Having lived in several states in the west, and traveled extensively throughout all of the western states, I’ve found some of the best destinations for a Wild West vacation. Here are my top five:
1. Deadwood, South Dakota
Not only is the whole town of Deadwood on the National Historic Register, but it is the heart of the wild west. If you’ve seen the HBO television show, “Deadwood”, you’ll have an idea of what life was like in this town during the late 1800s. Deadwood is also set in the scenic Black Hills of South Dakota, offering many hiking trails, horseback riding, mountain biking, and rock climbing. In the winter, you can ski at either Terry Peak or Mystic Miner ski resorts.
The town of Deadwood has many famous characters from its past, including Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Wild Bill had a premonition, which he told his friends and fellow travelers, that Deadwood would be his last camp. Wild Bill was shot and killed while playing poker at the famous Saloon Number 10. Bill was holding a hand of a pair of eights and a pair of aces, all black. It is now known as the “Dead Man’s Hand.” You can watch reenactments of this at Saloon Number 10, and visit Bill’s grave at Mount Moriah Cemetery. Martha Jane Cannary Burke, better known as Calamity Jane, was a frontierswoman and an acquaintance of Wild Bill. It is said that she admired Bill to the point of obsession. After her death, four men who planned her funeral decided to play a posthumous joke on Wild Bill, and buried Jane next to Wild Bill Hickok in the Mount Moriah Cemetery. The cemetery is the burial place of many notable characters, as well as prostitutes, miners, prospectors, settlers and children. You can find more information on Wild Bill, as well as many fascinating historic artifacts, at the Adams Museum located at 54 Sherman Street.
Deadwood events during 2011, include Wild Bill Days from June 17 to 19th (music, demonstrations and more), Days of ’76 from July 26th to 30th (including one of the best U.S. rodeos), Kool Deadwood Nites from August 25 to 28th, Deadwood Jam on the weekend of September 16th and 17th, and more. For the full schedule of events, visit www.deadwood.org.
If your looking for a great place to eat, some of the best meals I have ever had, were eaten at the Deadwood Social Club. They offer excellent steaks, pasta and seafood and very good value for a higher end restaurant. They are located above Saloon Number 10 at 657 Main Street.
Accommodations? Definitely the Bullock Hotel. The hotel offers elegant historic ambiance, and may still be home to the hauntings of Deadwood’s first sheriff, Seth Bullock. They offer classic rooms through luxury jacuzzi suites, some overlooking Main Street. For rates and information, go to www.historicbullock.com.
2. Cripple Creek and Victor, Colorado
My favorite area in the country to take a trip back in time and experience the old and wild west, is located just southwest of Pikes Peak in Colorado. The town of Cripple Creek began when a cowboy and semi-alcoholic prospector, Bob Womack, discovered gold in 1891. The find turned the community into one of the richest gold camps in the world. Cripple Creek is now more widely known for its casinos, but the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mine is still open. The town of Victor is just a few miles away, and you won’t find casinos there. A trip to Victor is truly a trip back in time, as it still has the look of an 1890s mining town.
There is so much more to Cripple Creek than gambling. Hiking trails can be found throughout both Cripple Creek and Victor and the surrounding mountains, with horseback riding and mountain biking other popular activities. The best gold mine tour I have ever experienced (and I’ve been on quite a few), is the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine Tour. The tour will take you 1,000 feet underground where you can view gold veins in their natural state and find out about the evolution of gold mining from 1891 until the present. You can even take home a free piece of gold ore. Other attractions in Cripple Creek include the Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad, the Cripple Creek District Museum, and the Homestead House Museum (once a famous brothel). After learning about all of the famous characters that resided here in the wild west, you might want to visit Mt. Pisgah Cemetery. The famous madam, Pearl Devere, is buried here along with Dr. Susan Anderson (Doc Susie- the television show, “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” was based on her life) and many other notable characters. If you don’t want to visit the graves, the view from here of the surrounding mountains is spectacular. Have a fascination with ghosts and the paranormal? Read my article on the hauntings in Cripple Creek here: www.associatedcontent.com.
In Victor, you can visit the Lowell Thomas Museum, or just walk around town enjoying the uniquely built Victorian homes. A great historic walking tour can be found here: www.victorcolorado.com.
2011 events in the area include Donkey Derby Days on the weekend of June 25th and 26th, a fourth of July celebration, Cruise Above the Clouds on September 10th and 11th, and Gold Camp Christmas December 10th and 11th. For more event information, you can pull up a schedule by going to www.visitcripplecreek.com.
I have several favorite places that I like to stay when spending the night in the area. If you prefer quieter nightlife, you might want to stay in Victor at the Victor Hotel. This is a historic 1899 hotel, with a beautiful Victorian style lobby, and an authentic bird cage elevator. Rooms are available for as little as $50 in the off season. My favorite hotels in Cripple Creek include the Hotel St. Nicholas with a rooftop hot tub, and the Hospitality House. The Hospitality House is a former hospital turned hotel, with each distinctive room named for a room in the hospital (such as surgical, emergency, etc.) and decorated in Victorian style furnishings. The rates range from $48 for a double bedroom with bath down the hall to a double queen with private bath for $100.00. Another affordable option, is the Cripple Creek KOA. Pets are allowed, and rustic cabin rentals are only for about $50 a night. They offer an excellent pancake breakfast here, as well as bike rentals and an outdoor hot tub.
As far as restaurant choices, there aren’t any that I would be excited to recommend; however, Bronco Billy’s Cafe does offer an excellent breakfast at value prices. Ralf’s Break Room serves delicious pizza if you have a pizza craving. Other than that, there are quite a few casino restaurants and steakhouses with average food at average to below average prices. When staying at the KOA, I usually pick up something at the local market and grill it on the barbecue at camp. There are lots of great places to have a picnic as well.
This list would not be complete without Tombstone. Tombstone is known as “The Town Too Tough to Die”. When Ed Schiefflin first arrived in the area, he named his first silver claim “Tombstone”. Apparently, when he left his fort to prospect, his soldiers told him he’d find his tombstone rather than silver. Fortunately for Ed, this was not the case, and Tombstone became a boom-town soon after. The town became so violent, President Chester Arthur nearly declared martial law. Tombstone is a American Historical Landmark and one of America’s best examples of 1880 western heritage. It is also known for having several famous characters walk its streets, including Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp.
Tombstone activities include old west reenactments, several museums- the Bird Cage Theatre museum, Pioneer Home Museum, Rose Tree Inn Museum, and Tombstone Epitaph museum. A visit to Tombstone should also include a visit to famous Boothill cemetery. Tours are available via Tombstone Ghosts and Legends, and Friends of the Dead Spirits. You can even ride an old Stage Coach and take a narrated tour through town. Underground mine tours and jeep tours are also available.
Some of the events to be held in Tombstone in 2011 include the Tombstone Association of the Arts Open Show for Artists during the month of March, the Tombstone Rose Festival on April 1st and 2nd, Wyatt Earp Days May 28th through the 30th, a 4th of July celebration, and much more. Go to www.tombstoneweb.com for a listing of all events.
If your looking for a room, Larian Motel is clean and comfortable and offers rooms from $69.00. I’ve found its the best value in Tombstone.
The Crystal Palace Saloon and Restaurant has the best atmosphere, great burgers, live music and possibly the best food in town.
Tombstone is a destination that can’t be missed for those who love the old west.
4. Virginia City, Nevada
Virginia City has a fascinating history in addition to being the town where the television show, “Bonzana” was filmed. One of the reasons I love this town, is that my Great Grand Uncle “Father Jim” was a priest in the St. Mary’s in the Mountains Catholic Church. It is the oldest church in Nevada, and Father Jim married many Irish-Catholic couples there during the late 1800s. Mark Twain started his writing career here in Virginia City as a reporter. Of course you probably know that Virginia City is the site of yet another world famous gold and silver mining boom, but you may not know that it is also one of the top twelve “Distinctive Destinations” as awarded by the National Historic Trust for Historic Preservation. The town has authentic board sidewalks, many 19th century homes, historic churches, and old west saloons.
You’ll find many different museums to visit in Virginia City. Some of the museums you’ll find include the Nevada State Firemen’s Museum, the Fourth Ward School Museum, MacKay Mansion Museum, V.C. Radio Museum, and The Way it Was Museum. If you like trains, you’ll enjoy taking the Virginia and Truckee Railroad through the Comstock Mining region. Visit the Pipers Opera House, where Buffalo Bill, President Grant, Al Jolson and Mark Twain all were guests. You might catch glimpse of a ghost, said to watch performances occasionally. Outdoor recreation includes camping, hiking, horseback riding, 4-wheeling, biking and more. Visits to the local cemetery are always interesting too.
Events held in Virginia City that you may not want to miss, are International Camel Races in September, the Outhouse Races, and Mountain Oyster Festival. A full listing can be found at www.visitvirginiacitynv.com.
The Sugarloaf Mountain Motel is the best motel for the money. Rooms are clean and comfortable and the owners make you feel like your at home. If you’d prefer something more historic, Gold Hill Hotel is comfortable, and also possibly haunted.
For the best food and fantastic service, go to the Palace Saloon & Restaurant. Breakfast there is especially amazing. If you like bloody Mary’s, this is the place to go.
5. Virginia City and Nevada City, Montana
By coincidence, another great destination is also named Virginia City. This Virginia City is in Montana, about 80 miles from West Yellowstone. Virginia City and Nevada City are neighbors, and both worth visiting. In 1864, Virginia City had a population of 10,000 and was the largest town in the inland northwest. The current population is only a little more than a hundred according to the latest survey. It is another gold mining town, with over $30,000,000 of gold yielded between 1863 and 1866. Nevada City was also part of this boom, though now it is a ghost town.
There is a lot to see in both towns. The Nevada City Music Hall is home to the largest public collection of automated music machines in North America. They have an incredible collection of music machines, many I had never seen or heard of before. Nevada City is also home to an Old Town, created with a collection of historic buildings. There is now a total of 90 historic buildings on display. The town even has an historic narrow gauge railroad. Virginia City is home to 100 historic buildings complete with furnishings and historic artifacts. Here you can ride the Stage Coach and even watch live theatre in the evening. If you’d prefer, you can hang out in one of the authentic old saloons to have a drink and people watch.
Many events are held in Nevada City from May through October. For a detailed listing, go to www.virginiacitymt.com.
The best accommodations to be had is at the Nevada City Motel or the Fairweather Inn in Virginia City. The Star Bakery Restaurant has all types of food and is a family style restaurant with excellent values.
With these five great destinations, you can’t go wrong in planning your Wild West vacation.