Under the radar USA: Cheyenne, Wyoming, gateway to the parks

Outdoor enthusiasts flock to Wyoming’s Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks for geothermal features, rugged mountains, and abundant wildlife. Yellowstone teems with a vibrant ecosystem packed with predatory species (bears, wolves, and mountain lions) and their prey (bison, elk, and pronghorn), and the Teton Range is one of North America’s premier climbing destinations.

However, as more and more Americans ‘Find Their Park,’ Yellowstone and Grand Teton swell with hundreds of thousands of tourists stretching for an Old Faithful selfie or perfecting an alpine pose. For an alternative, consider the southeastern corner of Wyoming – Cheyenne to Curt Gowdy State Park, Vedauwoo Recreation Area, and the Snowy Range Scenic Byway hold their own with their National Park brethren to the north.

Buildings and a plaza glow in the warmth of a sunset, with a train-shaped sign and oversized cowboy-boot sculpture in Cheyenne, Wyoming © Dave Parfitt / Lonely PlanetHistoric Cheyenne Depot at the plaza in Cheyenne, Wyoming © Dave Parfitt / Lonely Planet

Cheyenne – ‘Magic City of the Plains’ – seemingly sprang into existence overnight in 1867 when railroad tracks stretched into town. Two years later, Wyoming’s territorial governor named this quintessential end-of-the-line Wild West town the temporary capital. And 30 years after that, Cheyenne Frontier Days debuted as area cowboys competed for the honor of ‘top hand.’ Thousands flooded into Cheyenne via the railroad to see cowpunchers in the 1897 grand western show. The winning cowboy won $25, but the purse for the prize-winning horse was $100. Today, Cheyenne’s cowboy and locomotive history is prominently displayed with the former Union Pacific Depot now an historic landmark and site of a visitor center, microbrewery, and museum.

Cycling through a sportsman’s paradise

Thirty minutes west of Cheyenne is Curt Gowdy State Park, 11,000 acres of reservoirs, groves, trails and mountainous foothills. Named for the longtime sportscaster, outdoorsman, and Wyoming native, the park’s visitor center maintains an exhibit to the ‘American Sportsman’, Curt Gowdy. While families can camp, hike, fish, and more, Curt Gowdy State Park is known for its award-winning mountain bike trails. There are more than 35 miles of trails in the park ranging from beginner trails that loop around the reservoir to challenging, advanced routes through gnarly rock gardens.

The visitor center at Curt Gowdy State Park has a facade of stacked stone with columns made from single stripped trees in Cheyenne, Wyoming © Dave Parfitt / Lonely PlanetVisitor Center for Curt Gowdy State Park, Cheyenne, Wyoming © Dave Parfitt / Lonely Planet

Todd Thibodeau of Wyoming State Parks worked with the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) to develop the trail system in the early 2000’s. He drew from his ski patroller experience in Breckenridge, Colorado, where trails vary from green circles to black diamond slopes. Gowdy was one of the first mountain bike parks to adopt this ski-area model, and the IMBA was excited to work on the empty canvas – Gowdy’s 1,000 acres of land.

Of the nearly 30 trails, El Alto is Thibodeau’s favorite. ‘El Alto is an advanced trail with massive granite features,’ Thibodeau says, ‘the trail takes you to the high point of the park with a spectacular overlook.’

The technical trail may be Thibodeau’s favorite, but he admits having a soft spot for Sammy’s Slide – named for his dog, who loved running up and down the rocks.

Climbing the cracks at Vedauwoo

Families looking for more isolation should continue west towards Laramie. Vedauwoo Recreation Area in the Medicine Bow National Forest sits at 8,000ft, with granite outcrops among the pines. Members of the Arapaho Tribe considered the region sacred, filled with playful spirits that scampered among the rocks. Now, Vedauwoo is known for its rock climbing and camping opportunities among the 10 sq miles of weathered Sherman granite.

The rock formations at Vedauwoo Recreation Area look like stacks of rounded stones, with the cracks between them making for excellent climbing opportunities in Cheyenne, Wyoming © Dave Parfitt / Lonely PlanetRock formations in Vedauwoo Recreation Area © Dave Parfitt / Lonely Planet

Embracing an ‘adventure at your own risk’ mentality, visitors can explore miles of trails in Vedauwoo – from the relatively easy 3+ mile Turtle Rock Trail to bushwhacking through primitive paths in the backcountry. Camping at Vedauwoo is free and dispersed throughout the recreation area (except where posted as forbidden) allowing for private and secluded experiences reminiscent of Butch Cassidy’s outlaw hideouts.

While Vedauwoo offers plenty of hiking opportunity, the real draw is rock climbing – specifically crack climbing. Mabel Jones’ family grew up scrambling amongst the rocks and Jones says her daughter brags she was rock climbing since she could walk. A Wyoming State Parks employee, Jones says Beehive Buttress was one of her family’s favorite areas for climbing.

‘That area has a variety of skill levels and is very safe to take kids and their friends,’ Jones says, ‘and always a destination we take new visitors.’

Granite walls streaked with water stains, cracks and climbing routes attract rock climbers from around the world. Fall Wall, Glen Dome, and the Nautilus are only a few of the rock formations that have made Vedauwoo Wyoming’s top destination for climbers of all levels.

In addition to hiking, climbing, and scrambling among the boulders, families can ride horses, bike, fish, and camp. With Vedauwoo’s close proximity to the University of Wyoming in Laramie, visitors can strike up conversations with groups of college students from all over.

Once near Vedauwoo, visit Ames Monument nearby. Built in the late 1800s, the 60ft granite pyramid towers over the Wyoming plains near the highpoint of the transcontinental railroad. The monument commemorates the contributions of Oakes and Oliver Ames, financiers and businessmen who funded the Union Pacific portion of the line, and celebrates the railroad’s influence in this part of the country. Cheyenne, Laramie, and most of the towns along the current Interstate-80 corridor were originally railroad towns settled by workers in tent camps as the Union Pacific streaked its way across the southern portion of the state. Continue west from Ames Monument on the Snowy Range Bywayacross the Medicine Bow Mountain Range, one of America’s scenic drives filled with panoramic vistas and opportunities for hiking, camping, and recreation.

The words 'Cheyenne', 'Wyoming' and 'The Plains Hotel' surround a rectangular stained glass ceiling, with blue and red panes of glass and a circle motif © Dave Parfitt / Lonely PlanetLobby ceiling of the Plains Hotel built in 1911 in Cheyenne, Wyoming © Dave Parfitt / Lonely Planet

Make a trip to Cheyenne happen

In November 2018, Cheyenne opens an $18 million airline terminal making travel to the area easier. Alternatively, Denver’s larger international airport is a mere 90 minutes to the south of Cheyenne. Once in the city, stay like a cattle baron in the Nagle-Warren Mansion B&B, step back to 1911 at the Historic Plains Hotel, or indulge in some western luxury at Little America Hotel Cheyenne. For families heading to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks as well as Devils Tower National Monument, Cheyenne makes a great starting or stopping point for a grand Wyoming circle tour.

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