The USA is dotted with iconic cities, from New York to New Orleans, Chicago to Austin, Los Angeles to Miami. Yet the undiscovered gems you come across on a road trip between the city lights often end up the highlights at the end of the trip. In America’s Central West, Wyoming and Montana are two such states. Home to the USA’s first national park, Yellowstone, along with the imposing Grand Tetons and Glacier National Park, the wilderness credentials are second to none. Then there are cowboys. Dude ranches and rodeos are a way of life here, and along with the wildlife, shouldn’t be missed. Yet finally, it’s the unexpected microcultures, art and food scenes, and vibrant locals you find in towns here that will turn it into a favourite destination.
If you’ve heard of anywhere in the American West, this is probably it. The town is Jackson, but you may have also heard of Jackson Hole - the valley it sits in. Once a cowboy town, today you’re more likely to see snow boots over cowboy boots in the pubs along the main street. In the heart of the Grand Teton range, Jackson has one of the highest annual snowfalls in the country - an average of 400 inches (10.16m) a season! In winter, the 4,000 vertical feet (over 1200m), and 200 acres of runs make a paradise both beginners and pros can enjoy. What makes this place even better is the ski runs at Snow King come right down to the end of the main street, so you can literally stumble off the mountain and onto dinner.
Come summer the Grand Tetons transform into a hiking, quad biking, mountain bike riding, kayaking and cycling wonderland. Wildlife is a huge drawcard here, with large moose, elk, deer and grizzly bear populations in the area. In fact one particular grizzly bear in the area known by researchers as 399, has been called the most famous bear in the world, because she is so often visible from the roadside near Jackson Lake. Remarkably 17 bruins are descended from her bloodline, though sadly over half have been killed through run-ins with humans. For more wildlife and nature action, the southern entrance to Yellowstone National Park is also just north of town.
If a road trip is on the cards for this part of the country, the drive between Jackson and Casper affords an incredible visual of how dramatically the landscape across the west changes. From snow-capped peaks and dense forests in the west, passing through the Wind River Reservation, the landscape suddenly flattens out, revealing vast plains and mineral rich soils.
In the middle of these plains you’ll find Casper, an industrial hub, founded for its strategic location along the North Platte River - a pivotal location along the historic east-west trails. While Casper remains a stronghold for western cowboy culture, it is today also a vibrant hub for the arts and culture. The Nicolaysen Art Museum has an incredible collection of local and international works, and hosts a calendar of inclusive events, including the annual Nic Festival, which draws crowds from across the country for art, music, food and more. The National Historic Trails Interpretive Center is also a highlight, providing an interactive and in-depth understanding of the trails and their role in migration across the country.
Outside of town, Casper Mountain, with its mountain trails, waterfalls and views provides a unique relief from the windswept plains. While an hour’s drive south west from Casper you’ll find Independence State Rock and Fremont Canyon, again a landscape worlds away from the grazing plains around town.
Buffalo might only have some 4,500 residents, but it makes up for it in charm. One drink at the bar in the Oriental Hotel and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Picture this: the barman, cowboy hat on head, greets every patron by name; a musical duo play country and western in the back corner to an engrossed crowd; the walls are adorned by all manner of taxidermy wildlife from cougars to Moose to a giant grizzly standing on its hind legs at the far end of the room.
While you might expect the main street to be lined with ranch outfitters and boutiques selling handcrafts, you might be surprised to learn it’s also home to an exceptional Mexican restaurant. Papa Binos could well be the sole reason you put Buffalo on your itinerary, it’s that good.
The other reason to put Buffalo on your itinerary is the Bighorn National Forest just outside of town. Home to its namesake, the mighty Bighorn Sheep, this wilderness area is home to dramatic canyons and lush forests abundant with wildlife.
If you’re here to experience the real American West, cowboys, wildlife and all, Cody should be top of your list. In fact Cody is home to the longest running nightly rodeo in the whole country. For a taste of real life in the west, head to the Irma Hotel on the main street at 6pm each night for the famous shootout reenactment, then make your way to Stampede Park for the Cody Nite Rodeo.
Cody is located at the eastern entrance to Yellowstone, so a stay here before heading into the park is ideal, mostly for the incredibly informative Buffalo Bill Center of The West. A huge and very impressive museum, the Center is home to exhibits not only on Buffalo Bill himself, but historic art of the region, the intricate Yellowstone ecosystem, and the largest collection of firearms in the USA. Make sure you catch the Raptor Experience to see, in person, some of the most spectacular wild birds in the world.
Bozeman is perhaps the most surprising of all of these towns of the west. You won’t find any ranch outfitters or cowboys on the main street here, in their place are coffee roasteries, beer breweries, boutiques and wine bars. In fact Bozeman is often likened to Boulder, Colorado, and Portland, Oregon, for its growing design and tech sector and healthy university culture. It’s even rumoured Google and Facebook are considering opening new offices here. The Montana State University Bozeman campus has a renowned graphic design program, which is in part, responsible for the 42 design and advertising firms in town, an astonishing number when compared to the town’s 45,000 population.
Aside from the attractive culture in town, another drawcard is the town’s proximity to Yellowstone National Park, as well as outdoor adventure hotspots, Big Sky and the Bridger Mountains. In fact, the Hotel Baxter, the tallest building in town at five stories, has a blue light on its roof that flashes whenever there is powder at Bridger Bowl, the town’s closest ski field. I’m told when this happens, the town basically shuts shop and everyone heads for the mountain.
The gateway to Glacier National Park, you could say Whitefish is a poster city for outdoor adventure lovers. During summer it’s bustling with mountain bikers and hikers, fly fishing in the lakes and rivers, cyclists weaving through town on the bike paths, and stand up paddle boarders cruising along the lake from Whitefish City Beach. Come winter the bike trails turn to ski slopes, and the town’s impressive variety of eateries light fires for cosy winter nights.
While you’re in town be sure to sample the famous huckleberry pie at Loula’s Cafe, and make a stop at the Glacier Distilling Company at Coram - on the road into Glacier National Park. While this part of Montana isn’t famed for its ranches, the Bar W Guest Ranch just outside of town offers a sample of cowboy life with horse riding, glamping, home cooked meals and more.