One thing is watching cowboys in the movies; another is visiting the Old West towns where they lived and died, and getting a sense of the history that shaped them.
In frontier towns such as Deadwood, South Dakota, and Dodge City, Kansas, fortunes were won, lives were lost and the reputations of legends such as Wyatt Earp and Calamity Jane were made.
Here are 8 US destinations that still retain their Wild West flavour. Saddle up and ride out to pan for gold, watch gunslingers in action, or experience life on the open range.
1. Deadwood, South Dakota
The 1870s gold-rush town where Wild Bill Hickok died preserves much of its Old West history. There’s even a replica of the chair in which Hickok was shot in the Saloon #10 bar. Pay your respects to the famous outlaw at the Mount Moriah Cemetery where he’s buried alongside fellow sharpshooter Calamity Jane.
During the summer you can watch reenactments of some of its former residents’ gun battles. Alternatively, visit the Broken Boot Gold Mine to pan for gold or the Days of ’76 Museum to admire vintage stagecoaches. One thing’s for sure: it’s all a lot more charming now than in the boomtown days.
2. Dodge City, Kansas
The cowtown once patrolled by Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday has cleaned up its act since the days when it was known as the wildest and wickedest place in America. Back then it was bursting with saloons, brothels and outlaws attracted by the wealth generated by the huge numbers of cattle driven through here.
See how things once looked at the Boot Hill Museum, where you can stroll down a replica of the city’s main street from 1876 and knock back a beer at the notorious Long Branch Saloon. Or discover a slice of the past by hopping on the Historic Trolley Tour or walking the Dodge City Trail of Fame. The summer Dodge City Days festival features a longhorn cattle drive through the streets, plus rodeoing events.
3. Tombstone, Arizona
Thirty seconds was all it took to immortalise Tombstone. That’s how long the legendary Gunfight at the OK Corral – which pitted the Earp brothers (Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt) and Doc Holliday against outlaw gang The Cowboys – lasted in 1881. Today you can witness daily recreations of the infamous shootout on the exact spot it took place.
There are more gunfight shows to witness at the Old Tombstone Western Theme Park, while over at notorious 1880s nightspot the Bird Cage Theater, 140 bullet holes in the walls also bear testament to this former silver-mining town’s lawless past.
4. Oatman, Arizona
On the other side of the state, this resurrected ghost town holds on to a living, breathing vestige of its Old West past in the form of the wild donkeys that roam its streets. They’re the descendants of the pack animals that worked its once-booming gold mines and give a distinct olde world feel to the place.
This continues with the wooden sidewalks, gunfight recreations and Oatman Jail and Museum, where you can see the old sheriff’s office and cells.
5. Bandera, Texas
In the 19th century, Bandera sat at the southern end of the Great Western Cattle Trail, along which ranchers would move their livestock to markets in the east and north. Today, in the 21st century, the so-called ‘Cowboy Capital of the World’ continues to keep its ranching traditions alive.
In Bandera, you can saddle up for some modern-day cowboying at a working ranch, watch blacksmiths in action or visit a honky-tonk bar. A host of annual festivals also keep the frontier flame burning. But there’s plenty of history to discover, too: check out the Wild West exhibits at the Frontier Times Museum or visit the original jail and courthouse.
6. Cody, Wyoming
This Old West town was co-founded by an Old West hero: Buffalo Bill Cody, whose Wild West shows helped popularise rodeoing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today every summer Cody earns its reputation as ‘Rodeo Capital of the World’ by hosting the two-month-long Nite Rodeo.
You can learn about Cody’s famous founder at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, which houses five museums under one roof, or Old Trail Town, which features replicas of historic buildings, including a hideout used by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
7. Virginia City, Nevada
Virginia City exploded into existence in 1859 with the discovery of the Comstock Lode – the first major deposit of silver ore unearthed in the US. The find sent ripples through money markets and helped build modern-day San Francisco. Tens of thousands descended on the city, including the young Mark Twain, who worked here as a reporter.
Now all the silver, gold and prospectors are long gone but the town retains a strong Wild West feel with wooden sidewalks, tours of the old Chollar Mine and Comstock Gold Mill, steam train rides on the V&T railway, 17 museums and the Ponderosa Saloon, which features an 1860s walk-in bank vault and an abandoned mine shaft beneath its bar.
8. Silverton, Colorado
Located 2,800m up in a pass in the San Juan Mountains, Silverton was another silver-mining boomtown. Its glory days were in the 1870s and 1880s when it gained infamy for its notorious Blair Street red-light district. But mining continued here until 1992, existing alongside the burgeoning Wild West tourism industry.
Check out the One Hundred Gold Mine tour, which takes you on an electric train journey into the heart of the mountain, and the nearby ghost town of Animas Forks. Don’t miss a steam train ride on the vertiginous Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad 45 miles down to Durango, where you’ll find more Old West heritage.