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Head West

You’re never too old to play cowboy.

Experiencing the Old West is still possible in the Southwestern states of Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. At any one of Colorado’s 23 dude ranches that welcome groups, mountain scenery and an array of activities connect guests to ranching life. In Arizona, the town of Tombstone keeps alive the days of old-fashioned gunfights, stagecoaches and mining.

Consistently ranked one of the nation’s best Old West towns, Elko has its roots firmly planted in Nevada’s ranching history. And in 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes declared the main street of Lincoln, New Mexico, “The Most Dangerous Street in America” when the likes of Billy the Kid roamed the region.

If your group craves Western-style adventures, plan a trip to one of these destinations.

Colorado Ranches    

Horseback riding is central to every Colorado ranch experience, but there’s plenty to do without riding. Fishing, hiking, mountain biking, climbing walls and zip lines add to the adventure. There’s even seasonal whitewater rafting and tubing on the rivers. In the evenings, groups can sit around the campfire and be entertained by cowboy singers and poets, or take part in a square dance, depending on the ranch.

“Groups can come with loose programming, and the ranch will supplement activities,” said Courtney Frazier, executive director of the Colorado Dude and Guest Ranch Association. “Or the ranch can formulate the entire schedule. Ranches can accommodate groups during shoulder season, primarily between September and May.”

Lodging is often in cabins scattered throughout the property. Rooms are usually double occupancy in a homestead-style atmosphere. Given their remote locations, cabins don’t have TVs or cell service. Wi-Fi is often limited to the main lodge. All-inclusive rates include three meals per day. Depending on the season, many ranches host outdoor cookouts. Chefs source locally and whip up exceptional fare that’s far beyond the standard pork and beans.

Each ranch is unique. For instance, smaller Sylvan Dale Ranch, west of Loveland, offers a cattle program with cattle drives, team penning and sorting. The Big Thompson River runs through the property, and excellent fishing takes place outside the cabin doors. C Lazy U Ranch, near Winter Park, can accommodate up to 95 people. It’s the only ranch with a full-service spa, featuring canvas tents for massages with plexiglass floors suspended above the river. Open year-round, the ranch offers numerous outdoor activities as well as a ropes course and a zip line. Near Durango and tucked into the San Juan Mountains, the Majestic Dude Ranch accommodates up to 50 people. Its mountain biking program offers guided treks, and it’s the only ranch with a baseball field.

Tombstone, Arizona

Tombstone will always be associated with Old West lore and the likes of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Visiting groups can start at the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park, where the two-story Victorian building has been converted to a museum dedicated to this wild mining town. Each of the themed rooms displays Western memorabilia, and the outside courtyard re-creates the town gallows.

On historic Allen Street, the O.K. Corral tells the story of the famous gunfight with its daily reenactment of the shootout. Three of the eight cowboys were shot and killed on this site, which was rebuilt in the early 1950s and looks much as it did in 1881. No one will want to miss Boot Hill, the final resting place of many legendary cowboys. Tours recount how individuals met their demise and give perspective on just how dangerous it was to live in Tombstone.

Still published today, the Tombstone Epitaph is Arizona’s oldest newspaper. Visitors can watch the original hand press at work. Also displayed are composing stones, linotype machines, type cases and interpretive displays that chronicle the printing process.

Travelers can hop aboard a stagecoach for an authentic ride about town or take a tour on the Good Enough trolley. Good Enough also offers a silver mine tour. This journey goes 100 feet below the surface of an 1880s mine to see the silver veins and learn how mining was accomplished by hand and candlelight.

Part museum and part antique store, the Tombstone Western Heritage Museum is one of the best places to buy Tombstone memorabilia. And if your group can’t get enough of the era, the Tombstone Monument Ranch offers rooms that line the street of a re-created Old West town. Guests can wake up in the Grand Hotel, the blacksmith shop or even the jail. Activities on-property include themed horseback rides, riding lessons and team cattle penning.

“Sometimes groups allow just a few hours to visit Tombstone, but a full day is preferred,” said Marjorie Magnusson, public relations manager at the Arizona Office of Tourism. “Most people enjoy walking up and down the paved streets that resemble the Old West, and rubbing shoulders with the reenactors that hang around town and work in the historic district’s shops.”

Elko, Nevada 

Nestled in a valley and bordered by the snow-capped Ruby Mountains, Elko, Nevada, abounds in Old West spirit. The Western Folklife Center is known for hosting the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, held each January. Year-round, visitors can see contemporary cowboy craftsmanship, explore ranch life and view American Indian art. A full calendar of concerts and performances includes evening jam sessions every second Wednesday of the month.

Artist, craftsman and entrepreneur G.S. Garcia had a shop in Elko from 1894 to 1935. Garcia’s most famous saddle was one that brought home the gold medal from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Garcia apprenticed a young man named Joe Capriola, who in 1929 opened J.M. Capriola Co., which continues to serve customers today. On the second floor, two craftsmen still hand tool saddles while visitors watch the process. Cowboys and visitors will find plenty to outfit themselves with hats, boots, spurs and more.

Today, Garcia’s former saddle shop and home has been converted to the Cowboy Arts and Gear Museum. Three original display cases look just as they did when the store opened more than 100 years ago. Guests see spade bits, bridles and spurs, plus photos and family ranching histories. The Wright family, which now owns the J.M. Capriola Co., contributed to the project.

“In downtown, 54 larger-than-life centennial boots grace the streets,” said Tom Lester, the Elko Convention and Visitors Authority tourism and convention manager. “Over six feet tall, they were painted by local and regional artists. Forecasted to be an annual event, our September mural festival features our Old West, Native American and Basque culture with 55 permanent murals painted on downtown locations by approximately 35 artists.”

Eight miles west of downtown on Interstate 80 lies the California Trail Interpretive Center. This $20 million hands-on museum tells the journey of the pioneers who traveled west in the mid-1800s during the California Gold Rush. In May, the annual Trail Days event celebrates with reenactors demonstrating 1800s crafts and culture.

Lincoln, New Mexico   

On the Billy the Kid Scenic Byway, Lincoln, New Mexico, remains a well-preserved Old West town. In one of the most violent eras of the state’s history, Billy the Kid put Lincoln on the map with his famous escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse jail. Pat Garrett and other characters of the Wild West passed through or made their home here, too. The Lincoln County War began in 1878 and turned the town into a battlefield that was fictionalized in several movies, including the 1988 film “Young Guns.”

The Lincoln County Historic Site has preserved 17 adobe and stone buildings from the 1870s and 1880s. Museum exhibits recount the details of the Lincoln County War and the historic multipurpose use of the building. Other sites in town include El Torreón, a defensive tower built by native New Mexican settlers in the 1850s for protection against Apache raids; the San Juan Mission Church; the Convento; and the Montaño store. The Tunstall Store, built in 1878 contains displays of the original 19th-century merchandise in the original shelving and cases. For a historical overview, the Anderson Freeman Visitor Center and Museum features exhibits that begin with American Indian prehistory and end with the Lincoln County War.

West of Lincoln on 240 acres, Fort Stanton was established in 1855 and is one of the most intact 19th-century military fortifications in the United States and the best-preserved fort in New Mexico. Known for its roles in the Indian Wars and the Civil War, it also played a part in westward expansion. The museum features an introductory video about life at Fort Stanton. And the 12-building parade ground appears much as it did in the mid-1800s. Options for groups include guided tours of the grounds, History on Horseback tours and Fort Stanton After Dark, which takes place in June and October. Living-history events on the third Saturday of each month feature hands-on activities and the opportunity to watch military drills, musket firing, horsemanship and field cooking.

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.