A place of big skies and sprawling meadows, of Badlands and snow-capped peaks, of rolling prairies and forests ... welcome to America’s Wild West.
As the sun strikes the snow-capped tiara of the Teton Range, a rustic wooden barn in a field of sage encapsulates the spirit of the Old West: pioneering fortitude amid an awe-inspiring wilderness.
Located south of Yellowstone’s bubbling geothermal wonders, the sawtooth peaks and glacial valleys of the Tetons – a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains that stretch from Canada to New Mexico – are home to elk, bear, moose, bison and the elusive grey wolf, reintroduced into the area in 1995 in one of the country’s great conservation success stories.
From giant saguaro cacti to tumbleweeds, Arizona was the inspiration for Hollywood’s romantic version of the Wild West, with its cowboys and Indians, outlaws and sheriffs, rodeos and cattle drives, mining camps and ghost towns.
Walk in the footsteps of legendary characters such as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in Tombstone, the ‘town too tough to die’; visit the graveyard at Boot Hill, watch a re-enactment of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, ride a stagecoach, tour an underground mine, or enjoy “good whiskey and tolerable water” at the bawdy Crystal Palace Saloon.
The Badlands are nature’s art project, its pinnacles, buttes, spires and canyons sculpted by wind and erosion, painted by the epochs and illuminated by the sun. Although called Mako Sica, or ‘land bad’ by the Oglala Lakota people, this lunar landscape and the surrounding prairie grasslands provided a rich hunting ground, with enormous herds of bison, bighorn sheep, antelope and deer.
The parched soil also preserves one of the world’s greatest fossil beds of ancient mammals, dating back 30 million years, easily explored as part of a 50km scenic loop drive through the heart of the national park.
With its open plains, vast ranges and forest trails, Montana’s Big Sky Country offers keen horseriders the opportunity to unleash their inner cowboy, participating in age-old traditions such as cattle drives, trail riding, chuckwagon cookouts and rodeo activities on authentic working ranches.
The Wild West adventure continues in the state’s natural and historic treasures, including the rugged mountains and mirrored lakes of Glacier National Park, and the site of General Custer and the 7th Cavalry’s bloody battle against Lakota and Cheyenne warriors at Little Bighorn Battlefield.
The dramatic canyons and mesas of Monument Valley, which straddle the border of Arizona, may very well be the single most iconic landscape of the Wild West. The real-life hideout of outlaws such as Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, this vast and beautiful site is the heart of the Navajo Nation, and can be explored on horseback tours with its traditional owners.
For many visitors to the region, their first impression of the Wild West is the city of Denver, where urban sophistication meets cow town. Beyond Denver, however, lie more than 60 peaks topping 3,657m, places of breathtaking beauty and abundant wildlife. But this is also a human landscape, peppered with settlements reflecting a rich history of gold mining, railroading and ranching.
While some of these towns have endured, others became ghost towns, shadowy echoes of a raucous and lawless past when Western mythologies were forged by promises of riches and freedom on the trail – embodied by the ultimate symbol of the West, the cowboy.
The fourth-least populated state in the USA is defined by its rolling grass prairies and dramatic badlands, a challenging landscape for those brave enough to tackle its extremes.
Originally the homeland of Dakota and Mandan people, its vast tracts were settled by European immigrants, ‘homesteaders’ who toiled to create a rich agricultural heritage.
To the west of the state, the badlands of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park protect huge herds of bison and wild horses, and is named after the president whose ethos of conservation was shaped by time spent on a North Dakota ranch. “I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota,” he once said.
“I do believe it is a fortune to any man to come here,” said Old West frontiersman Davy Crockett in reference to Texas. “There is a world of country here to settle.” America’s second-largest state is where the fascinating cowboy tradition in the USA began, as Spain pushed north of the Rio Grande to expand their cattle holdings.
This was the new frontier; conditions were harsh, primitive, best suited to open-range grazing, and ripe for entrepreneurial spirits to thrive and expand. Hardy Longhorn cattle thrived here; in fact by 1860, four million roamed wild on the Texas plains. Traditions forged in those frontier days continue today, with ranching still a vital part of the Texan economy.
Words: Julie Miller