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3 authentic Wild West mountain towns to visit this summer

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Peering up at the snow-laced peaks hemming in the mountain town of Crested Butte, Colorado, it’s hard to believe more than 1,400 people once crowded into this long narrow valley 8,885 feet up in the Colorado Rockies in the mid-1800s, weathering the winter in tents and shanties.

Settlers in this area survived a series of booms and busts that left the town barely hanging on by the time the first ski run was built in the early 1960s.

The tenacious spirit of those early pioneers is encapsulated in a local nickname: the Town That Wouldn’t Die. It also describes the spirit enlivening many of the West’s former pioneer towns. These spots have reinvented themselves as outdoor destinations that particularly shine in summer, showing travelers that going back in time just might be one of the best ways to get away from it all.

Here are three towns that preserve and celebrate their history, and truly turn up the fun and entertainment in summer to give visitors a true Wild West experience.

For a Wild West immersion: Cody, Wyoming


Shake off its modern trappings and Cody, Wyoming, looks like the Wild West town of every cowboy shoot-’em-up.

That’s no accident. In fact, Cody was actually founded by showman “Buffalo Bill” Cody in the late 19th century to establish a real-life destination for visitors to experience the horsemanship and saloon-door duels they’d seen in his Wild West shows.

There was money to be made marketing the mythology of the wide open range, he knew, but it had to feel authentic, and Cody still does.

Frontier fans make a beeline for the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. The center houses the Buffalo Bill Museum, which delves into the fascinating life story of William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody who started riding for the Pony Express at the age of 14 and went on to worldwide fame. The center is also the site of several other worthwhile collections including the Plains Indian Museum, the Whitney Western Art Museum and the Cody Firearms Museum. 

Next stop on the cowboy odyssey is Old Trail Town, a sprawling assortment of 26 historic buildings rescued and assembled from surrounding ghost towns. Stroll the wooden boardwalks and duck into the rough, plank-sided shops, offices and public buildings, and you’ll feel like you should be decked out in a prairie bonnet or leather vest.

Don’t miss the saloon and Hole-in-the-Wall cabin featured in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” or the grave of legendary mountain man Jeremiah Johnson in the cemetery. By Western Hands, both store and historic gallery, preserves and displays artisan leatherwork, carved wooden furniture and other traditional handicrafts of the plains and prairie.

Twenty minutes northeast of town, Heart Mountain WWII Japanese American Confinement Site, a national historic landmark, provides a deeply sobering immersion into the lives of the families imprisoned in 10 such camps across the West during World War II.

The east entrance of Yellowstone National Park is just 52 miles from town via the scenic Buffalo Bill Highway, making Cody a good home base for those wishing to avoid the summer lines that form at the park’s crowded south entrance.

Related: How to plan an epic road trip through Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks

On the way, stop at the awe-inspiring Buffalo Bill Dam, the tallest concrete dam in the world at the time it was built, where you’ll find yet another statue of the cowboy impresario. Closer to the park, the Bill Cody Guest Ranch offers trail rides and you can also stay overnight for a deeper horsemanship experience.

Dining and entertainment

You don’t have to go far to see one of Cody’s requisite gunfights. Six nights a week one takes place at 6 p.m. in front of the Irma Hotel, named for Buffalo Bill’s daughter and still maintaining the glamour of its heyday. Pop inside after for a prime rib dinner at the hotel’s bar and grill. You’ll find more frontier fun at the Cody Cattle Company, where dinner includes beef brisket (plus other dishes) and a nightly live music show.

But the show not to miss is The Cody Stampede Rodeo, with its nightly performances featuring events like roping, bull riding, barrel racing and a calf scramble for the kids. There’s also the Dan Miller Cowboy Music Review, which presents hoedown-style country tunes at the Cody Theater.

Where to stay

To really keep up the cowboy theme, stay at one of Cody’s numerous historic dude ranches, such as Rimrock Ranch or the Bill Cody Ranch. Be aware, however, that most dude ranches require a week’s stay and book up early.

Just up the street from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, the Holiday Inn Cody at Buffalo Bill Village will please IHG members with an on-site restaurant, free parking and an airport shuttle. Hilton’s family- and pet-friendly Hampton Inn & Suites Cody features spacious rooms, free breakfast and plenty of self-parking for road-trippers. The Best Western Premier Ivy Inn & Suites offers an indoor pool and hot tub, the on-site 8th Street Restaurant and a cocktail bar.

For shopping and foodie finds: Placerville, California


The original name of this 19th-century Sierra Nevada gold rush town was Hangtown, which likely tells you all you need to know about its rough-and-tumble history.

Explore on a self-guided historic walking tour, starting at the 50-foot-tall iron Bell Tower, erected to alert local volunteer firefighters after a series of fires in 1856 all but destroyed the town. Key stops include three of California’s oldest businesses still in operation: the Placerville News Company, now a quirky general store and art gallery; Randolph Jewelers; and 150-year-old Placerville Hardware, the oldest hardware store west of the Mississippi River. Here you’ll find classic general store supplies as well as outdoor gear and even gold panning equipment for those eager to look for nuggets.

Shoppers shouldn’t miss Dedrick’s Cheese and its unusual varieties; Winterhill Olive Oil, which showcases local production; and Hangtown Leathers, housed in the landmark Pearson Soda Works.

Outdoor enthusiasts find plenty to do in Placerville’s uncrowded surrounds in summer, where rafters and kayakers come to paddle the South Fork of the American River, while swimmers and fishermen seek out the swimming holes along the Consumnes River. Campers and hikers find plenty of options in the El Dorado National Forest east of Placerville, including the El Dorado Trail greenway, which runs more than 35 miles, with the section closest to Placerville paved for easy biking.

Families and history buffs will be thrilled to find out that Gold Bug Park outside of town is one of the only historic gold mines that still allows visitors into the mine tunnels. Exhibits also include a blacksmith’s shop with live demonstrations.

Vineyards and apple orchards spread across the hills north of Placerville, an area known as Apple Hill. Starting in August, Larsen Apple Barn, High Hill Ranch and Delfino Farm celebrate the apple harvest with apple picking, hayrides and baked goods, including apple fritters and doughnuts. Kids will love El Dorado Orchards for the train rides, which circle a duck pond. Popular stops along the Apple Hill Wine Trail are David Gerard, Lava Cap, Boeger and Narrow Gate, which farms biodynamically.

Dining and entertainment

The food scene in Placerville ranges from retro favorites like Sweetie Pie’s, located in a pink Victorian house and known for four-egg omelettes and olallieberry pancakes, to numerous new cafes, restaurants and artisanal purveyors that have opened in recent years helmed by chefs moving up from Sacramento and San Francisco.

Try Hog Wild BBQ, specializing in slow-cooked brisket and pulled pork accompanied by traditional sides; Rocker Oysterfellers for, yes, oysters, and southern specialties; and V’s Paradise for modern American bistro fare.

Enchanted Forest Dining Experience is like no other restaurant, with its fairy-themed decor and dishes like the Irish Gold Miner’s Pasty Pie sprinkled with actual gold dust. The outside patio at Smith Flat House is the place to go on summer evenings for live music, while its downstairs Cellar and Grill features the entrance to an actual gold mine and a bar where Mark Twain is rumored to have imbibed.

Where to stay

Loyalty options right in town are limited to the Best Western Plus Placerville Inn, which features a pool and basic breakfast, while IHG members will appreciate the Holiday Inn Express & Suites just 15 minutes west in El Dorado Hills for its larger pool and comfortable lobby.

The luxurious and romantic touches at Eden Vale Inn start as soon as you set eyes on the pond at the center of the property, which features a dock and rowboat ready to use. An outdoor fire pit welcomes you with s’more makings at the ready, while a lavish breakfast is delivered to your location of choice, whether that’s in your room, on your private deck or patio, or out by the pond surrounded by gardens.

For outdoor adventures: Crested Butte, Colorado


The hardy spirit of Crested Butte is reflected both in the eclectic businesses housed in the 18th-century clapboard buildings and in the spandex-clad mountain bikers and backpack-toting hikers kicking back in the historic town’s colorful cafes. It’s a destination where you can truly see the moxie of both ancient and modern mountain men and women merge.

To see why Crested Butte calls itself the Gateway to the Elk Mountains, start a visit by soaring more than 12,000 feet on the lift to Crested Butte Mountain Resort. From here you’ll have a view of the plethora of hiking and biking trails spiderwebbing out from town into the surrounding mountains.

The options for summer hiking are dizzyingly varied, but you can expect mind-opening views and glens carpeted with lupines, poppies and columbines pretty much everywhere you go. For an easy trek, hike to Judd Falls or stroll around Meridian Lake; those seeking the ultimate challenge can get up early to hike the 17-mile East Maroon Trail. High-altitude views are available without the climb by taking the Silver Queen chairlift up Mount Crested Butte and starting from there.

Related: Epic Passes on sale now for next year’s ski season

In addition to skiing, mountain biking is Crested Butte’s claim to fame, with cyclists the world over coming to earn bragging rights on the hair-raising trail over Pearl Pass to Aspen. But there are plenty of less challenging rides suitable for beginning and intermediate riders, too, including those in Evolution Bike Park at Crested Butte Mountain Resort. Speaking of the resort, the downhill ride from the top of the Red Lady Express chairlift is one long thrill. Those who want the assist of an e-bike will find them for rent — along with regular mountain bikes — at The Alpineer and Big Al’s Bicycle Heaven. While many of Crested Butte’s single-track trails are not open to e-bikes, they’re allowed on nearly all the forest service roads.

Or traverse the mountains on horseback instead with Fantasy Ranch Horseback Adventures, which offers a daylong signature ride over the 11,800-foot East Maroon Pass with a lunch stop at Copper Lake. And you’ll find good fishing in the East River close to Three Rivers Resort.

Dining and entertainment

Start your day at Camp 4 Coffee, which offers smoothies and frappes in addition to truly great cold brew, and end it with local craft beers in a historic space at the Eldo Brewery and Taproom.

Billing itself as a modern-day saloon, Public House does feel old-timey when bands strike up and two-steppers hit the dance floor. But with truffle fries, grain bowls and a burrata beet salad on the menu, modern Crested Butte is well represented as well.

Where to stay

Lodging in the village of Crested Butte is all about boutique hotels and quaint inns like the casual Old Town Inn, offering a substantive on-the-go breakfast, and casual, European-style Cristiana Guesthaus, with its family room-style lobby complete with games and  Swedish-style dry sauna. IHG members using points can stay in nearby Gunnison, 20 minutes away, where the new Holiday Inn Express & Suites features clean-lined rooms with a Danish modern flair. Free breakfast, an expansive heated indoor pool and pet-friendly rooms add to the appeal of this property.

Up on the mountain, the Grand Lodge at Crested Butte Resort offers surprisingly reasonable rates along with memorable mountain views, a restorative spa and an outdoor pool.