Roping in Cowboy Culture at Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyoming

Bronc riding and other rodeo events are the centerpiece of Cheyenne Frontier Days. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2013)

Bronc riding and other rodeo events are the centerpiece of Cheyenne Frontier Days. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2013)

The aroma wafts toward my nose from a block away. The familiar sweet smell mixed with a yeasty scent makes my mouth water, and by the time I walk to Depot Square my mind is on only one thing: pancakes.

Free pancake breakfasts are served to thousands on three days of Frontier Days. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2013)

Free pancake breakfasts are served to thousands on three days of Frontier Days. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2013)

But the crowd gathered in front of the castle-like 19th-century Union Pacific Railroad Depot, a landmark in downtown Cheyenne, dashes my hopes for a quick breakfast. Seeing the disappointment on my face, a native dressed in a cowboy hat and shirt reassures me. “The line moves quick,” he drawls.

Turns out he’s right. The local Kiwanis Club has been putting on the Frontier Days Pancake Breakfast for so many years it has the process down to a science, moving about 10,000 people on each of three mornings through a speedy assembly line.

I pass my 15 minutes in the queue watching cooks bent over outdoor grills flip flapjacks to a team of Boy Scouts who run frantically to catch them on big cafeteria trays. Their antics are so entertaining I don’t mind the wait and soon I’m feasting on pancakes slathered with butter and syrup with a side of ham. They’re delicious and—did I mention?—free.

Cheyenne Frontier Days More than Just a Rodeo

Pancake breakfasts are but one of a long schedule of events that fill the 10 days of the nation’s largest outdoor rodeo and western festival.

The “Daddy of ’Em All,” as Frontier Days bills itself, began as a one-day rodeo in 1897. Now it not only has rodeo events, but concerts, parades, American Indian performances, a carnival, Western village, behind-the-scenes tours and—unless the federal sequester budget cuts cancel them—the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds performing an air show.

In Your Bucket Because . . .

  • You want to experience a premier festival honoring the heritage of the Western U.S.
  • You want to see some of the world’s top pro rodeo competitors in action.
  • Good for families, couples and anyone with an interest in western culture.

Nearly 200,000 people attend ticketed events at Frontier Park and thousands more enjoy Frontier Days events downtown, engulfing Wyoming’s capital city of 60,000.

Parades travel through downtown Cheyenne on four mornings curing Frontier Days. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2013)

Parades travel through downtown Cheyenne on four mornings during Frontier Days. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2013)

Just a few blocks from the Capitol, I find a spot along the street to watch the Grand Parade, one of four parades organized during Frontier Days. Cowboys and cowgirls passing on horseback give me friendly waves and I’m charmed by the sweet period costumes worn by passengers in antique horse-drawn carriages. A float re-creating a Wild West jail has a sheriff in a black vest, holster on his hip, and an unsavory-looking character mugging to the crowd from behind bars. Scantily-clad women in fishnet stockings draw hoots and whistles as the old-time saloon float rolls by.

Get a Closer Look at Frontier Days Rodeo on Behind the Chutes Tour

On nine of the 10 days of the festival, rodeo events take over the massive arena at Frontier Park. More than two football fields long, it’s the world’s largest outdoor rodeo arena.

On free Behind the Chutes tours visitors get a close-up view of animals in corrals behind the rodeo arena. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2013)

On free Behind the Chutes tours visitors get a close-up view of animals in corrals behind the rodeo arena. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2013)

I get a chance to step onto the arena during a free Behind the Chutes tour. The cowboy guiding our group meets us at the Frontier Days Old West Museum where he gives his introductory spiel. He tells us more than 1,500 cowboys and cowgirls compete for $1 million in prizes in Frontier Days rodeos, then leads us to the back of the arena where the animals are kept in corrals.

I peek between the slats of a fence at 600-pound steers and shake my head in disbelief when he tells us they can run 30 miles an hour, posing quite the challenge for cowboys on horseback who must wrestle them to the ground. The highlight of the tour is a chance to stand by the chutes in the arena. The Cheyenne chute, which opens sideways onto the field, was invented here, our guide says, and it’s proved safer for both the cowboys and the animals.

Cowboys and Indians Take the Stage at Cheyenne’s Frontier Park

Tour over, I make my way to one of the 20,000 seats in the arena for the afternoon rodeo. I train my camera on the chutes where I just stood and watch cowboys atop bucking broncs burst onto the dirt field. When cowgirls prance their horses onto the arena for barrel races, I cheer them on. The cattle roping, steer and calf wrestling get my heart racing.

Dancers from several American Indian tribes perform in the Indian Village at Frontier Park. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2013)

Dancers from several American Indian tribes perform in the Indian Village at Frontier Park. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2013)

At night the arena becomes a venue for concerts featuring big names in country music and for Championship Bull Riding. Frontier Days is a highlight on the CBR circuit for professional bull riders from around the world. The champion collects $100,000. I find myself holding my breath in excitement as I watch them attempt to stay on an 1,800-pound bucking bull for eight looooong seconds.

The story of the American West involves more than cowboys. Since its second year, American Indians have been part of the Frontier Days celebration.

Frontier Park has a permanent venue, the Indian Village, with food stands serving Indian tacos and gift shops selling turquoise jewelry and Indian pottery. In the center, bleachers surround a performance area where members of several western tribes take turns sharing the story of their heritage. From the front row I have a good view of tribal dancers, the men in their feathered headdresses, the women in colorful flowing robes. Children join in, the adults carefully guiding their steps and passing on a tradition to another generation.

Practicalities

  • Information and tickets: 800-227-6336, Cheyenne Frontier Days.
  • When to go: Ten days in late July.
  • Getting there: Tiny Cheyenne Regional Airport has limited flights. Consider flying to Denver International Airport, 90 minutes south of Cheyenne, and renting a car.
  • Parking: In the lot at Frontier Park or the Park-n-Ride shuttle lot at Interstate 25 and Happy Jack Road.
  • Where to stay: Cheyenne does not have enough lodging to accommodate all Frontier Days visitors. Book early and consider staying in outlying areas. For suggestions, contact Visit Cheyenne, 800-426-5009, or Wyoming Tourism, 307-777-7777.

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