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writer HeatherMundt and son in Yellowstone National Park
Writer Heather Mundt and her son explore Yellowstone National Park. Photo courtesy Heather Mundt

Old West Meets Family Adventure in Cody, Wyoming

The eastern gateway of Yellowstone National Park is the perfect basecamp for fun

For many families road trips mean a journey to national parks. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the world’s first one, Yellowstone National Park—President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law on March 1, 1872—making it a particularly coveted destination for summer travelers. Although mid-June flooding shut down the park for several days—destroying roads, bridges, and homes, and evacuating some 10,000 visitors, Cody’s eastern entrance to the park (located 52 miles west of town) reopened for visitors. (See details on the park below.) Founded in 1896 by Colonel William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who was awed by the area’s viability and proximity to the national park, the town is the ideal headquarters for both historic and outdoor treasures. With access to hiking both in the national park and Shoshone National Forest, rafting, and more, there’s plenty for families to experience in the area. Here are some highlights for a fun family adventure in Cody, Wyoming as you begin contemplating spring and summer travel plans.

Enjoy Dinner, Music, and a Rodeo

It’s almost a requirement to eat a chuckwagon dinner, listen to country and western music, and see a rodeo in any Old West town in America. And Cody makes it easy to do all three in one night, starting with dinner and a show at The Cody Cattle Company. As both a picky eater and lukewarm-at-best lover of country or western music, I genuinely enjoyed our evening here. Not only did I love the family-style dinner, particularly the mac and cheese, but even the Triple C Cowboys band and the electric guitar of Ryan Martin entertained this skeptic and her kids.

After the show, there’s time to walk or drive 0.4 miles to The Cody Nite Rodeo, the world’s longest-running rodeo (since 1938), featuring two hours of cowboys, cowgirls, bullfighters, and wild-west fun. Buy tickets for the show only ($10-$20), the Daily Double for dinner and show ($19-$43), or the Trifecta Ticket ($30-$65) for all three in one evening.

Experience the Buffalo Bill Center of the West

As its website advertises, “Five Museums, One Wild West,” the center comprises five museums under one roof: Buffalo Bill, Plains Indian, Cody Firearms, Draper Natural History, and Whitney Western Art Museums. I especially loved the first two museums, seeing costumes and props from Cody’s Wild West Shows (including some from Annie Oakley) and learning Cody had become an advocate for women’s and Native American rights. And the displays in the Plains Indian Museum made you feel like you were actually walking through the plains. One of my favorite museums of all time! Open daily from May-Sept. 15, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. ($22 adult, $15 youth ages 6-17). Admission is good for two consecutive days.

See the Buffalo Bill Dam & Visitor Center

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and National Civil Engineering Landmark, the dam was the tallest one in the world when completed in 1910. Walk across for views of the Shoshone River and the Buffalo Bill Reservoir. Then head to the visitor center, which includes a film about the Buffalo Bill Dam, as well as exhibits detailing dam construction, local wildlife, geography, farming, and more. Open May-Sept., Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-6 p.m., weekends 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Take a Trolley Tour

A good place to orient yourself once you arrive in Cody, visitors can travel 100 years in only one hour on this 22-mile tour of town. Learn about Buffalo Bill, see important landmarks and attractions, and get a sense of must-see spots. Start at the historic Irma Hotel (or the Buffalo Bill Center of the West), the 1902 Victorian hotel named for one of Cody’s daughters. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this iconic building on Sheridan Avenue has hosted royalty, politicians, and celebrities. It features 69 rooms, including Buffalo Bill’s private suite, and a dining room displaying the cherry-wood bar Queen Victoria gifted him when the hotel was being built. Each night, a “gunfight” occurs outside of the hotel (free). Trolley tours are available daily mid-May through September, 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., plus 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. during the peak season ($28 adult, $16 youth).

Travel to a Japanese Internment Camp

One of 10 internment camps used between 1942 and 1945, the Heart Mountain WWII Japanese American Confinement Site is worth the 15-minute drive northeast of Cody. Featuring a museum, original camp structures, a walking trail, and more, begin at the museum to watch a film, see photographs and artifacts, and view interactive exhibits like a re-creation of an actual room where families lived. Learn about the Japanese and Japanese Americans who were confined here during WWII, a heartening journey of resilience during a dark period of American history. Open daily in spring and summer, Wed.-Sat. in winter and fall, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ($12 adult, $10 youth/senior, under 12 are free).

Visit Yellowstone National Park

The power of nature is on display in this harbinger of preservation – now even more than ever in the wake of summer flooding, rockslides, and mudslides. Yellowstone is home to a collection of stunning geologic wonders, nearly 400 species of wildlife, more than 1,000 species of vegetation, and numerous impactful historic sites, making it a 2.2+ million acre classroom. As of the end of the summer 2022, the North (Gardiner) and Northeast (Cooke City) entrances are still closed to visitor vehicles, however the south loop—accessed from the East (Cody), West (West Yellowstone), and South (Grand Teton/Jackson) entrances—is open, as are all hotels along the south loop.

For the most updated information, the National Park Service has set up a flood recovery page. Visit the page for planning, and to watch a video of portions of the flood.

Walk through Old Trail Town

Set on the original site where in 1895, Buffalo Bill laid out the original town site of Cody, Wyoming, this is one of coolest tourist destinations I’ve ever visited. Comprising a “street” lined with 27 historic buildings, as well as a cemetery featuring Jeremiah Johnston’s grave, visitors can check out Butch Cassidy’s Hole in the Wall Cabin, a buffalo hunter’s cabin, a post office, a store, and more. Open daily May 15-Sept. 30, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. ($10 adult, $5 youth ages 6-12, free kids 5 and under).

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