A road trip to Casper, Wyoming? This Western town might surprise you

A very short lift line at Hogadon Basin on a sunny Saturday in Casper, Wyoming. (Irene Middleman Thomas/Special to The Denver Post)

The author Irene Middleman Thomas with the bison sculpture at Natrona Airport in Casper, Wyoming. (Courtesy of Irene Middleman Thomas/Special to The Denver Post)

Just more than a four-hour drive from Denver or via a one-hour direct flight, there is a place that defied my expectations in a BIG way. Happily, on a recent visit, I discovered that Casper, Wyoming, is a delightful, diverse, happening, Western-feel town with a hefty dose of sophistication.

From the moment I entered the airport (just one baggage carousel!) and saw the life-sized bison sculpture, I felt that “cowboy” vibe, and gave in to a selfie with it.

Casper, with about 90,000 residents in its surrounding county according to the Casper Official Guide 2024, is Wyoming’s second-largest city after Cheyenne. Small, yes, but it is large in its big-city cuisine, beverage scene, cultural venues and population diversity, as well as some rather wild incongruity.

Perhaps the strangest things were the large flocks of wild turkeys I kept spotting on front lawns of homes, but most surprising of all was the Jeffree Star flagship store, This shop is the only physical outlet in which to buy the eclectic and controversial celebrity’s cosmetic line and yak meat from his Star Yak Ranch. Yes, “Makeup and Meat” is the product line at his enormous Barbie-pink store. Who knew? Casper is where the very flamboyant Star has made his home.

Russell Hawley, guide extraordinaire, at the Tate Geological Museum in Casper, Wyoming. (Irene Middleman Thomas/Special to The Denver Post)

Naturally, there are several outstanding, traditional steakhouses one would expect in Wyoming. However, they also have enticing, not-so-traditional items such as caprese salads, crab-crusted chicken and duck Cajun gumbo.

The new Hokkaido Ramen is totally Japanese in menu and ambiance, just as it would be in a major urban city on the coast. Ah, and the distillery in town? I was blown away by the oh-so-whimsical, circus-themed Backwards Distillery Co., launched in 2014, with its house-distilled spirits and crazy cocktail menu. “The Reef,” with its rum, almond, pistachio, lime, allspice, ginger beer and touch of cream, was exceptional on a frosty winter night.

The area is a four-season outdoor haven, with blue ribbon fly-fishing, hiking, horseback riding, water sports, mountain biking, llama treks, etc. My trip was during the winter. Until I arrived, I had no plans to downhill ski ever again. I had been skiing since I was a middle schooler, all over Colorado, but hadn’t gone since the pandemic began. I was turned off by the I-70 traffic, the crowds and the fear that I would have “forgotten” how to ski after some six years. And yet, here I was, having a most delightful day, skiing as though I had not had any respite, on perfect snow with no lift lines, just 20 minutes from downtown.

Blackened Shrimp and Crispy Goat Cheese Salad at Wyoming Ale Works. (Irene Middleman Thomas/Special to The Denver Post)

I was at Hogadon Basin Ski Area, 11 miles south of Casper. Never heard of it? I hadn’t either. We Coloradoans can be a tad snobby about our state and its fabulous recreational glories, but truth be told, great skiing can be had in other states as well. Hogadon boasts 60 acres of groomed trails, and a 600-foot vertical rise. Trails are not as long as many in Colorado, and there is only one chairlift. Yet, the lack of lines on a windless sunny day was truly bliss, allowing for much more actual skiing instead of waiting in line, and the $60 daily lift tickets were a treat. Hogadon Basin has 28 green, blue and black trails, with 40% classified as expert, and there is a terrain park as well. I was amused by the unusual design of the resort, with the parking lot and lodge on the summit rather than the base, like most ski areas.

Snowshoeing is also lovely in the area, with little pine beetle kill and county-maintained groomed trails up on Casper Mountain. Mountain Sports rents snowshoes and just about any other sporting equipment.

Downtown Casper is vibrant — old-timey and yet not so old, with huge wall murals, some trendy artsy shops like Floral Rhino, as well as beloved still-going artifacts (since 1919) like Lou Taubert Ranch Outfitters. There I watched an employee steam cowboy hats and gazed in wonder at the Saddle & Tack room. Nine floors of boots, hats, jeans, Wyoming souvenirs and more make up a rather museum-like ambiance where I spent a good hour perusing. Summertime brings concerts, festivals and markets at downtown’s David Street Station community gathering center.

The display in Lou Taubert’s Saddle & Tack room is like a museum in Casper, Wyoming. (Irene Middleman Thomas/Special to The Denver Post)

Casper College is home to two excellent museums well worth the visit. For those interested in taxidermy, the Werner Wildlife Museum is home to hundreds of animals from all over the world. My favorite is the Tate Geological Museum, free of charge and where the oldest mammoth in the nation on display is located, along with some 3,000 other fossils, countless gemstones and minerals. And Willy Wonka-like, self-described “dino nerd” named Russell Hawley must be the most enthusiastic dinosaur and fossil guide in the world, as he gushed to us about all of the wonders and treasures so well exhibited. Hawley’s exquisite pen and ink renderings of prehistoric creatures are on display as well throughout the Tate, which draws up to 300 visitors a day.

Art lovers enjoy the Nicolaysen Art Museum (or “The Nic”) with master works by Picasso, Calder, Wyeth, Toulouse Lautrec and more, as well as exceptionally well-curated exhibitions from Wyoming artists and others. With an admission charge of just $5, the museum is a gem and yet another Casper surprise. An exquisite show of Eileen Nistler’s incredible floral drawings done in colored pencil astounded me.

Another fine museum is the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center, operated by the Bureau of Land Management as a public-private partnership between the BLM, the National Historic Trails Center Foundation and the city of Casper. The center focuses on Casper’s hub for the Oregon, California, Pony Express, Bozeman and Mormon Trails in the mid-1800s. This outstanding, immersive museum commemorates Native American history, early explorers and the above pioneer trails through hands-on, interactive exhibits, multimedia programs and virtual education opportunities. Sitting in a replica of a stagecoach, which tossed us about while watching and listening to a film of bison, the rutted trails brought me back into the days of the “Wild West” perhaps better than anything else I’ve experienced. This free-of-charge center could easily be visited for several hours.

The National Historic Trails Interpretive Center is a must-do in Casper, Wyoming. (Irene Middleman Thomas/Special to The Denver Post)

Many folks who had never been to Casper ventured there in 2017, when the city experienced 100% totality during the solar eclipse. The eclipse is touted as having put Casper back on the map, and many new businesses and restaurants opened successfully for the explosion of tourists, some of whom moved there after their visits.

Listed by True West Magazine as one of the top True Western Towns, Men’s Journal as a top-20 United States mountain town and American Angler as the top Big Fish Destination, Casper is drawing attention as a small city with a whole lot to offer.


Where to eat:

Wyoming Ale Works, 5900 E. Second St.: Lively pub atmosphere with an outstanding array of brews and gastronomy. Check out the “Bovine and Swine” Sausage Board.

Johnny J’s Diner, 1705 E. Second St.: A 50s-style diner, it’s very popular, especially for breakfast. Incredible yummy Cinnamon Roll French Toast!

FireRock Steakhouse, 6100 E. Second St.: Classy yet casual, with urban steakhouse cuisine and choices for non-meat eaters as well.

Backwards Distilling Co., 214 S. Wolcott St.: THE place to go for wildly creative cocktails made from the on-site distilled hard liquors. It’s also the place where you might have your preconceived notions about Wyoming challenged — this is hip, cool and trendy … and fabulous.

The Bluebird, 544 S. Center St.: Open for breakfast and lunch only, this kind of funky, grandma’s-house-feel place is cozy and welcoming. Don’t miss the Monte Cristo Stuffed French Toast, unless you are offered the special that I adored — Cream Cheese Stuffed French Toast with Mountain Berries!

Stuffed French Toast with Mountain Berries at The Bluebird in Casper, Wyoming. (Irene Middleman Thomas/Special to The Denver Post)

Where to stay:

Holiday Inn Casper East, 721 Granite Peak Drive: Well-maintained, large comfortable rooms, full-service restaurant, gym and pool.

Best Western Downtown Casper Hotel, 123 West E. St.: Two blocks from downtown action and shops, recently renovated.

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