘The guides are great, too, and really knowledgeable.”
There is still plenty of treasure to be found in the city today, figuratively and literally. The region is among the best in the United States for the GPS-driven modern-day treasure hunt known as geocaching. Visitors can also use technology to discover other gems around the city by downloading the Helena Walking Tour App. The city has even designated specific Selfie Spots to encourage visitors to snap photos and upload them to social media.
“Last Chance Gulch is still a thriving walking mall in the downtown center,” said Mergenthaler. “You can actually visit one of the original cabins from the 1860s gold rush that is still there.”
Clearly, Helena is a city where modern culture thrives among the preserved relics of the past. For instance, this is a town that was doing farm-to-table food long before it was in vogue: The Highlander Bar and Grille serves beef raised on its own farm. There’s also Great Ape Crepes, which started as one of the city’s first food trucks and now serves crepes crafted from organic and local ingredients in a permanent spot on the downtown stretch.