Best things to do in beautiful Buffalo
Buffalo is located in the northeastern part of Wyoming, in an area called the Powder River Basin. It sits at the junction of Highways 25 and 90 and is midway between Yellowstone National Park and Mount Rushmore. If you’re on this scenic road trip, slow down and enjoy what historic Buffalo has to offer.
It has been a gathering place for several centuries, starting with the nomadic tribes of the Native American plains who followed and depended on the bison living here for their way of life. Bison hunted were used in their entirety for food, clothing, shelter, tools, fuel and decoration.
Europeans began to explore the area in earnest after the Louisiana Purchase. Fur trappers, gold miners, and settlers in the West followed in the following years.
This westward expansion led to conflicts between Native Americans and those of European descent. The US military was sent west in response and built forts along the Bozeman Trail – a pioneering “highway” where many conflicts took place.
One of the forts built along the Bozeman Trail, Fort McKinney, was built at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains. The growing town nearby provided everything the soldiers in the fort needed. In 1879, a hat was adopted with names of potential cities.
“Buffalo” was taken out of the hat, not for the animal, but for New York City.
Buffalo became the first official town along the Bozeman Trail and became an agricultural center. The area has seen a long-standing conflict, called the Johnson County War, between cattle barons and small ranchers. Soldiers from Fort McKinney were sent to end Johnson County’s stalemate and war in Ranch TA (now a guest ranch where you can still see bullet holes in the barns, go on horseback rides or take guided hikes).
Today, Buffalo is a quaint and peaceful town of 4,600 residents. It offers visitors a glimpse of its historical past, a glimpse of its agricultural roots, opportunities to admire art in the open air, and the chance to hike and drive through beautiful countryside.
Discover downtown Buffalo
You can’t miss the history Occidental Hotel, originally built with logs in 1879. The beautiful lobby serves as a museum filled with photos and historical artifacts. Famous guests include Teddy Roosevelt, author Owen Wister, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Calamity Jane, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The rooms are furnished with some of the hotel’s original furnishings.
Restaurants and a lounge can be found on the ground floor of the hotel, all with entrances to the street. The Busy Bee Cafe serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a self-service cafe and tea bar for unlimited refills and an old-fashioned soda fountain for sweet treats.
A must-see is the Western Saloon, where you can still see bullet holes in the pewter ceiling and woodwork. Owen Wister watched rowdy cowboys, lawyers and cattle barons at 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 bison steaks, prime rib and seafood. This family-run restaurant serves home-cooked food from scratch and has wait staff attentive.
For a walking tour of the rest of the historic buildings on Main Street, pick up or To download a walking tour brochure of the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum.
Pro tip: If you are staying overnight at the Occidental Hotel, you can request a room that your favorite famous guest has stayed in. The hotel also has rooms accessible by ADA.
Visit the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum
Named after local pharmacist Theodore James “Jim” Gatchell, the Museum opened in 1957. It houses the impressive collection that Mr. Gatchell has amassed during his career. Much of what you will see were gifts he received from Plains Indian friends and colorful figures in the area. His pharmacy, opened in 1900, was both a trading post and a pharmacy, it seems. Visitors can see 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 farmer’s hut, a shepherd’s wagon, and an exhibit about the Basque people who settled in Buffalo because of the sheep ranches. The history of the Basque radio hour, a long-running AM radio show and traditional Basque clothing are presented.
During your stay, you can pick up additional brochures on tours of the area, including a Natural History Tour and a Tour of the National Register of Historic Places.
Pro tip: No photography is allowed in the museum. Plan to spend around two hours here. The museum is accessible to the ADA.
Enjoy the art of Buffalo
Take a look at the Buffalo murals that cover entire walls of several downtown buildings. The sculptures depict a sheepdog and his flock in the city’s main square called Crazy Woman Square. Across from the Jim Gatchell Museum, an abstract bison is parked outside the Bank of Buffalo.
Several art galleries and pottery workshops can also be found downtown.
From June to September, Buffalo hosts an arts walk downtown on the first Friday of the month from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Learn more about wool
Mountain meadow wool, on the outskirts of Buffalo, takes visitors to the sheep over. The tour begins with a video and continues with hands-on screens showing the transition from fleece to yarn to the finished product.
A balcony allows visitors to see the yarn making process. You will see the process start from the giant fleece washing machine to the knitting machine.
For all knitters, crocheters, weavers and fiber artists, browse the Mountain Meadow Wool store. She sells yarn, fiber art, and finished garments made in the factory.
Pro tip: If you take (and pass) his quiz while you tour the factory, you’ll get 10% off everything you buy in the store.
Drive through Fort McKinney
Fort McKinney is located approximately two miles west of Buffalo off Highway 16. A large poster on the road explains the importance of the fort which was active from 1877 to 1894 and charged with keeping the peace in the region.
The most unique aspect of this fort probably comes from the presence of the 9th Cavalry Regiment. They were one of four African-American regiments during the Indian Wars era. They were named Buffalo Soldiers by the Cheyenne warriors who believed that these black cavalry had the same bravery and fighting spirit as bison.
Fort McKinney is now a veterans house with some of the 30 original buildings still standing, a veterans memorial and old artillery pieces.
To take a walk
The Clear Creek Trail System has multiple access points along the 14 mile trail. The trail passes through downtown, where it is ADA accessible and has benches for listening to Clear Creek babbling.
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: Dogs on a leash are welcome on parts of the trail as indicated. The access points have many parking lots.
Driving Cloud Peak Skyway Scenic Byway
Whether or not you plan to go to Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Parks after your visit to Buffalo, take a scenic drive west from Buffalo along US Highway 16. It’s called Cloud Peak Skyway Scenic Byway because, along the way, you will see Cloud Peak, the highest peak in the Bighorn mountain range with an elevation of 13,167 feet.
The scenic drive crosses the Bighorn Mountains above the Powder River Pass. The highway has exits to park, take in the views, and see if you can spot any deer, elk, black bears, moose, or bighorn sheep that call it home. At the top of the pass, at an elevation of 9,666 feet, you can admire spectacular snow-capped peaks and the valley below.
For hikers, the Bighorn National Forest offers a variety of trails for all skill levels. Visit his website for details.
Once past the pass, you will enter Ten Sleep Canyon with its limestone and dolomite walls before reaching the historic town of Ten Sleep. Keep an eye out for gravity-defying climbers along the canyon walls.
If you return to Buffalo rather than the National Parks, you can return via US Highway 14 which crosses the Bighorn Mountains to the north, thus circulating in a loop.
Pro tip: If you are not used to high altitudes, walk to the top of the pass. You may experience shortness of breath and a high heart rate with any activity.
Cool off at Lac de Smet
Lake De Smet is said to be named after the Jesuit priest Pierre Jean De Smet who was the first white man to see this lake at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains. It lies just eight miles north of Buffalo and is popular for boating, water skiing, and fishing. Walleye, 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, its cries can be heard coming from the water. I was not brave enough to stay after dark.
Pro tip: For fishing licenses, visit the Wyoming Fish and Game Department’s website.
Magnificent landscapes and breathtaking panoramas welcome visitors to this western destination: