Travel

Saddle Up for the Summer's Best Wild West Festivals

From cowboy poets to Black rodeos, and all the corn dogs you can eat.

Real Cowboy Association
Real Cowboy Association
Real Cowboy Association

The history of America is, in part, the history of frontiers-even if sometimes those frontiers were already trodden. While we’re already well aware of this when it comes to land “discoveries”, it also applies to some of the country’s Western cultural history. Rodeos, for instance, were informed by the ranch work competitions of Mexican charreadas, which in turn borrowed traditions from Spain. And the work of Black cowboys is often overlooked altogether.

Throughout the summer, Western festivals explore all aspects of this heritage (though charreadas, like this one in San Antonio, typically happen earlier in the year), from bull riding and horse roping to Black rodeos and larger-than-life denizens of Hollywood showcasing the red rocks of the Southwest. Plus outlaw history and Native American teepee villages, and something called mutton bustin’. And of course, a ton of fried foods on sticks. Because the invention of the beloved corn dog? That’s about as all-American as it gets. Here are the most exciting Wild West-themed festivals to add a little yeehaw to your summertime calendar.

DreamArt123/Shutterstock
DreamArt123/Shutterstock
DreamArt123/Shutterstock

Wild Bill Days

Deadwood, South Dakota
June 16–18

Just as his name implies, Wild Bill Hickok had a pretty wild life-from a family home that served as a stop along the Underground Railroad to a role in the antislavery movement during Bleeding Kansas to standing off with a bear and almost being crushed to death in the struggle (it’s said he slit the bear’s throat with a knife, no big deal). In fact, he only graced Deadwood, South Dakota for a few weeks, but today most remember the gunslinger and gambler as synonymous with the Black Hills town. After all, he was killed here while playing a card game at downtown’s Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon, armed with a pair of aces and eights, now known as the “Dead Man’s Hand.” Wild Bill Days in Deadwood pays homage to that dusty sliver of history, with concerts and fast draw competitions, gold panning demonstrations, readings, classic car shows, and a midnight cowboy run. And don’t forget the DockDogs competition, where four-legged friends long jump for prizes-but would probably be just as happy with a few pats on the head.

Real Cowboy Association
Real Cowboy Association
Real Cowboy Association

29th Annual Longview Juneteenth Black Rodeo

Longview, Texas
June 25

Like the long-running Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, named for the legendary Black cowboy, Real Cowboy Rodeos, or RCA rodeos, showcase the often overshadowed African American contributions to rodeo and Western heritage (a large oversight, as they made up 25 % of the cowboys working Southwestern trails in the late 19th century). Nicknamed the “Baddest Show on Dirt,” the tour swings through Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. It kicks off in Texas, birthplace of the Juneteenth holiday commemorating the emancipation of the last enslaved African Americans, and current home to the Annual Longview Juneteenth Black Rodeo, where 300 cowboys and girls compete for cash prize capped by performances by blues and soul singer Sir Charles Jones and rapper Lil’ O.

World’s Oldest Rodeo

Prescott, Arizona
June 28–July 4

Common lore in the US holds that on July 4, 1888, the modern rodeo was born in Prescott, Arizona. Except in those days, they called it a “cowboy tournament” and the first competition was held in some roped-off land with a $1,000 purse. On these stages, cowboys used their talents to transform themselves in the public eye, shaking off the ruffian perception with skills borrowed from Mexican vaqueros in Texas whose home country had been hosting charrería equestrian contests since horses were introduced by the Spanish in the 16th century. Today the competition is part of Prescott Frontier Days, encompassing the patriotism of Independence day with a week of professional bull riding, rodeo events, parades, arts and crafts showcases, and a cowboy-centric church service. There also promises to be a “mutton bustin'” competition where the littlest cowboys and girls climb on top of relatively gigantic sheep, and cling for dear life.

Laramie Jubilee Days

Laramie, Wyoming
July 2–10

Not too many states throw themselves their very own birthday party, and even fewer can say they’ve been doing so since 1940. Laramie Jubilee Days began when local cowboys decided to have a simple horse race in celebration of Wyoming’s statehood on July 10. Now it’s up to a week of parties throughout the college town, honouring their history as a Western railroad and ranching hub. As for events, expect a week of professional rodeo and bull riding, plus a carnival, parade, dances, musical acts, and a jalapeño-eating contest.

MLambousis/Shutterstock
MLambousis/Shutterstock
MLambousis/Shutterstock

Cheyenne Frontier Days

Cheyenne, Wyoming
July 22–31

Three states have declared rodeo as their official sport, but only Cheyenne can claim the “World’s Largest Outdoor Rodeo and Western Celebration.” Granted, they dubbed the honour themselves, but the evidence is strong. Running since 1897, the nine-day Frontier Days festival spans bareback riding, barrel racing, bull riding, roping, and a tournament-style rodeo with a big-time $1 million purse. Roam the grounds of a Western heritage fair complete with merchants, a carnival midway, a chuckwagon, and military demonstrations. There’s also a special area showcasing Native American culture, an integral part of the festival since its second year. When the sun goes down the stars come out, with performances by Brooks & Dunn, Jelly Roll & Nelly, Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley, and, sure, Kid Rock, plus throwback theatrical presentations, a fashion show, and a downtown Cheyenne parade. Who doesn’t love a parade?

Dodge City Days

Dodge City, Kansas
July 28–August 7

How about gettin’ the heck into Dodge? Settled in 1872 due its position along the Santa Fe Railroad, visiting Dodge City is like stepping back in time to when Wyatt Earp held down the law (while also gambling) and the citizenry was comprised of gunslingers, cattlemen, and outlaws, keeping the town’s streets and saloons spirited in more ways than one. Dodge City Days celebrates this history with 10 days of events including cook-offs, pageants, dances, mechanical and actual bull riding, and, of course, a rodeo. And for a real time warp, some events are held in that same Santa Fe Depot, two blocks long and restored to its 1898 glory. You’ll find that on Wyatt Earp Boulevard.

Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Western Music Rendezvous

Lewistown, Montana
August 11–14

The thing about sporting the tough exterior of a cowboy is that nobody really ever asks you about your feelings. But really, your life is poetry-existing in tandem with other living beings, learning the rhythm of your surroundings under a wide blue sky. Thankfully, the good folks of Lewiston, Montana encourage you to explore that sentiment. Smack dab in the centre of the state, the inspiration begins with the setting-straight-up Charles M. Russell country, surrounded by mountains, bisected by a river that makes for excellent fishing, and marked by a main street that hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years (the four stoplights excepted). And as if it could get any more charming, the daytime cowboy-led poetry and music fest takes place at the local high school. Nighttime gets a bit fancier, with a Jam ‘n Dance at the country club, and a concert from cowboy entertainer and Western Hall of Fame inductee Dave Stamey.

Courtesy of Travel Oregon
Courtesy of Travel Oregon
Courtesy of Travel Oregon

Pendleton Round-Up

Pendleton, Oregon
September 10–17

The city of Pendleton was conceived in the 1860s, a parcel of land near the Umatilla Indian Reservation purchased from a squatter in exchange for a couple of horses. By 1910, the area was fully incorporated and thriving, and an enterprising young businessman decided it was time to introduce it the world. He proposed a rodeo to celebrate the end of harvest, a spectacle to draw crowds from all around the region. And so, the Pendleton round-up came to be, and with it the enduring slogan, “Let’er Buck.” Now 50,000 people descend upon the grounds annually for a massive week of events including a star-studded kickoff concert (in the past they’ve welcomed the likes of Reba McEntire and Brooks and Dunn), an evening show exploring Native and Western history, a 300-strong teepee village representing tribes from all over the Northwest, and a parade with covered wagons, horse-drawn vehicles, and participants donning cowboy and Native American garb. Plus, you know, regular rodeo stuff, which you can opt to watch from tony 1910 digs-aka the VIP area-with seats starting at $200 each.

Grindstone Media Group/Shutterstock
Grindstone Media Group/Shutterstock
Grindstone Media Group/Shutterstock

Western Legends Heritage & Music Festival

Kanab, Utah
August 19–20

To us non-cowboys, romantic ideas of the West are predominantly shaped by what we see on the big and little screens. Here’s a chance to see it up close in Kanab, Utah. Nicknamed “Little Hollywood,” its red rocks have been the setting for familiar faves like The Lone Ranger and Billy the Kid, alongside more recent movies like John Carter. For two days each August, the town celebrates these stories with the Western Legends festival, including a free country-style battle of the bands, meet- with Western stars, a rodeo, and a longhorn parade right down the centre of town. While you’re there, stop by the free Little Hollywood Museum for displays of paraphernalia and props (it’s currently for sale, should you want to own your own piece of the mythical West). And if you want to go full-on immersive, book a stay in the historic Parry Lodge, which has hosted legends like John Wayne, Burl Ives, Clint Eastwood, and Frank Sinatra.

Benson Mule Days

Benson, North Carolina
September 2022 (dates TBD)

Apparently, we have George Washington to thank for the proliferation of mules in America. The man who envisioned the possibilities of democracy also foresaw the tireless horse-donkey hybrid as the future of farming. To prove his point, he imported a sizable Zamorano-Leonesa donkey from Spain (the ones already stateside were too small for his liking), introduced him to a bunch of lady horses at Mount Vernon, and became the country’s first mule breeder. Ordinarily, this would be the humble mule’s only claim to fame. But, since 1949, it’s also been the star of Mule Days, a September tradition in North Carolina celebrating the farmer and his working jacks. See classic cars, local bands, antique tractors, and a parade, plus wagon rides, mule races, a mule show, and a rodeo. While you’re there, don’t forget to stop by the scrap metal mule sculpture, erected in 2021.

Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival

Custer State Park, South Dakota
September 29–October 1
By the time the Buffalo Roundup comes around, summer is technically over, but it’s still an incredible spectacle you should definitely make plans to see. Every September, some 1,300 buffalo rumble through the Black Hills, herded by cowboys and girls, to eventually be tested, branded, and sorted to regulate the population. Spectators show up with chairs, binoculars, and whatever they need to keep them warm and satiated in the viewing area, before heading over to the adjacent arts festival. And if you want to apply to be one of the herders, you can do that as well-applications are due June 3. The terrain is rocky and treacherous, so make sure you actually have some riding experience… and your own trusty steed.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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