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Best known as a gateway to Yellowstone National Park, Cody Wyoming is a destination worthy of a visit all its own. This charming town embraces its cowboy past, has lots for outdoor lovers to love and plenty to keep kids happy. From a world class museum to a nationally famous rodeo to shooting a replica Civil War era Gatling gun, here are the best things to do in Cody Wyoming with kids.
The writer was hosted.
It’s easy to remember who built Cody Wyoming. The big museum is the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. There’s the Buffalo Bill Dam, Buffalo Bill Reservoir and Buffalo Bill State Park, to name just a few of the area features that bear the founder’s name.
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Still, we all know that William F. Cody (as he liked to be known when he was a businessman) knew how to entertain people. From the USA to Europe, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was a must-see attraction. So there is little wonder that the town he founded in 1896 would have plenty of fun things to do to keep families happy.
TravelingMom Tip: Most visitors stay just one night in Cody. They use the town as a launching point for their real destination: the wonders of Yellowstone National Park. But Cody really is worth a visit all on its own. At the very least, carve out time to see the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
Buffalo Bill Center of the West
This is without a doubt the No. 1 must-do activity in Cody. If you have the time, plan to spend the better part of day here to have enough time to explore all five world class museums housed under the one roof. I had only a few hours and spent so much time in the Draper museum that I had to give the other four short shrift.
I was pleased to see that the museums were taking Covid precautions seriously. There were stands throughout the museum offering free facemasks, gloves, alcohol wipes and hand sanitizer.
The five museums are:
Draper Natural History Museum
This is the place to start when you visit with kids. It tells the story of the ecology and natural history of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Pick up an Adventure Passport and help the kids collect six National Park Junior Ranger-style stamps as you work your way through the museum’s Expedition Trailhead exhibit.
This is the place to see, hear, touch and even smell the four different environments that make up the Yellowstone Ecosystem — Alpine, Mountain Forest, Mountain Meadow and Plains/Basin.
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If you’re planning a visit to Yellowstone National Park, where wolves have been reintroduced and are doing just fine, be sure to visit the Grey Wolf exhibit to see how wolves were nearly hunted to extinction in the lower 48 United States.
When you arrive, ask at the front desk when The Raptor Experience will be presented. It’s a daily live lecture about one of the museum’s injured birds of prey. On the day I visited, we met Monty, a 4 1/2 year old Eastern Screech Owl with an injured wing.
TravelingMom Tip: Be sure to go outside whenever you have a chance. There are cabins to explore, sculptures to see and a playground to play on.
Buffalo Bill Museum
This sector of the Center of the West tells the story of the founder of this small town, the great western showman and the world’s first international superstar, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody.
This museum explores the life of Cody along with some other well-known characters from the American West, including sharpshooter Annie Oakley and Native American legend Sitting Bull. Don’t miss the scale model of the Wild West show backed by archival footage of the time, and the display of dime novels that helped make Buffalo Bill a household name.
Plains Indian Museum
As its name suggests, this museum tells the story of the Native American tribes that lived in the area. Exhibits include a beautiful buffalo hide teepee made from at least 13 buffalo hides sewn together by the women of the tribe. This is the place to learn about how Plains Indian people used almost every part of the buffalo for food, shelter, clothing or tools.
The most intriguing thing in this museum: The statues are all colorless. Because the tribes varied widely in skin tone and hair color, the museum curators didn’t want to choose one skin color over another.
Whitney Western Art Museum
I ran out of time to truly explore the art galleries full of western art, but I did make time to see the fascinating photography exhibit showcasing black cowboy culture that was on temporary display when I visited in late August 2021.
In an area of the country not known for its diversity, it was nice to see an exhibit celebrating Black culture in the West. That exhibit closes Jan. 7, 2022.
Cody Firearms Museum
This museum showcases a truly mind-boggling number of firearms dating back to the 1400s and follows the evolution of guns through the millennia.
Guns are a huge part of Western American culture and this museum displays more than 4,000 of them. As someone who is not a gun fan, I was pleased to see that the museum doesn’t simply glorify guns. The exhibits include one that talks about the costs of war (an ongoing oral history project is open to veterans who want to share their own experience) and another aimed at CSI fans discusses the science of ballistics.
The Cody Trolley
I always like to take a trolley tour when I get to a new town. It’s a fun and easy way to get the lay of the land and find attractions and restaurants you want to revisit and explore in depth. The informative commentary is interspersed with corny, groan-worthy jokes.
The Cody Trolley tour is a typical guided tour. It features an old-fashioned trolley with narrow seats, big windows and a tour leader and driver who trade silly banter. At times the kitsch was a little much, but kids found the over-the-top acting engaging. And the giant photos our tour leader, Aili, showed and the props she passed around added a little interactivity to the otherwise sedentary experience.
Among the fun facts you’ll learn on a Cody Trolley tour:
- The town’s founder, Buffalo Bill Cody, had the town’s architect lay out extra-wide streets in town because he wanted it to be easy to turn around the wagons of his famous wild west show.
- 10,000 people live in Cody, but the population swells by more than a half million during the summer season
- Actor John Wayne was once the Grand Marshall of Cody’s Fourth of July parade.
- Buffalo Bill got his nickname because he killed 4,000 buffalo.
- William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill’s real name) situated the town so visitors would have to go through Cody to use the East entrance to Yellowstone National Park. He even spent his own money to build the road.
- Be on the lookout for Kanye West as you stroll around town. He owns a ranch here and often comes into Cody.
The Irma Hotel
Bill Cody built this hotel to be the most luxurious hotel in the Rocky Mountains, with rooms that rented for the steep sum of $3 per night. Named for his youngest daughter, it’s still an operating hotel, complete with ghost stories and haunted rooms. It sits on Sheridan Avenue and is the centerpiece of downtown Cody.
But the way most visitors experience The Irma is via the nightly buffet dinner that features perfectly cooked and sliced-to-order prime rib. For the kids, there’s mashed potatoes and chicken drumsticks.
And don’t miss the bread pudding for dessert. Adults should try the whiskey sauce which was so strong that one of my traveling partners said she needed to wash it down with her drink (which was Bullet Bourbon and apple juice, the house specialty). For kids, you might want to stick with the vanilla sauce.
Pay special attention to the gorgeous carved wood bar. It was a gift to Buffalo Bill from Victoria, the Queen of England, a huge fan of the western showman.
In the summer, the hotel does a fun and campy wild west show in the street outside its front door. The show is free as long as you are willing to stand and watch. If you want to sit in the one of the folding chairs it costs $3.
TravelingMom Tip: The walls are filled with mounted heads of buffalo and other animals. If you have kids (like my daughter) who could never eat under the head of a dead animal, plan ahead.
Old Trail Town
This recreation of the Old West of the 1890s was voted “Best Tourist Attraction and Historical Site” by True West Magazine. The buildings sit on the site of the original Cody, the place where Buffalo Bill first laid out the town in 1895.
The authentic structures and furnishings were found in remote locations in Wyoming and Montana, carefully disassembled, moved and reassembled at Old Trail Town by western historian Bob Edgar and his friends.
Among the structures is the cabin used by Old West outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a Wyoming saloon frequented by Cassidy’s Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, and the log cabin home of Curley, a Crow Indian army scout who helped guide Lt Col. George A. Custer to the battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.
While there isn’t much interactivity here, the people who run the site are very friendly and volunteered to teach us to rope a stationary calf. Let’s just say it isn’t nearly as easy as they made it look.
Dan Miller’s Cowboy Music Revue
This musical review has been a staple of Cody entertainment for 17 years. Dan and his female co-stars offer a lively mix of cowboy music, foot-stomping sing-alongs and fine harmonies six nights a week from Memorial Day through September.
The Sunday night audience when I visited skewed older and some of the jokes might go over kids’ heads, but there is enough sing-along fun to keep kids entertained.
TravelingMom Tip: Save a little money by buying the dinner and show deal to get the buffet at The Irma, then head next door to see Dan’s show.
Buffalo Bill Dam and Visitor Center
Visiting the Buffalo Bill Dam is one of the fun free things to do in Cody with kids. Park and take the free golf cart shuttle (tip the driver) to the dam. Walk out and hold on to the kids as they look straight down the 350 feet of the concrete dam.
After you take a family photo, head inside to the dam museum and watch the movie about the extreme hazards of building the dam so you can walk away feeling grateful that you did not have to build it.
Construction of the dam on the Shoshone River began in 1905. Workers toiled in subzero temperatures and working conditions that were so harsh that it led to the first labor strike in Wyoming history. When the dam was completed in 1910 at a cost of $1.4 million, it was the tallest concrete dam in the world at 325 feet. Another 25 feet was added later.
Buffalo Bill State Park
The Buffalo Bill Reservoir is the centerpiece of this park. The huge lake created by the dam is filled with ice cold water and is a beacon for boating, fishing, canoeing, kayaking and swimming. The 3,000 acres of park land are dotted with biking and hiking trails.
In addition, there are two camping areas. Lake Shore Bay Campground has 37 sites, an active day use area and a boat ramp. North Fork Campground has 62 campsites, a playground and shower facility with flush toilets.
And it’s all surrounded by the stunning views of the Absaroka Range, especially Rattlesnake Mountain and Sheep Mountain.
TravelingMom Tip: If you want to fish, everyone over the age of 14 needs a license.
Cody Nite Rodeo
Celebrating “102 years of rodeo history,” the Cody Nite Rodeo claims to be the only rodeo in the country with regular nightly performances all summer long.
One of the biggest events happens over the Fourth of July. The Cody Stampede starts on July 1 and culminates in a huge July 4th celebration. The locals say the July 4th celebration is so big that it takes four days to pack it all in – five in years when the Stampede starts early with a bull riding event on the last day in June.
TravelingMom Tip: If you plan to go to the rodeo with kids under 12, dress them in jeans and closed-toe shoes. They will be invited onto the field to chase a young steer to capture a ribbon attached to its tail. The little girls in their cute skirts and sandals were wading gingerly (and unhappily) through the dirt, mud and horse poop.
Unwelcoming to Some
Here I feel the need to add a warning: This rodeo is full-on cowboy culture.
The rodeo clown traditionally serves as MC of the show and keeps the audience entertained while the cowboys get ready for the next event. At Cody Nite Rodeo, the clown does that by telling lots of anti-city, anti-liberal, anti-Biden jokes. They were enthusiastically received by the audience sitting all around us liberal city slickers. Even the recorded opening as a rider carried an American flag around the arena made the point that “we stand for the flag” and would never kneel for it.
I can’t say I actually felt unsafe, but I definitely did not feel welcomed. It seemed like an odd choice for a tourist attraction to insult half of its potential audience.
Cody Dug Up Gun Museum
This is just what its name implies: a museum full of guns that have been found or dug up. The proprietor, Hans Kurth, is a carpenter who started the whole thing 40 years ago after finding guns when, for example, he would take a down a wall. Now he adds to his fascinating collection when people give or sell him rusted carcasses of guns they find or dig up.
The museum is another of the free things to do in Cody, although he does accept donations.
TravelingMom Tip: No photos are allowed here. Hans wants people who are curious to have to come in to the museum to see his collection, not be able to see them online.
Best Things to Do with Older Kids in Cody, Wyoming
Heart Mountain World War II Interpretive Center
This museum tells the troubling story of the Japanese families who were rounded up and sent to 10 different internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This sad spot was home to 14,000 Japanese – half of them children and two-thirds of them American citizens — during World War II.
Wyoming agreed to allow a camp to be built at Heart Mountain – it was the fourth largest of the 10 camps — on the condition that once the war ended, the Japanese would not be allowed to stay in Wyoming.
If, like me, you had never heard about these camps other than to know that they existed, don’t feel bad. One of our guides, who grew up in Wyoming, had never heard of them either before he moved to Cody.
Not for Little Ones
There is a children’s area that asks children to decide what to take when they can pack only one suitcase. Will it be toys? Clothes? Family photos? Still, I would not bring a child here younger than about age 8. And even then, only a mature 8. (This area is currently closed due to the pandemic.)
Japanese Americans who spent a portion of their childhood here were interviewed by a documentarian. It is hard to watch them talk about the humiliation of having to use a toilet sitting next to a stranger. Or the difficulty of a whole family being crammed into one tiny room that was so poorly constructed that sweeping out the dust was a constant job. Or the fact that after they were released, they were given $25 and a train ticket – and told they weren’t wanted back in the California towns that had been their homes.
TravelingMom Tip: Download the Heart Mountain AR app and point your phone at the QR codes to see a virtual reality representation of what life would have looked like in the camps.
Cody Firearms Experience
This is the place to go to fire 70 varieties of guns, from a Civil War era Gatling gun to a Glock just like you see in the movies.
Kids ages 8 and up can shoot here, but pregnant women can’t. That’s because “the fetus can’t wear hearing protectors,” as one shop worker told me.
I had only shot a gun once in my life and shooting another never would have been on my list of must-do activities.
But we don’t always get to set the itinerary for our travels, so I found myself at the Cody Firearms Experience — and having a blast. We shot an 1873 single action Colt pistol and an 1861 Springfield flintlock rifle that jammed my shoulder. It made me feel really sorry for the Civil War soldiers who had to use it in the heat of battle.
But the definite highlight was getting a turn cranking the 1862 replica Gatling gun. There’s no kick, just a crank that shoots two rounds per clockwise rotation on 6 and 12. What a hoot! No surprise it’s a popular choice among the 70 gun options. The place goes through 1,000 rounds a day in the Gatling gun alone.
I was a little nervous about doing this since I’m not a fan of guns. But Scott McEndree, the range manager, walked us through the rules. Then he stood with one hand on the shoulder of the shooter, the other ready to support the gun, all the while talking through the steps. Stand here. Lean forward. Lift the gun. Sight down the barrel. Cock it with your left thumb. Move your finger to the trigger. Squeeze gently. Repeat.
If you are visiting during the summer, call to make a reservation to ensure you can shoot on the day you want to visit. This is an exceedingly popular thing to do in Cody.
TravelingMom Tip: If you’re hard of hearing, ask for the electronic ear protectors. It can be really hard to hear the instructions with regular hearing protectors. After all, they’re designed to mute sound!
Day Trips from Cody
Cody is well-known as the home of the first national park, Yellowstone. But it also is the home of the first national forest, Shoshone National Forest. So there are lots of ways to get out and enjoy nature, from a day spent whitewater rafting on the North Fork of the Shoshone River to horseback riding at a dude ranch in Wyoming, such as Shoshone Lodge & Guest Ranch.
Take one of the five scenic byways that connect the town to Yellowstone. We took two on our way in and out of Yellowstone to see the geysers and search for grizzly bears.
The East Yellowstone Loop scenic drive follows the North Fork of the Shoshone River through the Shoshone National Forest into Yellowstone. Keep the kids on the lookout for elk and bison grazing along the road.
Returning to Cody, we hopped on the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway. It offers stunning views of the Clarks Fork Canyon and Sunlight Basin.
On a previous visit to Yellowstone with Austin Adventures, we took the Beartooth Highway, which commentator Charles Kuralt once dubbed “the most beautiful drive in America.” In fact, it was so gorgeous at sunset that we got up extra early the next morning to drive it again at sunrise.
More Ways to Find Buffalo Bill
And, of course, there are more ways to find Buffalo Bill. My personal favorite: A visit to Pahaska Tepee, Bill Cody’s original lodge, located just outside the East entrance to Yellowstone. You still can stay at Pahaska in one of the modern cabins. Or you can just stop in at the Lodgepole Dining Room for a buffalo burger and some Rocky Mountain oysters (chopped, breaded and fried bull testicles) on your way into the park. (Yes, I tried them. No, I don’t plan to eat them again. Ever.)
Either way, don’t miss a visit to the original 1904 lodge. It’s open for free and hosted by Buffalo Bill impersonator and historian Ron Pearce. He’s dressed in a picture-perfect cowboy coat, hat and boots and sporting long white hair and a goatee.
The lodge is filled with artifacts and memorabilia and Pearce can tell you all about every item. My personal favorite: The soda machine from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.