Cody rests in the scenic Bighorn Basin at an altitude of 5,000 feet above sea level. Surrounding the basin on three sides are the magnificent Owl Creek, Absaroka and Bighorn mountain ranges, with Yellowstone, widely held to be the world’s first national park, a little over 50 miles away.
The town is named after the American icon William F Cody – more commonly known as Buffalo Bill – who first passed through the Big Horn Basin in the 1870s. Struck by the area’s development opportunities, spectacular scenery and abundance of fish and game, Cody returned some years later and the town of Cody – named so at his insistence – was incorporated in 1901. Many people know Buffalo Bill as the star of the travelling Wild West shows that bore his name and toured much of the world, but his contribution to the prosperity of this town cannot be ignored.
William F Cody’s legacy is everywhere, not least in the Buffalo Bill Center – a must-see for any first-time visitor to the area. The site comprises five spectacular museums: the Buffalo Bill Museum, which relates Cody’s legendary and action-filled life; the Plains Indian Museum, which explores the culture and story of the Plains Indian peoples; the Whitney Western Art Museum; the Draper Natural History Museum; and the Cody Firearms Museum, which boasts the most comprehensive collection of American firearms in the world. The Center also houses the Harold McCracken Research Library, among the nation’s finest for the study of the American West.
Cody boasts other Western treasures that tell the history of the Wyoming frontier. Old Trail Town is a convincing re-creation of a frontier community, consisting of 25 buildings dating from 1879 to 1901 and with the feel of a movie set come to life.
Once a year, in early July, rodeo fans flock to the town for the Cody Stampede, where, since 1919, cowboys from all over North America have put on dazzling displays of horsemanship and roping in front of roaring crowds.
Those looking for an authentic taste of the old West may want to head to the Cody Firearms Experience, where you can fire replicas of frontier pistols, rifles, and even a military Gatling Gun, forerunner of the machine gun. I tried my hand with the famous Colt Peacemaker – a type of revolver used during the gunfight at the OK Corral in 1881; the
Winchester ’73 lever-action rifle, marketed as ‘the gun that won the West’; and the Springfield trapdoor carbine, a firearm used by Colonel Custer and the men of the 7th Cavalry at the battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.
Fifteen miles north of Cody is the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, a national historic site that tells the stories of the 14,000 Japanese-Americans who were detained at this former confinement camp during the Second World War, many for the entire conflict. Sitting at the foot of Heart Mountain, the site is a sobering reminder of a dark chapter in American history.
Another of Cody’s attractions is its proximity to the famous Yellowstone National Park. My wife and I took the breathtakingly beautiful highway following the route of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail and the Cooke City park entrance, 76 miles north-west of Cody. The road follows the route taken by Chief Joseph as he led the Nez Perce tribe from Yellowstone to Montana in 1877, fleeing the US cavalry.
The park itself is an incredible experience. On our visit in 2016, we counted grizzly bears, buffaloes and bald eagles among the wildlife we saw.
Sometimes overlooked by visitors to Cody are the Bighorn Mountains, which rise sharply from the Bighorn Basin 80 miles east of the town. The mountains are home to the Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark, a pre-Columbian circular stone structure sacred to many Native Americans. Visitors have to walk the final mile and a half to the site, but it’s definitely worth the climb; the view, from this altitude of nearly 10,000 feet, is absolutely breathtaking.
For more military history, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, on the east of the Bighorn Mountains, is a three-hour drive away. The scene of Custer’s defeat by the forces of a combination of Native American tribes in 1876, the site reflects the high drama of the fight.
For truly adventurous history buffs, the Rosebud Battlefield State Park (Montana), scene of perhaps the largest engagement of the Indian Wars in the West, is located off a dirt road 40 miles south-east of Little Bighorn. Historical markers are few, but the sprawling park is in pristine historic condition.
Cody and the majestic countryside that surrounds it are a fascinating taste of the American West and a trip my wife and I intend to repeat.
Peter Cozzens is author of The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West (Atlantic, 2017).
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
Cody is frequently snowbound in the winter. The best time to visit is from June to September. The Buffalo Bill Center has special events on daily through the summer.
Fly into Yellowstone
Regional Airport in Cody. Alternatively, fly into Billings, Montana, and then enjoy a road trip by driving the scenic 104 miles south to Cody.
What to pack
You need light clothing in the summer, but do bring along a sweater or windbreaker if you plan to go up into the Bighorn Mountains. Expect clear skies: Cody averages an enviable 300 days of sunshine annually.
What to bring back
Custom-made Western jewellery or fine art from the Buffalo Bill Center gift shop.
The must see in Cody is the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. And, of course, the Irma hotel! [built by Buffalo Bill in 1902] @GearBooks
Fill your cowboy boots on Wild West myths at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center before enjoying a Buffalo Bill steak at the Irma Hotel. @howardbatey