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Good Ol’ West

Cowboys, open ranges and U.S. history are on display in scenic Carbon County all through the year.


The wide open spaces and friendly folks of the American West still exist, tucked away between two rugged mountain ranges, in the sparsely-populated Carbon County, Wyoming. Rodeos, cowboy poetry contests, historical sites, museums, a dinosaur graveyard, scenic drives, camping, hiking, fishing, mountain biking, golfing, skiing, snowmobiling, rivers and natural hot springs—this four-season destination has something for everyone.

The county takes its name from its extensive coal deposits, which later fueled locomotives of the Union Pacific Railroad. The area was traversed by many well-known Native American tribes, including the Shoshone, Cheyenne and Lakota (Sioux). Trappers and traders came in search of beaver pelts that were transformed into top hats worn by European aristocracy. The granite mountains also attracted Western notables like Kit Carson, “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Butch Cassidy, whose train-robbing exploits became fodder for Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Pioneers in covered wagons passed through Wyoming on their way to the rich farmland of Oregon and gold fields of California, and many liked what they saw.

“Almost all of the major overland trails—the Oregon Trail, the Cherokee Trail—went through Wyoming because there were relatively easy passes through the [Rocky] mountains,” explains “Cowboy” Bill Wadsworth, who first settled in Carbon County in the 1950’s and is an expert on the area. “And, some of those people who were heading west looked around and said, ‘We don’t have to go any further. We’ve found what we were looking for.’ ”

“It’s just a gorgeous county, full of natural wonders and very representative of the history of the Old West,” says Wadsworth. “We get a lot of people from overseas, and almost to an individual they think it’s great. The open range just befuddles them; they remark that they’ve never seen so much space. You live here, it’s maybe [30 kilometers] to the nearest town and your closest neighbor might be [25 kilometers] away.”

Today’s Carbon County retains its Old West heritage, exemplified by the many rodeos that take place during the summer. One of the biggest, featuring real-life cowboys competing in five different events like bronc riding, is the Upper North Platte Ranch Rodeo. It takes place in Encampment in late July, as part of the Working Ranch Cowboy Association circuit. Contestants must prove that they are “working cowboys” through payroll documents, explains the rodeo’s chair Nick Wamsley of the Silver Spur Ranches, one of the largest commercial cattle operations in the United States, with a heritage dating back to the 1800’s.

“There are cash prizes for the top three teams, as well as for the top horse and top hand [cowboy],” says Wamsley.  If you win one of these rodeos, it qualifies you to compete for the world title in Amarillo [Texas].”

Although it gets quite cold in the winter, Carbon County is an all-season destination, says Elizabeth Hunt, executive director of the Rawlins-Carbon County Chamber of Commerce.

“In the winter, we have skiing and snowmobiling in the mountains; the springtime brings fabulous trout fishing and beautiful wildflowers; the summer offers so many activities—rodeos, hiking, golf, concerts, barbecues, our rivers and hot springs; and the fall is hunting season and, of course, the beautiful fall foliage,” says Hunt.

“A lot of our visitors are attracted by our history. When you drive up over a bluff, see the beautiful vistas and wide open spaces and think back about the pioneers, you wonder how they ever got across this area. A lot of international visitors, in particular, are amazed at how big it is.”
Wide open spaces, sparse population—about 16,000 residents—and an enduring commitment to the values of the Old West are all part of Carbon County’s appeal, says Wadsworth.

“Sure we have traffic jams, spring and fall, when we’re running 300 heads of cattle down the highway,” he says. “We don’t do everything on horses. But when you have to get out and round up the cows, that just won’t work on a four-wheeler. Many of the practices of the Old West are still the best way to do things. We go out of our way to hang on to the old ways of living—help your neighbors and don’t get in anybody’s face.”

Carbon County is a five-hour drive from Denver, Colorado, which is easily accessible by air from the East and West Coasts. Six hours further, you reach Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872 as America’s first national park and home to geothermal features that includes the famous Old Faithful geyser. Carbon County has a wide range of accommodation options, including historic hotels with Old West decor, charming bed-and-breakfasts and convenient chain motels. Lodging rates average around $130, approximately Rs. 8,500, a night during summer and about $100, approximately Rs. 6,500, in all other seasons.


Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.