Gateway City: Cody

While a major figure in American history, Buffalo Bill Cody is also a secondary figure in the history of Yellowstone National Park proper. Both are regarded as centerpieces of the original Wild West, and while there’s little evidence Cody actually spent a lot of time in the Park, some of his many entrepreneurial endeavors involved the Park in some manner.

Such as Cody, Wyoming. At a time when the Wild West is being squeezed out of modern America, a town that sprang from Cody’s fertile imagination after the turn of the century still has the feel of a frontier town. Some Yellowstone National Park visitors will have passed through Cody on their way to the Park, but most won’t; for them a trip out the East Entrance and into Cody is a worthwhile day trip.

Within the Park you’ll begin the trip at Fishing Bridge, located on the north shore of Yellowstone Lake. Once upon a time this bridge was clogged with amateur anglers throwing down their lines with little technique or style, but safety and conservation concerns led Park officials to ban fishing directly from the bridge.

After leaving the Park you’ll drive 48 miles through the Shoshone Canyon and the Wapiti Valley to Cody. In a region filled with scenic drives, this stretch of highway still manages to impress: Theodore Roosevelt once dubbed it the “most scenic 50 miles in America.” Immediately outside the Park on U.S. Hwy. 14-16-20 is Pahaska Teepee, Buffalo Bill’s original 1904 lodge. It’s still a working lodge, complete with inexpensive rooms and a memorable lounge. The mythology of William Cody is mighty thick in these parts, and it begins here: Cody Peak, to the south, towers over Pahaska Teepee and what was once dubbed the Buffalo Bill Highway.

The remaining drive will take you past many interesting rock formations and a host of other things named after Cody, including the Buffalo Bill Reservoir and the Buffalo Bill Dam, both in the Wapiti Valley. Finally, you’ll arrive in Cody, Wyoming. The approach into town isn’t the most scenic: it’s where Cody has sprawled and the likes of Wal-Mart reside. (In other words, don’t let the first impression sour you.) You’ll soon come across the majestic Buffalo Bill Historical Center, comprising five top-notch museums:

  • The Buffalo Bill Museum presents Cody’s life story, sometimes in somewhat hagiographic terms. Hagiography doesn’t always equate to accuracy, so take some of the more outrageous claims presented here with a huge grain of salt. Still, Cody was a larger-than-life character and an amazing showman, and the enormity of his personality comes through here.
  • The Draper Museum of Natural History outlines the natural and human history of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. It’s the newest museum in the complex, and it’s the most impressive: even if you’ve spent several days rooting around the back trails in the Park you’ll come away with a new appreciation of Yellowstone and what it’s meant over the ages.
  • The Cody Firearms Museum is an amazing mesmerizing history of firearms. Even if you don’t know the difference between a .22 and a .30-06, you’ll come away understanding the allure of pistols and rifles.
  • The Whitney Galley of Western Art features masterworks from the likes of George Catlin, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell. Western Art is a distinctive part of Americana, surprisingly nuanced and infused with the Wild West spirit.
  • The Plains Indian Museum tells the stories of the original inhabitants of the region. Much of the collection dates from the early reservation period – 1880-1930 – and is explained both in aesthetic and historical contexts.

You could easily spend the day at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. Your admission allows you to come and go over two days, so when you’re ready to take a break head to downtown Cody. Many towns in the Old West have morphed into tourist traps, with coffee shops replacing tack shops, but in Cody the tack shops are still in force, giving it a real sense of place. Cody dates back to 1895, when Bill Cody set up the town as a gateway to Yellowstone National Park and what he thought would be a booming agricultural area. The boom never arrived – the region is rather unforgiving and suited mostly to cattle grazing – but the town survived as a regional center. In 1902 Cody built the Irma Hotel, named for his daughter. It’s still a working hotel with some rooms decked out in original décor, but you can get a good feel for the place by heading to the famous cherrywood bar and taking a look around. After that, take some time to walk around downtown Cody.

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