When a 55-year-old mother of three named Esther Morris boarded a train on the brand new transcontinental railway in Peru, Illinois, she knew she was en route to join her husband and eldest son in a tiny, yet booming, mining town. But she had no idea the trip was about to fundamentally change the course of her life – and make history in the USA as the first female Justice of the Peace.
From the grim looks of the train platform in Rock Springs, Wyoming, circa 1869, there was little to suggest that a year later Morris would become the first woman to hold public office in the US, and spend the rest of her life as an icon of women’s suffrage. But 150 years later, Wyoming continues to celebrate the unlikely events that are commemorated in its “Equality State” moniker.
Over the past century-and-a-half, Wyoming has not only transformed from a rocky territory rushed by gold mining hopefuls into a winsome outdoor playground dotted with charming small towns and cities that continue to draw change-makers and free spirits. And there’s no better time than the present to celebrate Wyoming’s girl-power legacy while taking in some of the best sites, sounds, trails, and flavors statewide on a women’s history road trip.
In the footsteps of history-making women
This itinerary carries you from Cheyenne, Wyoming just north of Denver, Colorado clockwise through the hip college town of Laramie, the criminally underrated Medicine Bow wilderness, to South Pass City where Esther Morris made history. From there, head on to the splendor of the Tetons and the iconic mountain town of Jackson Hole, then Buffalo, Wyoming where Annie Oakley took her shots, down to Casper where ski slopes, museums, and cocktails await.
Along the way, you’ll follow in the footsteps of intrepid female travelers like Isabella Bird and Sacagawea, eat, drink, and sleep at businesses founded by female entrepreneurs, and take in a state that is so much more than just Yellowstone National Park.
Start your trip either by flying into Denver International ninety minutes south of Cheyenne or straight into the city's own recently updated airport. From there you can rent your car and load up the trunk – if you need to stock up on any gear before you hit the road, put in an order with Jackson, Wyoming-based Garage Grown Gear, an online outfitter that features startup and cottage-scale outdoor brands you might not have discovered yet.
All told, and depending on what side trips and hikes you build in, this should take about a week to complete and covers just over a 1,000 miles.
Victorian traveler Isabella Bird, who thrilled readers with her accounts of riding horseback through the Rocky Mountains, might as well have channeled future country sensation Shania Twain when she shared her take on Cheyenne, Wyoming after visiting in 1873 – it didn't impress her much.
Back then, Wyoming wasn't yet a state, and Cheyenne was little more than a rough and tumble railroad siding. By the 1880s, however, the discovery of gold in the Black Hills would make Cheyenne incredibly wealthy and start its development into a pretty town with a whimsical public art project involving enormous, decorated cowboy boots and historic trolleys to get you to and fro.
Esther Morris herself retired here after spending the third chapter of her life supporting the suffrage movement on a national level. In a way, she came full circle – it was lawmakers in Cheyenne who set the chain of events in motion that ultimately led to Morris’ historic appointment in South Pass City.
What to see
The Esther Hobart Morris statue at the stunning, recently-renovated state capitol building is one place where you can pay your respects to the first female Justice of the Peace in the USA.
The Frontier Days museum brings the old west and early rodeo culture to life and includes historic artifacts such as authentic stage coaches and other vehicles that women like Isabella Bird and Esther Morris would have used to travel.
The Cowgirl of the West Museum is entirely dedicated to the women who worked and rode through the wild west, from rodeo queens to hard-working ranchers, who broke barriers as often as they broke broncos. You can learn about the exciting lives of trick riders like Eloise Fox Hastings, who ran away from home at fourteen to join the circuit, or Tad Lucas, who performed in rodeos through two world wars in shows from Wyoming to London's Wembley Stadium. (Note: the Cowgirl of the West Museum is closed until May 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Where to stay:
Overnight at the Little America Hotel & Resort, a family-friendly hotel with niceities like a pool, golf course, playground and outdoor hot tub.
Where to eat:
Get caffeinated at the Paramount Cafe (housed in an old movie theater), before setting out to explore.
Esther's at the Morris House is a restaurant ensconced in Morris’ final home, where she spent her retirement after serving organizations like the National American Woman Suffrage Association. It’s an off-shoot of the popular Bella Fuoco Wood Fired Pizza just across Warren Avenue.
Laramie and Centennial
An hour’s drive on I-80 west from Cheyenne will get you to Laramie, where in 1870 Louisa Swain cast her ballot in a general election alongside nearly a hundred other women – the first time women exercised their new right to vote. That same year, Eliza Stewart, Mary Mackle, Annie Monaghan, Amelia Hatcher, Jane Hilton and Sarah Pease became the first women in the world to serve on a jury, and several in the group went on to remain active in politics.
There’s a lot more to Laramie than just its feminist history, however. This college town is rife with opportunities for outdoor recreation thanks to its proximity to the Snowy Range and Medicine Bow Wilderness, as well as climbing hubs such as the granite slabs of Vedauwoo, and vast mountain bike trail networks.
Nearby Centennial is a tiny former mining town where it feels a lot like you’re stepping back in time. It’s the perfect place to grab a bite before taking advantage of the Medicine Bow Wilderness’ stunning peaks.
What to see:
The Wyoming House for Historic Women is where you can pay your respects to the women who made history in Laramie a hundred and fifty years ago. There is a life-size statue of Louisa Swain in the plaza out front, and inside are plaques and other materials honoring thirteen women who played crucial roles in the Wyoming suffrage movement.
Breakin’ Through is another sculpture celebrating women’s history, located on the campus of the University of Wyoming at the south entrance to the War Memorial. It depicts a cowgirl literally busting down barriers, and was gifted by April Brimmer Kunz, the first female Senate President in Wyoming.
Laramie Plains Museum is housed in a mansion befitting the grandeur of Laramie's early boom years. It was donated for use as a girls' school in 1921 and remained as such until 1958. After falling into disrepair, the house was saved by the Laramie Woman's Club and was purchased by the Plains Museum in 1972. You can see examples of period clothing, furniture, and information about such groundbreaking figures as Nellie Tayloe Ross, the first female governor in the United States, and Mary G. Bellamy, the first woman elected to the Wyoming legislature in 1911.
The Bent and Rusty is an arts, crafts, and antiques co-op run primarily by women. In addition to shopping for souvenirs, you can also take part in workshops and other events such as pop-up pie sales.
Laramie’s Basecamp is a female-owned and operated outfitter where you can not only get any clothing or gear you need for nearby outdoor adventures, but also great intel on what trails and crags to explore while you’re in the area. Run by Rebecca Walsh – who is also the founder of Hike Like a Woman – the knowledgeable staff will be sure to point you in the right direction.
Medicine Bow National Forest has hikes and activities for every skill level, but a great entry point is the Lewis Lake trail, which is particularly lovely with stunning views of Sugarloaf Mountain. It's not too challenging even for beginner or intermediate hikers, and you'll see a number of pretty alpine lakes as the pikas (very cute, small, alpine rodents) chirp to one another in the shrub grass.
Where to eat:
Sweet Melissa Cafe and Front Street Tavern are hard to miss – the pretty purple exterior in downtown Laramie points you to one of the oldest bars in the city and an adjacent cafe, where owner Melissa slings delicious vegetarian fare as well as inspired cocktails.
Mountain View Hotel and Cafe is a charming outpost has been offering visitors hospitality since 1907. Order the quiche for breakfast – you won’t be sorry. Your hosts also roast their own excellent coffee on site, so fuel up here before you hike even if you aren’t a guest at the hotel.
Where to stay:
The Vee Bar Guest Ranch is classic Wyoming, and has been in co-owner Kari Kilmer’s family for years. Just thirty minutes outside Laramie, you can stay in one of the cozy, creek-side cabins, grab a bite in the on-site dining room, or throw back a tipple in the back room bar where locals are known to wander through, often with good stories.
South Pass City, Wyoming
Depending on how long you spend exploring Medicine Bow, you'll either want to spend a night at the Mountain View Hotel (or back at Vee Bar) before proceeding four hours northwest to South Pass City – the place where suffrage got its start in the US.
From Highway 287, you'll turn southwest onto Highway 28 – a portion of which is commemorated as the Women's Suffrage Pathway. That section begins at mile marker 44 (in honor of Wyoming being the 44th state in the US) and extends 19 miles (in honor of the 19th Amendment) from South Pass City until you hit the Shoshone National Forest.
This is where Esther Morris settled in a minute log cabin on the fringes of the Carissa Mine that had already seen a boom and was on its way to a bust. She had followed her second husband, with whom she had two sons, and her eldest son from a previous marriage in hopes of striking it rich on one of the area’s gold veins.
Instead of instant success, however, Morris found that her husband often got drunk and hit her – a pattern she put a stop to as soon as she was appointed the town’s Justice of the Peace just a year after her arrival. She hadn’t sought out the position, and instead had to be coaxed into it by territory politicians who fully expected her to fail – and thus prove that women’s suffrage was a ridiculous and ill-conceived experiment.
Instead, Morris rose to the occasion, arresting not only her lout of a husband, but also the Judge who had vacated the position (ironically, because he objected to the legalization of women’s suffrage) when he refused to hand over the docket. She worked out of her sparse cabin, and not a single of her rulings was overturned despite her lack of relevant education.
Today South Pass City is preserved in its entirety as a historic site that you can visit from May to September. In addition to the Morris cabin, you can also see seventeen original buildings and numerous artifacts that paint a vivid picture of what life was like on the hardscrabble frontier.
Lander and Fort Washakie
After exploring South Pass City, you'll head forty minutes north back up 28 and 287 to Lander, a small town off the beaten path with plenty of charm to spare. Lander is perhaps best known as an outdoor hub, however, where the National Outdoor Leadership School is headquartered, along with the Wyoming Wildlife Federation.
Lander is also home to the Wind River Indian Reservation, where the Shoshone and Arapaho Tribes were relocated in the 1800s. Fort Washakie, better known to the Arapaho as Ce'eyeino'oowu, and named for a prominent, beloved Shoshone chief. The most famous Shoshone, however, was Sacagawea, the Indigenous woman who led Lewis and Clark on their expedition to the Pacific.
What to do:
The Lander Art Center features a variety of interesting work on display, as well as film screenings. Earth and Fire, running July through August 2020, showcases work by artists Laurie LaMere and Sharon Schell.
The Eastern Shoshone Cultural Center is located in the Fort Washakie School, where you can see precious indigenous artifacts and learn about how the Shoshone and Arapaho were impacted by the Indian Wars in the late 1800s.
The Sacagawea Gravesite is one of two places where the famous indigenous guide is purported to have been buried. This site’s authenticity is supported by her tribe, and according to oral history she returned here in 1884 after a long life beyond her famous role in the Lewis and Clark expedition. The cemetery where she was laid to rest is off South Fork Road on the Wind River Reservation, at GPS Coordinates: 42.9928900, -108.9144100.
Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway is worth the 90 minutes in the car, giving you a chance to take in views of Boysen State Park, the Owl Creek Mountains, ancient geology, and the Bighorn River, not to mention Thermopolis, the world's largest natural mineral hot springs.
If you choose to follow the scenic byway, budget time for a fly fishing expedition or white water rafting trip guided by Wind River Canyon Whitewater and Fly Fishing, a Native American owned business.
Where to eat:
Grab a bite at The Middle Fork , a homey eatery founded by Jenna Ackerman, who came to Lander for the outdoor recreation and never left. You'll be hard-pressed to beat the Three Gain Brûlée with cherry compote or the Coconut Cream French Toast – a gluten-free treat topped with cardamom whipped cream.
Where to stay:
The Mill House, is a gorgeous 1888 flour mill converted into a cozy, Instagram-worthy B&B by Jill Hunter. She came for the rock climbing – Shoshone National Forest and Sink's Canyon are full of crags – but stayed for the community in this small city of 7000 that seems to attract free spirits and female entrepreneurs of all stripes.
From Fort Washakie, it's a three hour drive to Jackson – the famous mountain town that serves as a gateway to Grand Tetons National Park and, further north, Yellowstone National Park. Jackson also has long had a legacy of female leadership. In 1893, Maggie Sullivan became the town's postmaster, and ultimately gave the town – then known as Marysvale – its present name.
In 1920, Jackson became the first city in America to be entirely governed by women – including Mayor Grace Miller and town marshal Pearl Williams, as well as an entirely female city council. Other notable women who made their mark on Jackson include Margaret Murie, better known as Mardy, who in her later years became a wilderness advocate and ultimately contributed the ranch she'd owned with her husband to the Grand Teton National Park in 1968.
What to do:
The Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum is a great spot to learn more about the women of the wild west-era. Those seeking out women's history will find the Wyoming Women Historic Photographs and Mountains to Manuscripts – Women's Writing in Wyoming 1900-1950 exhibits (on through October 2020) particularly interesting.
Take a tour using TravelStorysGPS, a woman-run app based out of Jackson that features not only an engaging listening library, but also images, videos, and links that serve as jumping off points from its "mini-podcasts." Relevant topics include the Wind River Indian Reservation near Fort Washakie, Teton Valley just north of Jackson, as well as the city of Casper and Sheridan just ahead on your road trip itinerary.
Grand Teton National Park, crudely named by French fur trappers for their resemblance to breasts, offer some of the most stunning scenery in Wyoming. Whether you pause briefly in Jackson on your women’s history road trip or stay for a longer spell to enjoy the ample hiking and backpacking opportunities in the Tetons, you won’t want to miss iconic sites like Mormon Row or the Cunningham Cabin, where early settlers homesteaded in the area.
Where to eat:
The Snake River Brewery is a great place to see a slice of modern Jackson life. The classic order is the Pako's IPA, named for the Snake River mascot, but you might luck into visiting when there's a Pink Boots collaboration on tap.
Every year, the Pink Boots Society partners with breweries around the world, including Snake River, to celebrate women in the beer industry with special brews like the MOXXIE mango pale ale or 2019 Equality Brew hoppy Belgian whit. A dollar per pint is typically donated to local nonprofits benefiting women's empowerment.
Where to stay:
The Antler Inn is just a block from Jackson's dining and nightlife scene. Founder Clarene Law raised her family here while building her business, and later expanded the concept to include three other properties under the Town Square Inns umbrella. Law joined the long legacy of women in Wyoming politics when she became a seven-term Wyoming State legislator.
Next up on your itinerary is a drive north on 191 through Grand Teton National Park to the southern edge of Yellowstone National Park. Turning east at Yellowstone Lake onto 14 (also known as the Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway), you'll drive on to Cody, Wyoming – also named for its founder, the famous Pony Express rider, Union colonel, and showman.
What to do:
The Buffalo Bill Center of the West is the spot where you can learn more about Bill himself, who advocated for women's suffrage and gave talents like Annie Oakley pride of place in his Wild West Show. You can also learn more about the role women played in Plains Indian cultures, including the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes.
The Whitney Western Art Museum is within the Buffalo Bill Center complex, but it deserves to be singled out for exhibits like Women in Wyoming — a show by photographer and Wyoming native Lindsay Linton Buk, which is on through August 2, 2020. It delves into several different themes of the roles women have played in Wyoming life, history, and the culture of the west.
The museum, by the way, is named for the same Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney who founded the Whitney American Art Museum back east in New York. A prominent socialite, Whitney wasn't satisfied simply serving as a patron of the arts, but was herself an accomplished painter and sculptor. The Western Art Museum is named for her because she created the first piece in its collection – the prominent statue of Buffalo Bill himself.
Where to eat and stay:
Juniper is an all-in-one hospitality suite run by Michele Prevost that combines a bar, bottle shop, bistro, and B&B. There's a patio where you can enjoy live music and cocktails, and even 100 whiskeys by the glass and a ventilated indoor cigar room.
After your day in Cody, keep working your way east through Bighorn National Forest to Sheridan, Wyoming. It’s the perfect place to rest your road-weary bones, as countless travelers have in the past hundred-some-odd years, when Sheridan came to fame as a railroad and rodeo town, and landing for those hoping for a place in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.
If the three hour drive (and any hiking you did in Bighorn or the Cloud Peak Wilderness) leave you wanting to wet your whistle, you're in luck. Sheridan is home to a bevy of breweries either owned by women or with women in prominent staff positions, as well as a number of other amusements.
What to do:
The Union at The Montgomery is a women-run co-op that reimagined Sheridan's old Montgomery Ward department store as a boutique shop. You can find vintage pieces, home decor, jewelry, gifts, and other souvenirs from your Wyoming road trip. If you time your visit right, you can also make the annual Born in a Barn flea market that Shelley Kinnison hosts, with a slew of carefully curated vendors slinging everything from clothes to crafts to vintage finds.
The Brinton Museum was once home to the prominent Brinton family, before the ranch was turned into a museum by Helen Brinton in the early 1960s. Now it houses a permanent collection including several pieces by Catharine Critcher – who was the only woman artist among the original members of the Taos Society of Artists – as well as historic photos taken by Jessamine Spear Johnson. Visiting exhibits routinely showcase the work of regional female artists, too.
Where to eat and drink:
Black Tooth Brewery churns out inventive brews like the Saddle Bronc Brown Ale and Copper Mule Ginger / Lime Cream Ales. It has become a fixture in the Sheridan area living up to its slogan “Drink the West!”
Luminous Brewhouse is a great place to go if you’re not sure what you like. Taproom manager Kathryn Law and the knowledgeable staff can lead you through the menu of session ales, IPAs, and even caffeinated coffee ales.
In addition to a wide range of beers, Smith Alley Brewing Company also boasts a full menu, with items like pub appetizers, burgers, sandwiches, soups, and salads, often with a western flare, such as the Burnin’ Love topped with Hatch green chile.
Where to stay:
Start the drive down to Casper a little early, and stay part way between Sheridan and Casper at Paradise Guest Ranch, which has been hosting visitors for a hundred years. Whether you stay overnight in a cabin or stick around a little longer for horseback riding and fishing, you’ll definitely have an authentic Wyoming experience.
Two-and-a-half hours from Paradise Guest Ranch, Casper is the second largest city in Wyoming, best known for its ties to the oil and gas industry. That said, Casper isn’t short on cowboy culture and history either, and is a fantastic outdoor playground, home to a ski slope, biathlon club, rock climbing opportunities, and herds of friendly antelope that sometimes crash downtown to munch on the landscaped medians.
What to do:
The excellent Nicolaysen Art Museum is a must-see run by curator of art Amanda Yonker and executive director Ann Ruble. Through 2020, the museum is celebrating "The Year of Women." The Nicolaysen's galleries will be completely taken over with shows by 21 women from around the state in honor of 150 years of women’s suffrage in Wyoming.
The National Trails Interpretive Center is a great destination to learn more about the pioneer families that swept through Casper and Wyoming on the Mormon Trail and Oregon Trail, including women who were making life work in unpredictable conditions. There are also exhibits on Wyoming's Native American history. This is an ideal spot for all ages, with lots to keep little ones entertained in particular.
Hogadon Ski Basin is an ideal place to carve fresh powder in the winter, with a summit resort on top of Casper Mountain that includes a restaurant and 28 trails for a variety of skill levels across 50 miles of terrain. You can also snowshoe and fatbike here, as well as enjoy mountain biking in the summer months.
The Ugly Bug Fly Shop and Crazy Rainbow Fly Fishing offer visitors entry points to the fantastic Wyoming angling scene, with proprietary access to 8 miles of the North Platte River near Casper. Manager Addie Dees is just one of the numerous experts on staff who offer guided fishing trips, as well as host events at the Ugly Bug like Fly-Tying Class and Wine Tasting combos.
Where to eat and drink:
Backwards Distilling Company is a family-run spirits company fronted by Amber Pollock and her wife, and backed by the Pollocks' collaborative efforts on recipe development for gins, vodkas and now whiskeys, all aged and barreled right here in Casper. Swing by for a circus-themed cocktail in the downtown tasting room.
The C85 Branding Iron offers burgers, boozy shakes, loaded curly fries, and squeaky cheese curds in its menu of hearty pub fare, with local brews on tap.
The Cheese Barrel is a great spot for an authentic western breakfast with dishes like the Green Chili Skillet or Casper Sunrise with sausage and cheese crepes.
Where to stay:
Crazy Rainbow Fly Fishing offers cabins near prime fishing spots.
The Ramkota Hotel and Conference Center is a comfortable, well-appointed place to close out your Casper experience and your women’s history road trip through Wyoming.
From here, it's just a two-and-a-half hour drive back to Cheyenne down I-25, or three hours if you take the scenic route back through Medicine Bow and Laramie on Highway 30. It's about four hours to Denver airport by interstate.
Lonely Planet writer Meghan O'Dea travelled to Wyoming with assistance from Travel Wyoming. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.