GRAB YOUR COWBOY BOOTS AND HEAD TO THE LOCAL SALOON FOR AN AUTHENTIC WESTERN EXPERIENCE.
By DANA SCHULZ
MARCH 14, 2023
From cowboys and rodeos to saloons and silver mines, the Wild West era defined parts of America in the late 19th century. Many people love revisiting this time through Western movies, but if you want to actually step back in time to the Wild West, there are plenty of places across the U.S. to do so. For example, did you know you can visit Buffalo Bill's former lodge? Or step foot inside the O.K. Corral? If this type of living history is up your alley, read on to hear from travel experts about the 10 best small towns in the U.S. that feel like the Wild West. Cowboy boots and horses not required.
1. Cody, Wyoming
Picture the Wild West in your head, and you'll likely conjure up an image pretty similar to the real-life town of Cody, Wyoming. It was established in 1896 and is named for famed buffalo hunter William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody, according to Tom Mesereau, founder of Mesereau Travel Public Relations. "Inspired by the undeveloped region's combination of scenery, wildlife, and rich soil, as well as its location 52 miles from Yellowstone National Park, Buffalo Bill Cody decided to build a town," he explains. In fact, it's Buffalo Bill who coined the term "Wild West" when, in 1883, he began his traveling show Buffalo Bill's Wild West.
Today, the main attraction in Cody is the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. It's comprised of five separate museums—the Buffalo Bill Museum, where you can see actual possessions of his and Annie Oakley's, the Plains Indian Museum, the Cody Firearms Museum, the Draper Natural History Museum, and the Whitney Western Art Museum.
Mesereau also recommends checking out the Irma Hotel, which was built by Buffalo Bill himself in 1902 and named after his youngest daughter; the Pahaska Tepee Resort, a rustic lodge where Buffalo Bill brought guests including Theodore Roosevelt and the Prince of Monaco; Old Trail Town, a collection of 19th-century frontier buildings including "one used by Butch Cassidy and his infamous Hole-in-the-Wall Gang"; and the Cody Nite Rodeo, "the longest-running summer-season nightly rodeo in the U.S."
2. Bodie, California
Many old Western cities have been turned into tourist towns, but if you want to truly step back in time to the Wild West, head to this ghost town near the Nevada border. "Bodie, California used to be a thriving gold-rush town that had over 60 saloons at one point, producing over $35 million worth of gold and silver. It became a ghost town in 1915 when mining profits plummeted and many of the public facilities there closed down for good," explains Bradley Williams, travel writer and co-founder of Dream Big, Travel Far.
Today, the town is frozen in time and preserved as Bodie State Historic Park. "Only a small part of the town survives, preserved in a state of 'arrested decay.' Interiors remain as they were left and stocked with goods," according to the California Department of Parks and Recreation. The nonprofit Bodie Foundation offers tours, ghost walks, and other special events.
3. Pioneertown, California
Sandwiched between the San Bernadino National Forest and Joshua Tree National Park sits Pioneertown. Though you wouldn't tell by looking at it, this town is actually not from the Wild West days. "It was established in 1946 by a group of investors in the Hollywood business," explains Kristin Lee, travel expert and author of the blog Global Travel Escapades. "They wanted to create a functional movie set that looked like the Wild West in the 1880s and would simultaneously allow for a few people to live out there."
This group of investors included Dick Curtis, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Bud Abbott. According to Visit California, "more than 50 films and television shows were filmed here in the 1940s and '50s."
"Today, a few hundred people live in Pioneertown, and it's widely visited as a tourist attraction," notes Lee. She says not to miss local bar Pappy and Harriet's and Mane Street, where "you'll find lots of wooden storefronts and tiny shops that are run by locals who are selling handcrafted goods."
For a place to stay, Visit California recommends the Pioneertown Motel, "a rustic, single-story 20-room inn [that] has been updated with fire pits, an outdoor bar, and hammocks."
4. Tombstone, Arizona
Of all the locations on this list, Tombstone, Arizona received the most love from travel experts. As Jenny Ly, travel blogger and entrepreneur at Go Wanderly, notes, "Tombstone was made immortal in under 30 seconds." That's how long the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral lasted in 1881 when the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday faced off against the Clanton-McLaury outlaw gang. "Today, you can see daily reenactments of the famed firefight at the precise location where it happened," says Ly.
You can also get the feel of the Old West by walking around the downtown area. "The wooden clapboard buildings are authentic as are the wooden boardwalks," says Jocelyn Xamis Wolters, a preservationist and co-founder of the travel site Wolters World. While here, be sure to spot "the 140 bullet holes in the walls of the Bird Cage Theater, a famed 1880s nightclub, attesting to the town's violent past," says Ly.
Other attractions include the Old Tombstone Western Theme Park, where you can see another gunfight show; the Boot Hill Graveyard, a National Register site that offers tours; the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park, which was created following the events of 1881; and the Good Enough Silver Mine, an 1880s silver mine that now provides tours.
5. Florence, Arizona
Halfway between Phoenix and Tucson, Florence is another Arizona town that retains its Wild West roots. According to Jen Luria of Dog Cat Mouse Media, which represents the city, Florence is home to the oldest junior rodeo in the U.S. (it takes place every November) and many locals are craftspeople and ranchers who are "living rugged, inspired lifestyles."
Florence was established in 1866, according to the Chamber of Commerce, but in 1875 it became the Pinal County seat and a silver boom town. Today, nearly the entire town is a National Historic District, with 25 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Along Main Street, you'll find old commercial buildings and saloons that are now shops and restaurants. And throughout, you'll see Sonoran homes, an architectural style that dates back to the 1840s when this area was part of Mexico; they are one-story adobe rowhouses.
One attraction not to miss is McFarland State Park; it's home to the Pinal County Courthouse, which was originally a dance hall and later, a jailhouse, a hospital, and finally, a courthouse. Today, it's a historic museum. You might also want to stop by the Tom Mix Monument, which memorializes the early Western film star Tom Mix.
6. Virginia City, Nevada
Virginia City, Nevada is best known for the Comstock Lode silver ore discovery in 1859. Those who visit today can explore this mining history with a ride on the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, "the most famous American Short Line railroad," according to Tracie Barnthouse, public relations manager at Travel Nevada. You'll take a scenic trip to the neighboring city of Gold Hill, passing 17 historic mines on the way, several of which you can tour.
Staten also recommends taking a walk down C Street, "the National Historic Landmark that stretches through the downtown of the city, where authentic 1870s western buildings, businesses, saloons, and more remain unchanged." He says Gold Hill Hotel & Saloon is definitely worth a visit, as it's the oldest hotel in the state and has one of the most authentic intact saloons.
A representative for the city notes that "docents often walk the streets in Victorian garb telling visitors of the history of the town." For more nostalgia, there are a slew of historic restaurants.
7. Deadwood, South Dakota
A small town just outside Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota, Deadwood was settled in 1876 as a gold mining village. "It became famous for its lawlessness in the late 1800s," explains Trysta Barwig, travel expert and founder of This Travel Dream. "The murder of Wild Bill Hickok in 1876 only added to its reputation."
Today, the entire town of Deadwood is a National Historic Landmark. Walk down Main Street and find "saloons, casinos, breweries, and even a shootout [reenactment]," say Mark and Kristen Morgan, creators of the travel, hiking, and photography blog Where Are Those Morgans. "Be sure to look for plaques scattered throughout the streets featuring stories about legends such as Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and Seth Bullock."
In addition, "the town is home to several museums, including the Adams Museum and the Days of '76 Museum. You can also take a tour of the old mining town, or go horseback riding through the scenic hills," says Matt James, founder of the travel blog Visitingly.
8. Medora, North Dakota
While most of the towns on this list feature old-timey main streets with clapboard buildings and historic saloons, the rugged wilderness was another big part of the Wild West. Experience that side of things in all its glory in Medora, North Dakota. It's located just outside Theodore Roosevelt National Park—so named because this is where President Theodore Roosevelt came to hunt bison.
"It's all about stepping back to the days when Theodore Roosevelt ranched here, when shootouts at the Little Missouri Saloon or the Roughrider were normal. Where the Little Missouri River cuts through the Badlands to give ranchers a route to reach civilization 60 miles away," says Mike Kopp, creator of Beautiful Badlands.
Some of the main attractions include the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame; the outdoor Medora Musical, a country-western variety show complete with live horses and "a dramatic reenactment of Theodore Roosevelt's famous charge during the battle of San Juan Hill"; and horse trail rides through the Badlands.
9. Dodge City, Kansas
Familiar with the saying "get outta Dodge?" This is where it came from. "Dodge City, Kansas is a famous Wild West town that was founded in 1872 … It attracted a high number of gunfighters and brothel-owners and gained a reputation for being the wickedest town in the Old West," explains Larry Snider, VP of operations at Casago Vacation Rentals. In fact, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday worked here as sheriffs.
Be sure to see the remnants of the 1865 Fort Dodge, a stop on the Santa Fe National Historic Trail that once "provided supplies and a resting place for traders and buffalo hunters," according to the National Park Service (NPS). Also overseen by the NPS is the Boot Hill Museum, a preserved slice of an Old West town that's located on the site of the Boot Hill Cemetery. While here, Snider says to grab a drink at the Longbranch Saloon. He also says you can visit the original location of the "Deadline," the railroad tracks that served as a boundary for where guns could be carried.
10. Winthrop, Washington
You may not realize that western history extends to the Pacific Northwest, but the town of Winthrop, Washington is a Wild West time capsule. Not far from the Canadian border, it's situated in the Methow Valley, next to Okanogan National Forest, and just east of the Cascade Mountains.
"It is a charming vacation destination that has been preserved as an 1850s Old West town with wooden boardwalks, boutique stores, and unique restaurants and bars," says Nathan Sado, travel writer for All About Glamping. "There are cozy cabins and quaint inns to spend a few nights while exploring the town and area in all four seasons of the year."
Sado notes that Winthrop hosts various rodeos throughout the year, as well as '49er Days in May, a festival that includes a wagon ride, a reenactment of a Wild West shootout, children's activities, mechanical bull rides, and a cowboy dinner.
11. Fort Worth Stockyards, Texas
Fort Worth is known as the city "where the west begins," and nowhere is this more evident than at the Stockyards National Historic District. According to a representative for the city, this neighborhood was once the country's largest horse and cattle market. This history has been preserved, and today you'll find "saloon-style bars, leather goods and cowboy boot stores, weekly rodeos, and more."
The biggest attraction at the Stockyards is undoubtedly its twice-daily cattle drive, "where real cowboys lead the Fort Worth Herd of Texas Longhorns down East Exchange Avenue, reenacting the historic cattle drives of the past." Every part of the event is historically accurate. For more cowboy fun, check out the Stockyards Championship Rodeo, the world's only year-round rodeo, or the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Other popular stops include the John Wayne: An American Experience museum; the Stockyards Museum, which is located in the historic Livestock Exchange Building; and Billy Bob's Texas, the world's largest honky tonk.
As for where to stay, another city representative suggests the Hotel Drover. "This award-winning property boasts rustic-luxe rooms that effortlessly blend cowboy charm and modern amenities, embodying the same pioneering spirit exemplified by the drovers and great cattlemen and women of their time," they say.
12. Amarillo, Texas
This Texas town is a major stop along the famous Route 66 and still has working western ranches. "Amarillo was founded in 1887, and its claim to fame is that it is the 'Queen City of the Crossroads,' the traditional home of cowboys and cattle throughout the United States," shares Patrick Johnson, owner of camping and hiking site C&H Essentials. "It started as a tent city for 500 railroad employees and developed into a tough cow town known for its large skies, big steaks, big barbecue establishments, and enormous volumes of oil."
Amarillo still puts on several prestigious rodeos, notes Johnson, as well as the annual Polk Street Cattle Drive, "during which 60 Texas longhorns make their way through downtown Amarillo en route to the Tri-State Fairgrounds."
Jennifer Darnell of Life on Lavender Lane calls out the Wild West-themed Big Texan Motel and the Big Texan Steakhouse, "a kitschy, saloon-style steakhouse serving up slabs of steak." She says you'll also want to stop by Cadillac Ranch, a funky roadside attraction that consists of 10 Cadillac cars half-buried at the angle of the Pyramids of Gaza, as well as Palo Duro Canyon State Park, the second-largest canyon in the U.S.
13. Bandera, Texas
Considered the "Cowboy Capital of the World," Bandera is located in the middle of Texas Hill Country and was once a major stop on the Great Western Cattle Trail. Even though that was nearly two centuries ago, this town "still has its ranching traditions in the 21st century," notes Ly. "In Bandera, you may see blacksmiths at work, go to a honky-tonk saloon, or saddle up for contemporary cowboying at a functioning ranch."
There are three different rodeos in Bandera, the best known of which is the Bandera ProRodeo. For something more subdued, there are several options for horseback riding. At the many operational dude ranches, you can explore, dine, or even spend the night. Popular ranches are the Dixie Dude Ranch and Rancho Cortez. Ly also suggests visiting the Frontier Times Museum and passing by the historic jail and courthouse.