What if it were still possible to experience the enduring traditions and majestic valleys of the Old West without the long, treacherous journey once required to get there? On the cusp of Bighorn National Forest at the frontier of the Great Plains, few places furthered the myth of The West quite like Sheridan, Wyoming, and it’s a spirit which lives on today. In fact, with its historic trails to trek, vast forests to explore by horseback, and serene alpine lakes to fish, the Sheridan of today is about much more than the glories of the past. It’s a way of life.
Sheridan’s fascinating past
When it comes to history, of course, Sheridan’s got plenty to go around. Long under the domain of the native Apsáalooké people, more commonly known as the Crow, the city began as little more than a trapper’s lodge first built in 1878. Christened for a Union General by the same name, Sheridan took off steadily from there around coal mines and cattle trails, a land so definitively Western that “Buffalo Bill” Cody chose it as the headquarters for his famed traveling show.
In Downtown Sheridan, you can explore this history at every turn. The foundational Mandel Cabin remains intact and ready to visit in Whitney Commons in the center of town. Nearby on Main Street, the colorful Mint Bar has been attracting thirsty cowpokes since 1907, and is a short stagger down Broadway to the same Sheridan Inn where Buffalo Bill once held court.
Sheridan’s drover demographic has changed little over the years, particularly with the Sheridan County Fairgroundsless than two miles west of town. For nearly a century, the world’s top bull and bronc riders have convened each July at the Fairgrounds to compete in the WYO Rodeo, an event so popular, it’s spawned a newer, off-season cousin. Now, each February, the WYO Winter Rodeo spreads from the Fairgrounds into Downtown Sheridan. Here, along the city’s main drags, the particularly intrepid participate in “skijoring”—horse-drawn skiers negotiating slaloms and jumps at full speed as thousands of onlookers cheer them on.
Sheridan’s legendary landscape
For all the city’s rich traditions, new and old, its strongest link to the Wild West just may lie in the great expanse surrounding it, marking a land as historically fraught as it is beautiful. One such example can be found along the Bozeman Trail, once the pivot point from the Oregon Trail for those in search of Montana gold.
As pioneers forged westward, they crossed the territories of several Native American tribes, sparking the so-called Indian Wars on the Northern Plains. In remembrance of this storied period, history lovers should be sure to make the short drive south of Sheridan, to Fort Phil Kearny. A key outpost for those venturing west and built on Native American territory, the Fort saw more than its share of bloodshed throughout the latter part of the 19th century. Between this site and the Bozeman Trail Museum along the way, visitors can view numerous artifacts from the era on which American history was built, warts and all.
Traveling west, more invaluable assets come into focus, starting with the 1.1 million-acre preserve of Bighorn National Forest. Here, snow-capped peaks hover over dense shore pine groves containing 1,500 miles of hiking trails and 32 campgrounds for those who want to experience the beauty up close. At the geographic and symbolic heart of the Forest, Cloud Peak Wilderness’ ice-carved canyons contain hundreds of lakes, not to mention the region’s lone active glacier. Sporting snow as late as July and accessible only by foot or horseback, Cloud Peak’s summits and valleys offer optimal cross-country skiing, plus an abundance of rock and ice climbing throughout the region.
While in Bighorn, be sure to pay a visit to the 4,080-acre Medicine Mountain National Historic Monument just under 50 miles west of Sheridan. Dating back as far as 3,000 years, these sacred Native American grounds center around one of the largest ceremonial medicine wheels on the continent, one which serves as a sort of “altar” for the 81 tribes who convene here throughout the year. Visitors interested in undergoing their own spiritual journey can access the Medicine Wheel during summer months by way of a short, 1.5-mile hike, and are requested to do so without disturbing any ceremonial offerings they encounter along the way.
On the way back to the city, just 30 minutes from Medicine Mountain, Sibley Lake offers year-round recreation for all kinds of adventurers. For anglers, the calm, mountain-fed waters should be teeming with trout. Skiers, meanwhile, have 15 miles of trails to shred, plus a scenic lodge at which to recharge over lunch. Those averse to sport can also partake in a casual hike, keeping an eye out for the occasional moose crossing in the process.
Up close with wildlife
With such an abundance of wildlife, Sheridan’s hinterland has been prime hunting territory for centuries, as Buffalo Bill might have attested. All would-be hunters and trappers visiting Wyoming today must follow explicit guidelines in place from the Wyoming Game & Fish Department and the Wyoming Wildlife Federation to ensure that Wyoming’s best assets—including the elk, the American bison, and the Indigenous mule deer—continue to roam the plains safely and indefinitely. Hunters coming from out of state won’t find invasive land-dwelling species here and must carefully follow allocation guidelines to avoid serious fines.
The most convenient option would be to hire a local, responsible outfitter or guide like Rangeland Hunting Adventures, located just 15 minutes outside of town. For those looking to simply experience that cowboy life without hunting, Double Rafter offers guided cattle drives from June through September, while Eaton’s Ranch allows guests to stay on one of the nation’s first real dude ranches without sullying their slacks.
From winter to summer, ranch to museum, there’s no wrong time or way to visit Sheridan. Best of all, though you may feel far from civilization, it’s actually quite close, with direct flights from Denver to Sheridan County Airport running each day, plus two international airports in Casper and Billings, which can be reached within a two-hour drive.