Buffalo is located in the northeastern part of Wyoming, in an area called the Powder River Basin. It lies at the junction of Interstates 25 and 90 and is midway between Yellowstone National Park and Mount Rushmore. If you take this scenic road trip, slow down and enjoy what historic Buffalo has to offer.
It has been a gathering place for several centuries, beginning with the nomadic Native American Plains Tribes that followed and depended upon the bison living here for their way of life. The hunted bison were used in their entirety for food, clothing, shelter, tools, fuel, and decoration.
Europeans began exploring the area in earnest after the Louisiana Purchase. Fur trappers, gold miners, and pioneers homesteading in the West followed in later years.
This westward expansion led to conflicts between the Native Americans and those of European descent. The U.S. military was sent west in response and built forts along the Bozeman Trail — a pioneer “highway” where many conflicts occurred.
One of the forts built along the Bozeman Trail, Fort McKinney, was built at the base of the Bighorn Mountains. The town that grew nearby provided everything the soldiers at the fort needed. In 1879, a hat was passed with potential town names.
“Buffalo” was drawn from the hat, not for the animal, but for the city in New York.
Buffalo became the first official town along the Bozeman Trail and grew into an agricultural center. The area saw a long-standing conflict, called the Johnson County War, between cattle barons and smaller ranch owners. Soldiers from Fort McKinney were dispatched to put an end to the standoff and Johnson County War at TA Ranch (now a guest ranch where you can still see the bullet holes in the barns, take horseback rides, or take guided hikes).
Today, Buffalo is a quaint and peaceful town of 4,600 residents. It offers visitors a glimpse into its historic past, a look at its agricultural roots, opportunities to admire outdoor art, and the chance to hike and drive through beautiful countryside.
Check Out Buffalo’s Downtown
You can’t miss the historic Occidental Hotel, originally built with logs in 1879. The beautiful lobby serves as a museum filled with historical photos and artifacts. Famous guests include Teddy Roosevelt, author Owen Wister, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Calamity Jane, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Rooms are appointed with some of the hotel’s original furnishings.
Restaurants and a saloon are on the hotel’s ground floor, all with entrances off the street. The Busy Bee Cafe serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a self-serve coffee and tea bar for unlimited refills and an old-fashioned soda fountain for sweet treats.
A must-see is the Occidental Saloon, where you can still see bullet holes in the tin ceiling and woodwork. Owen Wister watched rowdy cowboys, lawmen, and cattle barons in this bar and incorporated these personalities into his characters when he wrote The Virginian, published in 1902.
Next door, The Virginian is an upscale restaurant serving steaks, including buffalo steaks, prime rib, and seafood. This family-run restaurant serves homemade from scratch food and has attentive servers.
For a walking tour of the remainder of Main Street’s historic buildings, pick up or download a walking tour brochure from the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum.
Pro Tip: If you’re spending the night at the Occidental Hotel, you can request a room that your favorite famous guest stayed in. The hotel also has ADA-accessible rooms.
Visit The Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum
Named for local pharmacist Theodore James “Jim” Gatchell, the museum opened in 1957. It houses the impressive collection Mr. Gatchell amassed during his career. Much of what you’ll see were gifts he received from Plains Indian friends and colorful characters from the area. His drugstore, which opened in 1900, was part trading post, part pharmacy, it seems. Visitors can view priceless artifacts and learn the detailed history of the area (as opposed to the brief version above) through dioramas.
The collection includes fossils, a massive wolf mount, Native American beaded artifacts, a homesteader’s cabin, a sheepherder’s wagon, and a display on the Basque people who settled in Buffalo because of the sheep ranches. The story of the Basque radio hour, a long-running AM radio show, and traditional Basque clothing are featured.
While there, you can pick up additional brochures on area tours, including a natural history tour and a National Register of Historic Places tour.
Pro Tip: No photography is allowed in the museum. Plan to spend about two hours here. The museum is ADA-accessible.
Enjoy Buffalo’s Art
Take a look at Buffalo’s murals that cover entire walls of several downtown buildings. Sculptures portray a sheepherding dog and his flock in the town’s main square called Crazy Woman Square. Across from the Jim Gatchell Museum, an abstract bison is stationed outside the Bank of Buffalo.
Several art galleries and pottery studios are downtown, as well.
From June through September, Buffalo hosts an art walk downtown on the first Friday of the month from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Learn About Wool
Mountain Meadow Wool, on the outskirts of Buffalo, takes visitors from sheep to yarn. The tour begins with a video and continues with hands-on displays showing the transition from fleece to yarn to the finished product.
A balcony allows visitors to view the yarn-making process. You’ll see the process beginning with the giant fleece washing machine all the way to the knitting machine.
For all of you knitters, crocheters, weavers, and fiber artists, browse Mountain Meadow Wool’s store. It sells yarn, fiber art, and the finished clothing that’s made in the factory.
Pro Tip: If you take (and pass) its quiz while you tour the factory, you’ll receive a 10 percent discount on everything you buy in the shop.
Drive By Fort McKinney
Fort McKinney is located about two miles west of Buffalo off Highway 16. A large placard on the highway explains the significance of the fort that was active from 1877 to 1894 and tasked with keeping peace in the area.
Probably the most unique aspect of this fort comes from the presence of the 9th Cavalry Regiment. They were one of four all African American regiments during the time of the Indian Wars. They were named Buffalo Soldiers by the Cheyenne warriors who felt these Black cavalry soldiers had the same bravery and fighting spirit as bison.
Fort McKinney is now a veterans’ home with some of the original 30 buildings still standing, a memorial to veterans, and old artillery pieces.
Take A Walk
The Clear Creek Trail System has multiple access points along the trail’s 14 miles. The trail passes through downtown, where it is ADA-accessible and has benches from which to listen to the babbling Clear Creek.
Outside of town, the trail also runs along portions of Clear Creek. The trail is easy to moderate and the Mosier Gulch access west of Buffalo has a picnic area. Abundant wildflowers line the path in early summer.
Pro Tip: Leashed dogs are welcome on parts of the trail as posted. Access points have plenty of parking.
Drive Cloud Peak Skyway Scenic Byway
Whether or not you’re planning to go to Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Parks after your Buffalo visit, take a scenic drive west out of Buffalo along U.S. Highway 16. It’s called the Cloud Peak Skyway Scenic Byway because, along the way, you’ll see Cloud Peak, the Bighorn Mountain range’s highest peak with an elevation of 13,167 feet.
The scenic byway crosses the Bighorn Mountains over the Powder River Pass. The highway has pullouts for you to park, enjoy the view, and see if you can spot any of the deer, elk, black bear, moose, or pronghorn sheep that make their home there. At the top of the pass, at an elevation of 9,666 feet, you can get a view of spectacular snow-capped peaks and the valley below.
For hikers, Bighorn National Forest has a variety of trails for all skill levels. Visit its website for specifics.
Once over the pass, you’ll enter Ten Sleep Canyon featuring limestone and dolomite walls before reaching the historic town of Ten Sleep. Keep an eye out for gravity-defying rock climbers along the canyon walls.
If you are returning to Buffalo rather than to the national parks, you can return via U.S. Highway 14 that crosses the Bighorn Mountains to the north, thereby traveling in a loop.
Pro Tip: If you are not accustomed to high altitudes, pace yourself at the top of the pass. You may experience shortness of breath and an elevated heart rate with any activity.
Cool Off In Lake De Smet
Lake De Smet is said to be named for the Jesuit priest, Pierre Jean De Smet who was the first white man to see this lake at the base of the Bighorn Mountains. It is just eight miles north of Buffalo and is popular for boating, waterskiing, and fishing. Walleyes, lake trout, and brown trout are the most common fish to catch.
Local legend says it is haunted by a young Native American woman who drowned in the lake. At night her cries can be heard coming from the water. I haven’t been brave enough to stay after dark.
Pro Tip: For fishing licenses, visit the Wyoming Fish and Game Department’s website.
Magnificent landscapes and breathtaking vistas greet visitors to this western destination: