Family-Friendly Adventures in the Wild West

Buffalo Bill Center of the West offers five captivating museums and authentic western experiences

By Katie Brown

When my family and I think of the “Wild West” we imagine a time in history steeped in bold characters, intrepid pioneers, and the long traditions of Native American culture. Cody, Wyoming, is perhaps one of the best examples of a town in the American West that embraces that heritage. We discovered that fact — and so much more — on a recent road trip.

As a family of four, the Wild West intrigues each of us in our own way, so it was a popular choice to stop in Cody for a couple of days after living out of a tent while camping in Yellowstone. My husband, Dave, and kids, Connor, 10, and Tori, 6, were excited at the prospect of visiting a genuine western town among the wide-open spaces of Wyoming. 

We’d found out about the Buffalo Bill Center of the West while researching what we could do in Cody and decided it sounded like the perfect place to spend a couple of days with the kids on our way home. Little did we know that we would leave with a richer understanding of the history, culture, and natural science of the West — as well as the connections to the contemporary West of today.

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Entering a World of Discovery

Our journey from Yellowstone into Cody took just an hour, so we arrived in town shortly after midday and headed to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, where we’d heard we could also grab lunch. The Eatery serves a range of lighter options, along with cuisine unique to the area. The kids and I settled on bison burgers while Dave went for the bison bratwurst. “Delicious!” was the universal verdict.

Now fortified with food, we were ready to explore. The Center includes five museums and rotating special exhibits, which meant we needed a plan for where to start! 

“I want to find out about Annie Oakley,” said Tori — so we began with the Buffalo Bill Museum.

One of the first things we noticed was how open and spacious the exhibits were. There’s plenty of room to learn about William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Annie Oakley, Native Americans who toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, and other famous faces of the show without having to crowd with other visitors. We were captivated as well by the displays from Buffalo Bill’s scouting and stage days, and most of all the stories. The kids enjoyed learning about his friendship with Wild Bill Hickok, and gazed in awe at the display of massive bison, imagining what it would be like to encounter them as part of everyday life.

One of the special exhibits, 8 Seconds: Black Cowboys in America offered us a contemporary view of the American Cowboy, through the lens of photographer Ivan B. McClellan. It was a further reminder, along with tales of Annie Oakley beforehand, that cowboy culture in America represents a diverse range of races, genders, and backgrounds. My kids were impressed.

“Mom, do you think we can learn to ride?” said Connor, gazing at a portrait of a young girl on horseback.

We had time to take in one more of the museums before dinner and the kids chose the Plains Indian Museum. This museum respectfully tells the stories of hundreds of years of Plains Indian culture and way of life through excellent exhibits and an impressive audiovisual program. The kids lingered over the detailed toys in the Land of Many Gifts gallery, and a large 1850s hide lodge that evoked several “wows.” They recognized the name Sitting Bull and enjoyed learning more about him. The museum also includes contemporary art created by Native American artists of today.

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Served by the Chuckwagon

We had booked a special surprise for dinner. Cowboy Rich serves up authentic chuckwagon cooking on Tuesdays and Saturdays, showcasing what mealtimes were like for cowboys out on the range. We dug into tender steak, trail beans, biscuits, and a fresh cobbler for dessert, and learned about Dutch oven cooking methods. With this special experience being limited to 20 people, there were just two other small groups there, making it an enriching and intimate experience. We could just picture the cowboys sitting around the fire after a hard day’s work, telling wildly exaggerated stories of their exploits.

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Cowboy Up

There’s something quite special about being able to immerse yourself in the traditions of the West, even if just for a small taste. Having seen how taken the kids were with the cowboy culture on display at the museum, we returned the next day with a new experience booked for them — horseback riding with Buffalo Bill Horse Rides.

The kids were so excited, although a little nervous! However, the patient cowboys staffing the riding were great with all of us, making sure we were comfortable and that we understood how to sit and direct our horses. The one-hour trail ride leaves from the corrals at the Center and heads down to the Shoshone River. It’s ideal for beginners, or those looking to get back into the saddle. 

“Do I look like a cowboy now, Mom?” asked Connor. 

I think it was empowering for our kids, knowing that they had managed an entire hour on horseback. 

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The wonders of natural history

Our final Cody adventure was to head into the Draper Natural History Museum. The layout is a cool feature — visitors start at the Expedition Trailhead where the kids eagerly picked up adventure passports to get stamped at stations throughout the museum. They loved the Greater Yellowstone interactive exhibits, recognizing areas they had been to in the National Park. 

From there, we traveled the spiraling Alpine to Plains trail, starting with the alpine environment at the top and winding down through mountain forest, mountain meadow, and plains/basin exhibits. The flora and fauna on display was very well done, offering context for where those plants and animals are found and in what environment.

Then, it was on to one of the popular, special programs offered by the Center. If you’ve never been up close to a majestic raptor, this is your chance! The Draper Museum Raptor Experience is a live education program. Dave has always admired birds of prey and was quite thrilled to find himself up close with a turkey vulture. Tori and Connor watched and listened, in awe of the magnificent birds.   

A mother and father stand on either side of their daughter and son looking at an exhibit in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
Two small children are looking up at a giant taxidermy bear standing on its hind legs in an exhibit with pine trees and rocks inside the Buffalo Blil Center of the West.
An owl perches on a brown-haired woman’s arm covered in a leather glove for her protection. She is wearing a green shirt and works at Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

Heading home

What a great couple of days! Cody lived up to the name of its founder — frontiersman, scout, and entertainer through and through. We found important history, richly woven through the stories of the museums, and we actually got to feel present, if only briefly, in the Old West — and the West that lives on today — as we rode on horseback and enjoyed chuckwagon food.

We found a place where the legacies of figures like Wild Bill Hickok, Sitting Bull, Annie Oakley, and of course, Buffalo Bill Cody himself live on in stories and traditions that still resonate. As we drove back out across the spectacular scenery and wide-open spaces of Wyoming, we almost felt as though we could hear an echo of hoofbeats, and sense a connection to those characters of the past.

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