Saddle Up for the Summer’s Best Wild West Festivals
From cowboy poets to Black rodeos, and all the corn dogs you can eat.
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.
Deadwood, South Dakota
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.
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.
June 28–July 4
Common lore in the US holds that on July 4, 1888, the modern rodeo was born in Prescott, Arizona (though Pecos, Texas disputes the claim). 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.
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, honoring 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.
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 honor 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, 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.
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 center 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.
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 center 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.
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.
Benson, North Carolina
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.
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.