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Big Horns, Rich Heritage

Sheridan, Wyoming, and environs boast a rich cultural history in the stunning setting of the Big Horn Mountains.

By Theresa Gawlas Medoff

Images throughout Sheridan Wyoming


Long Live Cowboys” declares a neon sign in the window of King’s Saddlery on Main Street in Sheridan, Wyoming. Across the street at The Mint Bar, another neon sign in the shape of a bronco-busting cowboy reiterates the message. This town of 18,000 in north-central Wyoming embraces its ranching lifestyle and rich Western heritage, just as it has done since the days when William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody auditioned acts for his Wild West show on the lawn of The Sheridan Inn. The Sheridan WYO Rodeo has been going strong since 1931 (riding into town this year July 8–14), and more recently, the First Peoples Pow Wow was founded in 2013 and continues to bring together Native American dancers and drum teams for ceremonial dances during the same week as the rodeo.

Combine the town’s heritage and friendly people with its setting in a picturesque valley in the shadow of the Big Horn Mountains, and you’ll understand why last year True West magazine named Sheridan one of the Top 10 True Western Towns.

Everything Old Is New Again
The town’s history stretches back to the early 1880s, when a Civil War veteran named John Loucks bought a 40-acre claim for $50 and set about planning a town that he would name after Union General Philip Sheridan, under whom he’d served. By the time the railroad chugged into town in 1892, Sheridan had become the region’s hub (later to become county seat).

The following year, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad opened The Sheridan Inn near the railroad station and signed on “Buffalo Bill” Cody as its first proprietor. Now named The Historic Sheridan Inn, it welcomes guests to 22 rooms themed for Cody and his cohorts.

Even if you don’t stay at the inn, you can stop by to see the 116-foot-long wraparound front porch with its green rocking chairs and benches reminiscent of those from which Cody surveyed the lawn. Don’t be shy; go in and ask for a guided tour.


“One of my favorite things here at the inn is giving tours of the property and sharing its history,” says General Manager Stacie Wells. Ask Wells to show you the ornate sculpted wooden Buffalo Bill Bar, given to Cody by Britain’s Queen Victoria as a tribute and thank-you for bringing his Wild West show to Europe and being part of her Grand Jubilee in 1887.

An exploration of Sheridan’s Main Street District—listed on the National Register of Historic Places—impresses visitors with how the town is saving and repurposing its architectural treasures into co-work spaces, downtown apartments, restaurants and chic shops.

“Compared to five or six years ago, there’s more energy downtown. More buildings are being cleaned up and restored. Sometimes people tend to be so quick to move on, but here we’re putting effort into preserving our history. For me, it’s really exciting to be part of that, part of growing downtown Sheridan,” says Kristi VonKrosigk, one of the trailblazers behind Sheridan’s urban redevelopment. She is also a co-owner of The Union at The Montgomery, a clothing and accessories co-op in the former Montgomery Ward department store.

Rodeo Parade, Sheridan, Wyoming
WYO Rodeo parade
Photo courtesy of Sheridan Travel & Tourism

Other treasures in the historic district include the Classical Revival-Beaux Arts-style county courthouse, completed in 1905 and still used as the county’s government seat, and the restored Art Deco WYO Theater, which opened in 1923 as the Lotus “picture palace” and is now a venue for theater, music and community events. A host of other late 19th- and early 20th-century buildings—there are 49 in the historic district—that were once hotels, department stores, banks and saloons now house boutiques, antique stores, restaurants and bars that make for a pleasant day of window shopping and dining. And, if you happen to be in town on the third Thursday of the month in June to September, be sure to check out the 3rd Thursday Street Festival that brings a lively scene to Main Street from 5 to 9 p.m. with a farmers market, arts-and-crafts booths and other vendors, food and live music.

Pick up a walking tour brochure from the Downtown Sheridan Association to learn more about Main Street’s colorful past. As you’re strolling through town, you’ll notice the sculptures—more than 90 of them—scattered on corners and outside shops on Main and surrounding streets and in local parks. The grounds of Downtown Sheridan Association’s office boast several such works, including the eight-foot bronze Leonardo da Vinci’s Horse, a gift from the people of Italy. Among the other prized artworks is D. Michael Thomas’ cowboy fountain Cool Waters in Whitney Commons near the town library.

Cowboy Arts
A visit to Sheridan must include a visit to King’s Saddlery, a Main Street anchor for nearly 60 years.  Even if you’re not in the market for a new cowboy hat, saddle or spurs, it’s fascinating to see the care that goes into handcrafting a saddle or making the many types of rope that King’s sells. Leather-tooling and rope-making takes place in the Rope Shop, reached by passing through the store and crossing the narrow alley to the back building. That’s also where you’ll find the Don King Museum, jam-packed with the King family’s collection of Western, cowboy and Native American artifacts, some as much as a century old. In addition to dozens of ornate saddles and bridles, there are historic coaches, guns, artworks and photos. 

So admired and beloved was family patriarch and saddle-maker Don King that there’s even a festival in his name annually on the Sunday and Monday of Labor Day Weekend (this year, September 1–2).  Events include a polo competition, steer roping, bronc riding, horseshoeing and live music.

Don’t leave town without stopping at The Mint Bar, which has been welcoming cowboys and ranchers since 1907. These days, tourists settle in at the bar next to the locals to down a cold one and take in the atmosphere, which includes ranch brands carved into the wooden walls and taxidermy scattered throughout.

Sheridan, Wyoming
Brinton Museum
Photo courtesy of the Brinton Museum

If your dose of outdoor art has you craving more culture, head 15 minutes south to the town of Big Horn and The Brinton Museum, located on the historic 620-acre Quarter Circle A Ranch. Just four years ago, The Brinton expanded to a new $15.8 million 24,000-square-foot eco-conscious building that’s nestled into the hillside and anchored by a 209-foot-long, 51-foot-high rammed earth wall, the tallest in North America.

Inside are five galleries filled with works from one of the most significant and extensive collections of Western and American Indian art in the Rocky Mountain West. Among the Western artists showcased are Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell and Frank Tenney Johnson. The Brinton’s notable collection of American Indian art and artifacts includes the recently acquired Edith & Goelet Gallatin Collection, which is rich with headdresses, women’s robes and other beautifully made objects of the Apsáalooke (Crow) People. Works from the collection are featured in the new semi-permanent exhibition To Honor the Plains Nations.

Before leaving The Brinton Museum, head to the third-floor deck for a magnificent view of grasslands waving in the wind and majestic mountains beyond, where you’ll be journeying next.

Images from Bighorn National Forest

Mountain Highs

Directly west of Sheridan, about 15 miles from town, lie the Big Horn Mountains, sister range to the Rockies, upon which sits the 1.1-million-acre Bighorn National Forest, one of the earliest national forests in the country. A favored way for day-trippers to explore is by driving along the two scenic byways in the northern portion of Bighorn National Forest closest to Sheridan. (There’s a third scenic byway in the southern part of the national forest.)

Heading west on Bighorn Scenic Byway (Route 14), you quickly come to several photo ops just off the side of the road, including Sand Turn, with its sweeping views of the Powder River Basin; Steamboat Point, a rock wall rising 600 feet and so named because it resembles the prow of a steamboat; and Fallen City, where the remains of a major rock slide bring to mind the ruins of a city. A little farther along is Sibley Lake, a great place for a hike around the perimeter or simply a picnic stop.

Just west of Sibley Lake at Burgess Junction, you come to a decision point: Continue west on Alternate Route 14 on Medicine Wheel Scenic Byway, or turn south with Route 14 to stay on Bighorn Scenic Byway. Our recommendation: Take one route the first day and the second on the following day. If you want to remain in the national forest for the night, you can bed down in your choice of 7 lodges and 14 campsites.

Continuing west on Alternate Route 14 brings you to the Medicine Wheel, a sacred site built long ago by Native Americans. While archaeologists say it’s impossible to date, there has been some conjecture that the Medicine Wheel could be as much as 10,000 years old.  It’s situated at the summit of a 9,642-foot mountain with panoramic 100-mile views. Now named Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark, the centerpiece is an 80-foot-diameter circle of local white limestone rocks with 28 rock spokes leading to a center cairn about 10 feet across. Many Native Americans call it “The Place Where the Eagle Lands.”  While clearly a sacred site, its exact purpose is not known.

Today, the Medicine Wheel is protected by a rope fence around its circumference that can be crossed only by permission of the National Forest Service. The fence itself has become entwined with the sacred, as spiritual visitors, including those from dozens of Native tribes, tie to the ropes scraps of fabric, feathers, neckerchiefs and medicine pouches as offerings or symbols of prayer.

The journey south on Bighorn Scenic Byway wends through the steep walls of Shell Canyon, carved through sandstone and granite by the waters of Shell Creek over a period of a million years. About halfway through the canyon are the thunderous 120-foot-high Shell Falls, which can be seen from above by taking a 0.2-mile loop trail from Shell Falls Interpretive Site.

No matter which road you choose to drive in Bighorn National Forest, you’ll enjoy Wyoming’s most diverse landscape, one of forests, grasslands and alpine meadows; mountains and canyons; lakes and ponds; rivers and creeks. With surroundings so pristine and so breathtaking, you’ll understand why Loucks thought this region was the perfect place to found a town.


This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 edition of AAA World.

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