Best of the West
- Written by True West Editors
- Published September 30, 2002
Like the miners of old, we Westerners sometimes hoard our secret little gems, those favorite out-of-the-way treasures. You know, the best place to get an exotic beer, the meanest damn saloons, the wildest place to ride a bucking bronc, the best of the best in the West, bar none. Until now. For the first time ever, the staff of True West shares its best-kept secrets. We also give a nod to you, our readers. The Readers’ Poll reports your choices for the West’s best. Read it and reap!
Best Wild West Town
It may be cosmopolitan, but Austin’s Sixth Street is as wild as the Chisholm, Oregon and Santa Fe Trails combined. Tattoo parlors and every kind of waterin’ hole speak volumes. This is the former hangout of Sam Houston, Rip Ford and LBJ. Sure, you’re not likely to trip over coke spoons as often as patrons did in the ’70s, but any town that propelled the careers of Jerry Jeff Walker, Ann Richards and Molly Ivins—and likely taught the Bush girls how to drink—wins hands down.
Readers’ Choice: Dodge City, Kansas
Best Roadside Attraction
Wall, South Dakota
It’s tacky, it’s cheesy, it’s funnel cake and Black Hills gold, and it’s HUGE. If you’ve driven across the Northern Plains, you’ve undoubtedly been annoyed by the zillion billboards pollutin’ the Western landscape, but have you dug Wall Drug? The free ice water was a big deal in the days before A/C, but Wall Drug is still worth a stop if only to say: “That’s right, I am a tourist and proud of it.”
Readers’ Choice: Old Tucson Studios, Tucson, Arizona
Best Mining Town
Virginia City, Nevada
We’ll let Mark Twain pitch this one: “The atmosphere was so rarefied, on account of the great altitude, that one’s blood lay near the surface always and the scratch of a pin was a disaster worth worrying about, for the chances were that a grievous erysipelas would ensue. But to offset this, the thin atmosphere seemed to carry healing to gunshot wounds, and therefore, to simply shoot your adversary through both lungs was a thing not likely to afford you any permanent satisfaction, for he would be nearly certain to be around looking for you within the month, and not with an opera glass, either.”
Readers’ Choice: Silverton, Colorado
Best Native American Museum
Field Museum of Natural History
You can easily spend a couple of days viewing the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, but to see everything at Chicago’s Field Museum, you’ll need a week. The museum’s exhibits on Native Americans run from 200 B.C. to modern times. When you finish with the Indians move on to the dinosaurs.
Big Nose Kate’s
Want a sip of your favorite libation? This saloon in historic Tombstone offers good liquor, good food and live entertainment, not to mention the ghost of the Swamper living in the mineshaft below the bar. Drink your whiskey and try to ignore the cowboys shooting it out on Allen Street in front of the bar. If you bring your horse, you can tie it to the outside hitching post, then sashay through the swinging doors like Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp or Johnny Ringo. Just remember to check your six-guns at the door.
Readers’ Choice (Tie): Long Branch, Dodge City, Kansas. And #10, Deadwood, South Dakota
Best Ghost Town
Now a California State Historic Park, Bodie is one of the best-preserved ghost towns in the West. Between 1877 and 1882, upwards of 10,000 people transformed this patch of California desert on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains into a bustling town. All hoped to strike it rich, whether in the gold mines or in the service and fleecing enterprises (in its heyday, Bodie supported about 65 saloons) that strived to relieve the miners of their money.
Readers’ Choice: Bannock, Montana
Best Historically Accurate Saloon
Crystal Palace Saloon
If you really want to taste the Old West, visit the Crystal Palace Saloon. It’s virtually unchanged since it opened in 1879—except now when you’ve had your fill of beer, you can use the “indoor plumbing.” In its day, this saloon was a sight to see, filled with the finest crystal stemware and china and serving meals fit for a gourmet. The Crystal Palace location was a regular haunt of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and many other notable figures. Stop by and enjoy a cold brew, good whiskey and tolerable water.
Readers’ Choice: Crystal Palace, Tombstone, Arizona
Cody Nite/Cody Stampede
Sure, the NFR is hot. So is Cheyenne Frontier Days, where you get to see the “best” competing for big money. But is this all rodeo has come to: big money? If what you’re looking for is a whole lot of cowboys, a whole lot of snot-blowin’ bulls and broncs doin’ an adrenaline dance, then Cody Nite is where you need to be. Every night, that’s right, every night June through August, they rodeo in Cody. Everyone who can rodeo rides here. There’s some prize money and even some trophy buckles to be won, but it’s the passion for rodeo that brings in the cowboys. So gather up your young ’uns and check out some good old-fashioned rodeo that’ll create memories to last a lifetime.
Readers’ Choice: Cheyenne Frontier Days, Cheyenne, Wyoming
Best Mountain Range
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Used as a backdrop for numerous Western movies (including Shane and The Big Sky), the spectacular, glacially carved Grand Teton and rest of the Teton Range—the youngest range in the Rocky Mountains—epitomize the American West. Standing 13,766 feet above sea level, the Grand is also a favorite mountaineering destination, whether for beginning climbers attempting the Exum Ridge or veterans tackling its north face.
Readers’ Choice: Rocky Mountains
Best Western Saloon To Get Smashed In
Norton’s Country Corner
This is no bar for a greenhorn. It’s a true Western bar full of working cowboys. Even the sheriff’s posse has been known to hang out here—off duty, of course. You’ll find lots of loud, live country-western music and come rodeo time, more cowboys covered with dust and mud than you could shake a stick at. Did we mention the ladies? Have a drink and meet your future ex-wife all in one trip. On occasion, a brawl or two has been known to break out, but it’s all in good fun. Just watch out for those sucker punches.
In importance to the creation of the United States as we know it today, no route matches the 2,170-mile Oregon Trail. Between 1843 and the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, nearly 400,000 people used some portion of the Oregon Trail as it bore the largest human migration in the history of the world.
Readers’ Choice: Santa Fe Trail
Autry Museum of Western Heritage
Los Angeles, California
Singing cowboy Gene Autry made some big money off his media investments, and he sank a bundle ($35 million) into the museum that bears his name. The facilities’ three wings feature some of the best artifacts and paintings in the land. In addition, the museum’s special shows are always first-rate.
Readers’ Choice: National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Best Place to See A Charlie Russell Painting
Charlie Russell Museum
Great Falls, Montana
Great Falls let many of its favorite son’s paintings slip off to Texas and other points South. A number of these Russell originals landed in the wonderful Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the splendid Gilchriese in Guthrie, Oklahoma. But if you want to see and feel the essence of the legend himself, you have to visit the Charlie Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana. What it lacks in famous works by the renowned cowboy artist, it more than makes up for in authentic displays and the actual cabin where he painted so many of his masterpieces. The cabin is a shrine and a must-see by anyone who worships the Original Cowboy Artist.
Readers’ Choice: Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
Best Bed & Breakfast
Casa de Patron
Lincoln, New Mexico
When it comes to pristine Old West towns, Lincoln, New Mexico stands tall. Once at the epicenter of the Lincoln County War and some of the fiercest fighting of the late 1870s, Lincoln is now a sleepy village. No gas stations or video stores blight the town’s lone street. Add the West’s most celebrated outlaw to this laid-back serenity and you have a mandatory destination. Yes, Billy the Kid escaped from the local jail (still standing) and was held prisoner in the home of Juan Patron. That home has been made into a wonderful bed & breakfast. Staying in the house where Billy slept is an amazing experience. Owners and hosts, Jerry and Cleis Jordan, are great fun and their breakfasts are wonderful.
Best Place to Pan Gold
The obvious choice is anywhere along the motherload in central California, but if you’d like to spend some quality time with your friends and family, you can’t beat the Lynx Creek Recreation Area. Just South of Lynx Lake in the cool elevations of central Arizona, Lynx Creek offers a quiet retreat for prospectors of all ages. Dredges, sluice boxes, dry washers and high bankers are not allowed—only pans. We’ve never panned here without finding color.
Readers’ Choice: Hills Grove, California
Best Old West Re-Enactment
The lads in Tombstone put on a credible Gunfight at The O.K. Corral but they don’t use horses. Legendary local and one of the original Arizona re-enactors, Ben Traywick (who almost always portrayed Wyatt Earp), explains: “We tried it once during a dress rehearsal, and the two horses ran right through the bleachers. That was the last time we did that.” Well, up in Northfield, Minnesota, the James-Younger Gang Re-enactors have been recreating the Northfield Bank Raid since 1948, using—count ’em—eight horses. And, two of the re-enactors must fall off their horses on hard asphalt. Sometimes they do it four times a day. Our hats are way off. Good job, Boys.
Best Lost Mine
The Lost Dutchman
Somewhere in Arizona
This mine has been lost and found more times than John Wayne’s fanned a six-gun. Yet treasure tales don’t come better than this legend about gold that’s still guarded by the majestic Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix, Arizona. To these mysterious, inhospitable rocks, came conquistadors, Mexican gentry, fierce Apaches and prospectors, including a German emigrant named Jacob Waltz, for whom the mine is named. And they still come, lured by crafty clues, signs and formations said to point the way to treasure. Although the extrusive, igneous rock, from which most of the Superstition Range is composed, is not the best place to look for pay dirt, as long as gold fever burns in the mind of man, Waltz’s Lost Dutchman Mine will keep folks searching. Let’s hope it’s never found.
Readers’ Choice: The Lost Dutchman Mine
Best Cliff Dwelling
Mesa Verde National Park
Let’s face it, a dwelling that can be constructed without a trip to the local home improvement store deserves recognition. Cliff Palace, the gem of this national park’s prehistoric ruins, will humble anyone who’s ever tried to lay a brick. Archaeologists conclude the dwelling was constructed and inhabited by a few hundred Anasazi (Ancient Ones) during the 1200s and was abandoned by 1300. It’s possible other whites explored the ruins before Charlie Mason and his brother-in-law, Richard Wetherill, stumbled upon them in December 1888, but the Wetherill family brought the dwelling national attention and almost national ruin. The Wetherills and others collected and sold artifacts from the site before it became a national park in 1906.
Readers’ Choice: Mesa Verde
Best Placed to Get Hitched
Cave Creek, Arizona
Once the wedding vows are said, it’s time to party, and there’s no better place to party following a wedding than the Satisfied Frog. Crazy Ed, who owns the place, can even furnish a chapel. The cowboy way is to cut to the chase, and the best wedding chasers are at the Satisfied Frog.
Readers’ Choice: Reno, Nevada
Best Stage Ride
Once again, we have to agree with our readers. You might be asking, what makes for a great stage ride? Padded seats! Seriously, it’s pretty cool to ride in an authentic stagecoach pulled by a full team of horses through the streets of Tombstone and see places frequented by Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt Earp. This is something the whole family can enjoy.
Readers’ Choice: Tombstone, Arizona
Best Dude Ranch
Big Bar Guest Ranch
Clinton, British Columbia
Nestled in the rolling foothills of the Caribou Mountains, the Big Bar Guest Ranch features cattle drives, snowshoeing and relaxed evenings in a hot tub, marvelling at the brilliance of the northern lights. The Big Bar is famous for its home-cooked, ranch-style meals. If you are on a romantic getaway, you can opt for either a hilltop cabin far from everyone else, or an authentic tipi.
Best Working Dude Ranch
Most Western dude ranches got their start in the 1930s or later, but the roots of the 63 Ranch go deeper, dating from 1863 (hence the name). Sandra and Bud Cahill run the spread, and their family has been there since 1929. The whole place reeks of a Spin & Marty fantasy with log outbuildings and snow-covered Rocky Mountain peaks for a backdrop. Throw in the aroma of bacon and eggs, pancakes and hot coffee plus a good horse, and you’ve got yourself a dude-dream come true.
Best Train Ride
Durango & Silverton
Narrow Gage Railroad
Imagine yourself amid beautiful scenery, breathing fresh mountain air, while being rocked toward nirvana. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gage Railroad offers that experience with a three and one-half-hour trip from Durango to Silverton, Colorado. Need we say more?
Readers’ Choice: Verde Canyon Railroad, Clarkdale, Arizona
National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Once a year, Elko, Nevada, brings together the West’s best poets for a celebration of cowboy poetry. If you want to see the who’s who of Western poetry, this is the place to be.
Readers’ Choice: Festival of the West, Scottsdale, Arizona
Best Western Hotel
When it comes to a classic hotel in a dramatic setting, it’s hard to top the Copper Queen down Bisbee way, but on sheer Western pedigree, the Irma Hotel gets the nod. The brainchild of the West’s most famous showman, the Irma (named for Buffalo Bill’s daughter) is a classic Victorian beauty plopped down in the center of one of the West’s coziest towns, Cody (also named for Bill), Wyoming. We’ll let Cody (the scout) have the final say: the Irma is “just the sweetest hotel that ever was.”
Readers’ Choice: Copper Queen, Bisbee, Arizona
Best Western Spa
Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa
This renowned inn and spa, just north of Sonoma, sits in the heart of California’s wine country. The inn offers casitas with fireplaces and terraces, and its spa is fed with natural, 135-degree, thermal mineral water, which comes from 1,100 feet beneath the inn. As for refreshments, the dining room boasts over 400 “exceptional” wines, and the nearby Big 3 Cafe has been a favorite among locals for over 50 years.
Readers’ Choice: Glenwood Springs Spa, Glenwood Springs, Colorado
Best Trading Post Replica
Like Fort Union, Bent’s Old Fort and Fort Nisqually, Fort Vancouver was an important fur-trading center. Originally built in 1824-25, the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post was relocated closer to the Columbia River in 1829. In the late 1960s, the National Park Service began erecting eight replica buildings on their 1829 locations. The five-plus-acre Fort Vancouver replica has been designated a National Historic Site.
Best Western Waterfall
Twin Falls, Idaho
Created 14,500 years ago during the Bonneville Flood—one of the three largest known floods in the history of the world—Shoshone Falls stands 212 feet tall, 52 feet higher than Niagara Falls. Since the late 19th century, Shoshone Falls has been a major tourist attraction, especially during the early summer when the Snake River flows full with mountain snowmelt.
Best Lewis and Clark Memorial
On December 8, 1805,...
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