What do you do when the start of your Yellowstone camping trip is derailed by flash floods a week before departure? First, you panic. Of course. Then, you regain composure and conjure a whirlwind two-day Hail Mary in Cody, Wyoming.
The closest urban centre to the east entrance of Yellowstone, Cody is hardly an unknown entity. Named after the famed Buffalo Bill, who was instrumental in its establishment, Cody is a tourist destination in its own right. It’s not Yellowstone awesome but there’s plenty to keep you entertained for a couple of days.
I knew of Cody thanks to my first trip to Yellowstone over a quarter century ago. With plans to explore the Black Hills after Yellowstone, Cody was a natural first stop on our trek eastward. If you’re at all fascinated with the Old West and cowboy culture, adding Cody to any Yellowstone trip is recommended.
For us, the availability of camping accommodations, on short notice, at the nearby Buffalo Bill State Park made Cody the only viable alternative to our disrupted plans short of staying home and leaving two days later. Though the disappointment of a shortened Yellowstone stay lingered, Cody proved an enjoyable substitute. Certainly, better than staying home.
So, without further ado, here’s a recap of what we did in Cody, Wyoming on relatively short notice.
The Town? City? of Cody, Wyoming
Is it a town or is it a city? I have no idea. In some ways, it feels like it’s a bit of both. With an official population of just over 10,000, it’s gotta be more “big town” than “small city.”
Whatever your take on the matter, Cody is an interesting mixture of nostalgic and modern. The main downtown strip proudly tips its Stetson to the past with decorative, brick storefronts that are home to saloons, steakhouses, and proprietors of all things Western. It’s a charming blend of early twentieth century and Old West mythos.
Move outside the downtown core, though, and you’ll snap back to the present with Walmart superstores and retail strips of big box outlets and grocery stores. Not terribly surprising considering Cody is both a gateway town to Yellowstone National Park as well as the seat of government for Park County, Wyoming. And, oh boy, do those grocery stores get busy heading into the July 4th long weekend!
I wish we’d had more time to explore the old downtown. Perhaps if we’d stayed within city limits that could have happened, though our schedule was pretty packed regardless. Nonetheless, what we did see was not without charm.
Eating in Cody, Wyoming
With two plus weeks of camping, and campground food, ahead of us, hitting up a couple local restaurants felt like the right thing to do. We tried two spots: lunch at Annie’s Soda Saloon and dinner at Bubba’s Bar-B-Que Restaurant.
Located in a century old, stone corner building that was originally a jewelry and drug store, Annie’s is a landmark in downtown Cody. Famed for its old-fashioned ice cream sodas, as soon as I read about the place, I knew we had to try it.
Annie’s tin ceiling, bar stools, and aged wood décor embrace Cody’s old west roots while offering modern, lite lunch fare. It’s a fun little spot, but popular, so you’d better be quick to grab a table once one frees up.
We each enjoyed an ice cream soda along with a custom grilled cheese sandwich. Both the sodas and sandwiches come in a variety of flavours. There are also homemade soups, salads, paninis, and omelets.
The ice cream sodas, or as I call them, floats, come in many fascinating flavour combinations. I chose the Cowboy Ricky, a mixture of lime pop (sorry, soda) and cherry ice cream. Quite tasty … and tangy.
The sandwich, essentially a grilled cheese with ham, was rather pedestrian, to be honest. It wasn’t bad, just not exciting in any fashion. And I will forever be underwhelmed by the American tradition of potato chips as a side. It was lunch, so I won’t begrudge it too much, but the beverage was undoubtedly the star of the meal.
For supper we sidled up to Bubba’s Bar-B-Que Restaurant prior to our evening at the Cody Rodeo. I know Wyoming isn’t a hotbed for BBQ prowess, but it nonetheless felt like a more authentic place to eat this famed American meat product than anyplace in Canada. Besides, we were going to a rodeo, and this too felt like the right thing to do.
Now, I don’t know if Bubba’s is the quintessential BBQ joint or just another knockoff capitalizing on Food Network induced fads. My experience with genuine BBQ is rather limited. The pulled pork we make at home in a crock pot, while yummy, would surely make a Southerner cringe.
That said, Bubba’s was a damn tasty meal. The meat was so succulent it felt like I was eating animal candy. Sure, our reservation was kind of ignored for fifteen minutes before we were finally offered a table, but once seated the wait staff was second to none for kindliness. I ain’t no connoisseur of protein, but that was a good meal, I’ll tell ya what.
Cody Nite Rodeo and Cody Stampede
Cody is the self-proclaimed rodeo capital of the world. It’s hard to counter their claim considering they host a NIGHTLY rodeo from June through August. Add in the Cody Stampede each July long weekend and, well, it’s a compelling argument. The Calgary Stampede may be The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth but its only ten days long. Ten long, gloriously debaucherous days … but just ten.
The irony that we’d purposely planned our trip away from Calgary during Stampede was not lost on me as we settled into our metal grandstand seats. And while both the Cody Nite Rodeo and Cody Stampede are small compared to my hometown’s event, it was absolutely a rodeo with the requisite bronc busting, bull riding, and barrel racing.
What set the Cody Stampede apart was the balls-to-the-wall “AMERICA … USA! USA!” that was on full display. Even as a neighbouring Canadian, living in the West, no less, the exuberant national pride Americans love to showcase still catches me off guard sometimes.
The rodeo started with a fifteen-minute ode to America extravaganza. It began with a video memorializing both Pearl Harbor and 9/11 accompanied by an excruciatingly patriotic country song.
Being July of 2022, this was followed by a lone rider flying a Ukraine flag around the infield because, and I quote, “an attack on freedom anywhere is an attack on freedom everywhere”.
Next, a representative from each of the five armed service branches road around with their flags. A ginormous United States of America flag was then unfurled. Another USA flag was paraded around on horseback. Seven pretty ladies on seven steeds rode seven Wyoming flags around.
Turning to modern day horsepower, an assortment of police officers where driven around on an oversized pickup truck sporting a black and white Stars and Stripes with both a blue stripe and red stripe on it. This was in honour of all First Responders (one first responder group was the focal point each night of the four-day Stampede).
Finally, the American national anthem was played as three more ladies on horses road around the infield each with a flag emblazoned with “God Bless America.” As a foreigner, I felt sheepish just being there. Like I had inadvertently stumbled upon some sacred ritual I had no right to witness. An interesting experience, to say the least.
As for the rodeo, it was as advertised. It wasn’t a steady parade of high-ranking rodeo stars, but the show was exactly what I’ve come to expect from the few rodeos I’ve attended. Fun enough, but a bit corny and sometimes a little boring. The announcer never stops talking and the speaker volume was turned up all the way to a Spinal Tap approved eleven.
The rodeo lasted two hours. Unlike Calgary’s Stampede, there was no midway, agricultural exhibition, chuckwagons, or evening show. There were fireworks, though.
Upon entry to the grounds, you’re greeted by a handful of sponsor tents, souvenir stands, a snack shack, and an ice cream shop. There was an old bull you could sit on for $10/picture. Some porta potties and bathroom, of course. Oh, and an army recruitment tent in case the pre-rodeo show awoke something patriotic inside of you.
Views from the grandstand were okay, varying by event. Some moments are blocked by posts holding up the roof. And the sun will blast your eyes the first while until it descends below the hills to the west. Much of the roping events happen in the west side of the infield, so seats on that side are perhaps better than where we ended up.
I’ll never be a huge rodeo fan. Not out of some principle, I just find it repetitive and dull after a while. Aside from the bull-riding, obviously. But it was enjoyable for a night that came about because our original plans were ruined. Your mileage may vary.
Buffalo Bill Center of the West
By far, the biggest draw to Cody is the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. This massive museum, which is actually five separate museums under one roof, covers a healthy chunk of land in the west end of the city.
The five museums housed inside are as follows: Buffalo Bill Museum, Plains Indian Museum, Cody Firearms Museum, Draper Natural History Museum, and Whitney Western Art Museum.
At the very least, it will take you a full day to peruse all five museums. In reality, you’ll probably want a couple of days if this stuff really interests you. Short of time, we had only a couple of hours one afternoon and therefore had to make some hard decisions on which of the museums we’d tour.
Being from Alberta, we are quite familiar with the “Plains Indians” and have near identical museums in our own backyard, so we skipped that one. Art is a tough sell to teens, so that too was scratched. This left us with three museums to enjoy in our allotted pre-rodeo time.
The gun museum was unsettling and yet curious. Gun culture is loathsome, but the history of guns is surprisingly fascinating. This is especially true of all the quirky experimental models built in the 1800s and very early 1900s. Folks tried everything imaginable to make the perfect weapon. Some are downright comical.
So, while the whole idea of a gun museum is a bit morbid, and the excitement some locals hold for the concept, unnerving, it was admittedly fascinating.
The Natural History Museum, like the Plains Indians Museum, was very familiar to us. Wyoming and Southern Alberta aren’t all that different. That’s not to say you shouldn’t visit. If you’re from other parts of the continent, this museum offers an interesting peek into the flora and fauna of the Great Plains. We enjoyed ourselves. We just hurried through it more so than some of the other guests.
The Buffalo Bill Museum is your typical Old West slash pioneer museum with a twist. The typical Conestoga wagon, sod house, and horse/ranch civilization displays are all here. As the modern world continues to advance, such throwbacks to a simpler, but harder, time becomes ever more intriguing.
What sets this museum apart is, well, Buffalo Bill himself and his famed Wild West Show. It’s hard to comprehend just how huge Buffalo Bill and his traveling show was in the late nineteenth century. He and a massive entourage of performers (as many as 1200!), animals, and support staff literally traveled the globe showcasing a romanticized version of life in the Wild West of North America. It’s mindboggling, really.
It was while making our way through this museum that I realized we hadn’t allotted enough time to fully experience this place. It’s a fascinating museum, and if you’re coming from afar, you’ll absolutely want to investigate all five museums so plan accordingly.
Aside from the main museums, the Center of the West has a huge gift shop, art on sale in the lobby area, a fundraising car lottery, full cafeteria, and a snack counter. Outside there’s a small playground and First Nations’ tipis on display. Parking is free and the Center offers live events such as tours and chuckwagon dinners.
Oh, and the main entry door sports the following sign … “those with exposed firearms, please report to the security desk.” We were not in Kansas Canada anymore.
Heart Mountain Interpretive Center
If you enjoy history-based museums, I recommend the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. Located twenty miles north-northeast of Cody, Heart Mountain was a Japanese internment camp during WWII.
Ten such sites were built across the United States, imprisoning 120,000 people of Japanese ethnicity. Two-thirds were American citizens. Heart Mountain would be “home” for 14,000 Japanese for three years.
Most of the internment camp is long gone. A lone original barrack remains on site. There’s an old watchtower still standing as is the boiler house chimney and former hospital complex. A memorial to the victims and survivors of Heart Mountain overlooks the grounds. These can all be accessed via a walking trail from the interpretive center or via car.
The Heart Mountain Interpretive Center is the centerpiece of the museum. Inside are many informative displays and life-sized dioramas depicting life at the internment camp. It’s a sobering experience (not one Canadians should be smug about … we did this too) and an arresting contrast to the Pearl Harbor video you watch at the rodeo.
Buffalo Bill Dam
The Buffalo Bill Dam isn’t a primary tourist attraction. It doesn’t have the draw of, say, Hoover Dam, but if you’re in Cody it’s well worth a visit. Located ten minutes west of town, you’ll pass it on your way to Yellowstone anyway, so why not stop in for a look into the abyss and a tour of the visitor center?
We happened to be camping in Buffalo Bill State Park at the western end of the reservoir formed by this dam. I’ll bet you can’t guess its name? Yup. Buffalo Bill Reservoir. William F. Cody is kind of a big deal around these parts.
The visitor center offers gift shop essentials like books, maps, and such. Educational displays on the building of the dam fill the remainder of the building.
You can walk onto the dam and peer over its side which is also a fun, if harrowing, experience. The flash floods that disrupted our camping trip and sent us to Cody in the first place had resulted in a very full reservoir and accompanying torrent of water moving through the dam.
Parking is found approximately 350 m southwest of the visitor center. It’s an easy walk, albeit on hot tarmac. If you’re not up for the stroll, a golf cart shuttle ferries guests back and forth.
That sums up our short, almost spontaneous visit to Cody, Wyoming. If you’re in the Yellowstone region, maybe check it out. And if Mother Nature upends your national park plans … definitely check it out.