Cheyenne is one of the country’s least centrally located state capitals. In Wyoming’s southeast corner, it’s 430 miles from my home in the state’s northwest corner.
Cheyenne has an airport, but few commercial flights land there. It’s easiest to fly to Denver and drive two hours north on Interstate 25. Except, from the interstates – both I-25 and I-80 pass through Cheyenne – the city looks like Any Town, USA. As you speed toward it at 75 or 80 mph (depending on the direction you’re coming from), billboards advertise hotel and restaurant chains, gas stations and truck stops. There’s little incentive to stop. I drove past it for 10 years.
When I finally exited the interstate and visited downtown – with a walkable, 23-block commercial core lined mostly with historic, two-story brick buildings – I fell in love with its rough-edged folksiness. Pawnshops, an indoor archery range and tattoo parlors exist alongside the Bedder Sleep mattress shop and Guyz and Dollz Styling Salon. Craft cocktails arrived several years ago, but many bars remain of the sort that don’t have windows. In Cheyenne, the Wild West hasn’t been entirely tamed. This is especially true during the annual Cheyenne Frontier Days (July 19-28 this year), which was founded in 1897 and today is one of the largest rodeos in the world.
At just over 6,000 feet of elevation in the High Plains, Cheyenne’s natural beauty is almost as subtle as its weather is unpredictable. During the most recent four days I was there, it hailed on five occasions. All of these storms were super localized – I swear one was limited to the parking lot of the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputer Center – and none lasted more than five minutes. Within 15 minutes of the end of each, the sky was blue.
While Cheyenne’s population swells to about 300,000 during Frontier Days, its usual population is about 63,000 – or 67,000 if you include nearby F.E. Warren Air Force Base. It is Wyoming’s largest city. Every time I visit, I think it has the potential to be one of the fastest-growing cities in the country if a high-speed train connected it to Colorado’s increasingly crowded and expensive Front Range.
But I don’t know that Cheyenne wants this. Yes, every time I visit, there are a few fancy new things, but the city doesn’t seem to be striving for rapid change, which is just another reason it stands out from other towns in the West.
Garden, park, arcadeVisit the state’s only tropical rainforest at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens in Lions Park. In the gardens’ 50-foot-tall, domed Grand Conservatory, a 34-foot-tall palm tree happily lives alongside orange crownshaft palms, a torch ginger tree, coffee plants and a strawberry guava tree, among several dozen types of plants and flowers that love heat and humidity. A corner of the conservatory is home to a “fairy garden” kids often crowd around.
Outside are trees from places like Sweden and Tibet that have a climate similar to Cheyenne’s, a labyrinth, Discovery Pond and wetlands. Sixth-graders from seven schools created the wetland’s interpretive signage and the Wyoming Game & Fish Department stocked Discovery Pond with fish.
Leaving the botanic gardens to explore the rest of Lions Park, you can rent a paddleboat on Sloan Lake, hike the flat, 1-mile trail around the lake or see 37 species of trees on the Lions Park Tree Walk. The tree walk – maps are available at the park’s forestry office – is particularly impressive if you saw the sign in the conservatory saying that in 1876 Cheyenne had only 12 trees. (That’s 12 trees, not 12 species of trees.)
At Flippers Family Arcade, it’s difficult to hear the signature electrical hum emitted by the six electromechanical pinball machines near the front window over the chatter from the attached bar and the beeps, buzzes and soundtracks of about 75 modern arcade games. Still, these grande dames – there were no computing systems or microchips in games when these were manufactured in the 1960s – are worth a token; when was the last time a spinning score reel tracked your progress? Modern pinballs include the Addams Family, which is the best-selling pinball game of all time, and the rare Cirqus Voltaire, of which there were only 2,704 manufactured. Pac-Man Smash is a four-player air hockey game with several dozen pucks in play. Because it’s set in a high-traffic area in Flippers’s main game room, it is reasonable to consider a trip to the bar before playing: The house specialty is a Flip Fusion, a blue raspberry, cherry, or Coke-flavored ICEE with a shot of vodka, whiskey or rum added.
A super computer and CapitolMicrosoft has a cloud data-storage facility in Cheyenne, and you can’t get anywhere near it. Just across the street, though, is the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC), home to one of the world’s fastest supercomputers and offers free guided tours. This computer is named “Cheyenne” and can perform more than 3 billion calculations per second.
In 2018, the most recent year for which there are rankings, Cheyenne was the 36th-fastest supercomputer in the world as determined by Top500, which ranks them. The NWSC visitor center is interactive and includes exhibits on some of the atmospheric research modeling Cheyenne does. Make an advance reservation for a one-hour tour of NWSC’s 150,000-square foot, LEED Gold-certified facility. You must be 14 to do a guided tour, which includes a look inside the 5.34-petaflop supercomputer and the plant that monitors and controls the electrical, plumbing and cooling systems that keep it running.
Lawmakers and residents complained about the $300 million price tag of restoring the 131-year-old Wyoming Capitol until the finished product was revealed on Wyoming Statehood Day, July 10. Now it’s all congratulations and celebration that Wyoming’s might be the most gorgeous state Capitol in the country. Every piece of wood was taken off, stripped, sanded, restained and reinstalled. Tens of thousands of linear feet of carved moldings and trompe l’oeil art was re-created using the same colors and patterns as artisans did in 1888. (The original tromp l’oeil work was painted over in 1932.) Stained glass windows and skylights were uncovered and more than 400 reproductions of lighting fixtures were installed. Considering that 2019 is the 150th anniversary of Wyoming granting women the right to vote, perhaps the most important part of the three-year restoration is the reclamation of the grand two-story, balconied room in which the Wyoming Constitution was debated. In this room, lawmakers decided that Wyoming would not accept statehood without keeping suffrage.
Bison Ranch, Metropolitan DowntownCharmingly hokey, the family-run Terry Bison Ranch lets you feed bison out of your hand – they have black tongues that are surprisingly dexterous – or ride a horse, ATV or train near a herd of the shaggy bovids. Its Senator’s Steakhouse serves fresh bison burgers and short ribs. (If you can’t eat bison after recently meeting some, the menu also has beef, chicken, pork, seafood, pasta and salads on it.) Turkeys and peacocks roam the grounds. Laying hens come and go from a repurposed school bus and the ranch’s trading post sells fresh eggs. Exotic animals like ostriches, camels, alpacas and llamas are in fenced pastures and corrals. A skywalk extends over pens in which goats, mini horses and pigs live.
Cheyenne native Sam Galeotos didn’t win his bid for Wyoming governor in 2018, but he’s winning with his new restaurant, the Metropolitan Downtown. Galeotos, whose family ran the city’s Blue Bird café from 1928 until it closed in 1978, renovated four long-vacant buildings on the National Register of Historic Places to create an art deco-inspired space where accents and chandeliers are brass and walls are either painted matte black or are original red brick. To make the new interiors as authentically vintage as possible, Sam’s wife, Stacey, who did most of the interior design, spent time studying period photos at the Wyoming State Archives, which is a short walk from the Met. The menu by chef Juan Coronado, a veteran of some of Denver’s top restaurants, would be familiar in any foodie town, but it’s a first for Cheyenne. To keep it a little cowboy, alongside a grilled jumbo carrot, goat cheese eggplant agnolotti and yuzu kabayaki (topped butterfish), are three types of steak (filet, bone-in rib eye and prime rib) and an Angus beef burger.
Old structures, modern eatsOriginally built in 1904, Paramount Ballroom was formerly a hotel, theater, another theater, a millinery and a movie theater. Today, it and the adjacent Paramount Café are Cheyenne’s first true dose of hipster. The ballroom has a pressed-tin ceiling and serves small plates like deviled eggs with Calabrian chile oil and microgreens, and a three-cheese mac and cheese.
All are served at a 12-seat communal table made from the old marquee sign, as well as mid-century modern tables and a marble-topped bar. Craft cocktails use spirits from Wyoming distilleries, housemade juices and syrups; some beers are from Wyoming breweries, including Melvin Brewing and Black Tooth Brewing. The café has a curated selection of sweets from local bakeries and baristas that know the difference between a flat white and a cortado.
In a trolley car that is rumored to have driven the capital’s streets between 1894 and 1912, Luxury Diner serves the city’s heartiest and homiest breakfast and lunch. The trolley car was first turned into a diner at its present location in 1926; it became the Luxury Diner in 1964. The sausage gravy recipe has been the same for several decades – you can get a cup of it as a side to top the chicken fried steak but it’s best atop the cafe’s homemade biscuits. Linda’s legendary Frisbee-sized cinnamon rolls, which are smothered in frosting, require a steak knife to cut. Save room for the four-layer carrot cake.
Mid-century modernThe inventory at Mid Mod Etc., the state’s biggest showroom dedicated to mid-century modern style, is constantly changing. Late last spring, its 5,500 square feet included an Adrian Pearsall Chaise Wave Rocker, an Expand-O-Matic telescoping 9-foot-long dining table from the Saginaw Furniture Co., sets of insulated Westinghouse gold-and-black tumblers and a mint-condition 1959 Phillips stereo console. Stock also features clothing, hats and art from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s – and a few gems from the ’80s. I bought six Burger King “Return of the Jedi” and “The Empire Strikes Back” drinking glasses that I remembered from my childhood (and which my mom got rid of long ago). “Cheyenne is in a learning curve for mid-century modern,” says Jerry Bayne, who co-founded the showroom with wife, Teresa Miller, in 2015, when their personal collection outgrew their home. “Locals are starting to get into it, but most of our customers still come from northern Colorado.”
“We show things that we think should be seen in Cheyenne but otherwise wouldn’t get shown,” Camellia El-Antably says about Clay Paper Scissors Gallery & Studio, which she founded with Mark Vinich, a longtime art teacher in the county’s public school system, in 2009. In 2014, after a major renovation that removed lead paint and asbestos to reveal the original brick walls, the gallery moved into its current space, which once was a saloon, a radio station, a dry goods store, a real estate office and a doctor’s office. The gallery’s shows are themed, change almost monthly and are usually of contemporary work in a wide variety of media. Last spring’s Garden Show, which is an annual show, included work in felt, clay, oil paint, pastels and watercolors. Artists are often, but not exclusively, from Wyoming.
Cowboy boots and cowgirlsThe rotating tin galloping-pony sign and the 8-foot-tall bright red rooftop letters spelling out “The Wrangler” will likely draw you into the Wrangler Western Store, which has been supplying local and visiting cowboys and cowgirls with everything they need since 1943. Its 3,000 pairs of cowboy boots, 1,500 hats and more than 20 brands of jeans might keep you there for a couple of hours.
After the impressive rows and rows of boots, some made from exotic leathers like stingray, caiman belly, ostrich and snake, check out the hat room (even if you have no plans to buy one). When the Wrangler expanded into the building adjacent to its original storefront, it enclosed the alleyway separating the two buildings. That alley is today’s hat room. If you are shopping for a hat and want to fit in with locals, consider a hand-woven, double lacquered straw cowboy hat from American Hat Co. A Wrangler staffer will custom shape the brim to fit your style.
A big part of the fun of rummaging through the mostly Wyoming-made miscellany at Cowgirls of the West Emporium is knowing that anything you buy supports the Cowgirls of the West Museum, which is free and immediately next door. A turquoise necklace, leather purse, and the “Cowgirl Up in the Kitchen” book of recipes published by the museum are nice souvenirs, but even better are the pioneering Western women you learn about. Photos and dense signs in the museum tell the stories of Cheyenne’s first female bronc rider (Bertha Kapernik Blancett); Florence Hughes Randolph, who competed in rodeo and was a fashion model in New York City in the 1920s and ’30s; Awbonnie (Tookanka) Stuart, a Shoshone woman who married a white man and ranched in Montana’s Paradise Valley in the late 1800s; Ah Yuen, the first Chinese woman to buy property in Wyoming; and Pearl Hart, who committed the West’s last stagecoach robbery (in 1899).
Telephones in every roomThe Plains Hotel opened as Cheyenne’s first luxury establishment – and the world’s first to have telephones in every room – in 1911. Its glory days are long past, but locals and history-loving guests still enjoy it. Its current popularity with guests has much to do with the substance-over-style investments like new heating, plumbing and mattresses that owner Astrid, who goes by one name, has made since buying the Plains at auction in 2015.
Everyone appreciates the two-story lobby’s solid marble front desk, mahogany detailing, intricate black-and-white mosaic tile floor and colorful, coffered stained glass ceiling, all of which are original. A couple of “cowboy high style” pieces of furniture – think burled wood, rich leather, and bright Chimayo textiles – in the lobby are reproductions, but most were made by Thomas Molesworth, the Cody, Wyoming, artisan who popularized the style in the 1930s and ’40s. And yes, you can sit in them.
Bed-and-breakfastPresidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft stayed at the Nagle Warren Mansion in the early 20th century, when it was the private residence of Sen. Francis E. Warren, R-Wyoming. The Victorian mansion was built in 1888 by Cheyenne businessman Erasmus Nagle; the sandstone blocks used were rejected pieces from the construction of the Capitol building, which was being built at the same time.
The mansion has been a 12-suite bed-and-breakfast since 1997. Little of today’s furniture and accessories are original to the house; the exceptions are a stunning 10-foot-tall pier mirror in a second-floor hallway and two oil paintings by Charles Christian Eisele in the parlor. Original finishes remain, though – cut-crystal doorknobs, cast brass fireplaces, stained glass windows, bronze decorative medallions and, in ground-floor public spaces, carved leather ceilings and parquet floors.
Outdoor recreationSoutheastern Wyoming doesn’t have the national parks that draw millions of visitors to the northwestern corner of the state – Yellowstone and Grand Teton – but it has Curt Gowdy State Park and Vedauwoo Recreation Area. Curt Gowdy is equidistant from Cheyenne and Laramie and has three reservoirs stocked with fish; a two-mile, 28-target archery course; and a network of almost 40 miles of trails recognized as “epic” by the International Mountain Biking Association. These trails, especially the four-mile Stone Temple Pilot Loop, also make for nice hiking.
Vedauwoo (VEE-da-voo) is several miles from Curt Gowdy via scenic Happy Jack Road and was formerly visited by Arapahoe men on vision quests. Today, rock climbers from across the country test themselves on more than 800 technical climbing routes up the area’s outcrops of 1.4-million-year-old Sherman granite. Want to keep your feet on the ground? The three-mile Turtle Rock loop completely circles its eponymous rock. Between Cheyenne and Vedauwoo off I-80, Ames Monument is worth a 20-minute detour. This 60-foot pyramid, completed in 1882 to honor Union Pacific Railroad financiers (and brothers) Oliver and Oakes Ames, is noted architect Henry Hobson Richardson’s only work west of the Mississippi. The monument marks what was once the highest point of the Union Pacific. Since the rerouting of the tracks in 1901, it stands alone, surrounded by open plains.
Trolley tourIf you’re lucky, you’ll get Dewey Martin as your guide on the 90-minute trolley tour that passes through the Rainsford, Downtown, Capitol North and Lakeview Historic Districts before going out to Frontier Park and the Old West Museum. Martin carries two guns – “they’re real, but unloaded,” he said – on a leather holster around his waist, and is armed with more stories about the gunmen, outlaws, business executives, robbers and rustlers that have called Cheyenne home than the tour has time for. The Greek Revival, Shingle Style and Romanesque homes, as well as the former Wyoming Governor’s Mansion in Rainsford, are interesting, but not so much so as the story of Tom Horn, the last man legally hanged in the state (in 1904), or of Steve McQueen’s 1973 wedding to Ali MacGraw at the city’s Holliday Park.