Wyoming: Cheyenne’s Frontier Days Bring the Old West to Life

A barrel racer at Frontier Days, the biggest rodeo in the US held yearly in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
A barrel racer at Frontier Days, the biggest rodeo in the US held yearly in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Donnie Sexton photo.

By Cindy Bigras

Stagecoach in Cheyenne Frontier Days parade. Photo by Cindy Bigras.
Stagecoach in Cheyenne Frontier Days parade. Photo by Cindy Bigras.

An unexpected surge of patriotism overcame me as the Union Pacific steam locomotive pulled into the depot. Music played, banners waved, the arriving faces beamed from the train’s open windows.

The sky was crystal clear, the sun was strong– all the makings of a festive opening for Cheyenne’s Frontier Days.

Passenger rail service to Cheyenne ended in 1971, making today’s arrival a special event. For a while, some of the passengers will poke around the renovated depot, where vendors of Western crafts have set up for the rodeo’s ten-day duration.

The building, designated a National Historic Landmark, is the center of Cheyenne’s downtown in heart and soul.

By the 1850s, railroads had become the primary method of transportation, but it wasn’t until the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 that the two U.S. coasts were connected.

Cheyenne was already settled at the time the railroad came through but was to become an even more important center, and home to cattle barons as the West was opened up to development.

The Depot Museum

Enter The Depot Museum from the lobby and you’ll find an exhibit of black and white photographs documenting Cheyenne’s rich history and the arrival of the railroad. Union Pacific was and remains a prominent presence in the city.

Exiting the depot I found myself in Depot Square, site of several free summer concerts. This city of approximately 50,000 swells to almost ten times its normal size for Frontier Days and crowds have appeared for the opening day parade now rounding the corner.

Hello Miss Frontier!
Hello Miss Frontier!

Parades, with their inflatable cartoon characters, have always bored me. Happily, none were in sight. Instead, passing by were Miss Frontier and her lady in waiting.

And look, here comes the blacksmith shop, the dance hall, the one-room schoolhouse, and of course, it wouldn’t be a Western parade without the stagecoach!

Beautiful horses pull western-themed, horse-drawn surreys, ambulances, fire wagons, and meat wagons.

Another tasty Frontier tradition began with 5,000 pounds of batter, 650 lbs of butter, and 450 gallons of syrup, 4,000 lbs. of ham and 8,000 pints of milk. A hundred thousand pancakes will be served free to waiting throngs of visitors three times during the week.

But now that I had been introduced to Cheyenne’s past and present, it was time to go to the arena…

The Daddy Of ‘Em All

As an easterner more experienced with New York’s canyons than those of the West, I was in some ways unprepared for this visit. I’d come here specifically for the rodeo, yet I knew very little about it, except for bull riding, which I’ve seen on TV.

Bulls await their turn in the rodeo arena.
Bulls wait their turn in the rodeo arena.

So I joined the “Behind the Chutes Tour” at the entrance to the rodeo grounds. Chutes are the pens from which animals are released for their events. This is a great opportunity to see things up close.

Part sport, part skill, all entertainment, the rodeo evolved from cattle herding in the West. The day’s first event, bull riding, is one of the most exciting.

The open-air arena’s ground is dirt, the air is dry and the sun is hot. I will own a cowboy hat within an hour, and my sensitive skin will appreciate that the super-wide brim protects my entire face and neck. I always wondered why cowboy hats looked like that. Now I know.

Each of the 120 contestants has paid a $350 entrance fee for what would be the longest eight seconds of any sensible person’s life.

Immediate disqualification occurs if the rider is bucked off or touches the bull with his free hand before the eight-second count.

Bullriding action
Bullriding action.

Several go down quickly, and arena cowboys rush to distract each angry bull and direct it to the pens.

What would possess a cowboy to mount such an animal, knowing that he could be thrown face-first into the bull’s horns one second or trampled underfoot the next?

It must be a thrill and excitement. I no longer wonder why I see no women’s names on the list of bull riders.

Next up is steer wrestling. A cowboy on horseback chases after a steer, ropes it around the horns, brings it to the ground, then jumps from his horse and ties up three of the steer’s legs – all this in 30 seconds!

Distracting the bull
Distracting the bull

If the cowboy and his horse don’t operate as a team, there will be no chance at a prize. The partnership between animal and rider is an integral part of rodeo success, just as it was in the days when ranching ruled these plains.

The events came at me in rapid succession…. one cowboy after the next. Soon it was time for bareback bronc riding, the breaking of a wild horse. Again, it is eight seconds of whipping around without falling or touching the horse with a free hand.

Saddle bronc riding
Saddle bronc riding

Cheyenne claims to have the largest outdoor rodeo in the world, a claim I won’t dispute. But it was the small town hospitality I will take away from my day at the rodeo.

Find out more about Frontier Days in Cheyenne. www.cfdrodeo.com

Helpful Links :

Ranches in Cheyenne Area

Terry Bison Ranch is a working ranch with over 2000 grazing bison on 30,000 acres. Join a bison tour.

Bit-O-Wyo Ranch offers trail rides and authentic cowboy dinner theatre in the horse barn.

Cheyenne Hotels/B&Bs

The Historic Plains Hotel, a renovated example of western elegance, is located in the heart of downtown.

The Nagle Mansion is an 1888 victorian on the National Register of Historic Places. It has been restored in great detail by Jim Osterfoss. Located within ten-minute walk of historic downtown.

Windy Hills Bead & Breakfast is a beautiful, family-run B&B located in the pastoral setting west of Cheyenne.

The Little America Resort and Hotel sits on 80 acres of rolling hills and features a golf course and Olympic size swimming pool.


The Capitol Grille located inside Plains Hotel

The Little Bear Inn – the steakhouse where the locals go. Dining and dancing to Western music…they make an awesome bison burger!


Cheyenne Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo website

Cheyenne events

Cheyenne Frontier Days train – reserve early for your seat on the train to Cheyenne Frontier Days

Vadauwoo – rock climbing in the nearby Curt Gowdy State Park


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