As my plane approached Casper, I expected to witness Wyoming’s wide-open vistas, those panoramic scene-stealers I’ve since found evoked in the writings of Greta Ehrlich and CJ Box. I hadn’t expected how exploring Casper’s historical roots would bring such surprising revelations during my stay.
From learning about Casper’s earliest origins at the Tate Geological Museum, on a dinosaur dig, or a downtown walking tour — to visiting the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center, touring the town’s military hub at Fort Casper, or following the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon — Casper’s rich history comes alive at several touch points for travelers, setting the stage for a rich and varied visit.
The Tate Geological Museum
Imagine the paleontologists’ excitement when first contacted about several large white bones that a backhoe operator had unearthed north of Glenrock, WY, in 2006. Fast forward four summers when over 300 mammoth bones had been collected, cleaned, and identified, enabling the skeletal reassembling of Dee, an 11,600-year-old Columbian mammoth who lived during the Pleistocene (Ice Age) era and whose skull measuring five feet in length with a tusk of about eight feet long with a nine-inch diameter, clearly makes the specimen the kingpin of the Tate Geological Museum.
Located at Casper College, the museum offers several enriching experiences in addition to Dee. They include exhibits like the Hall of Minerals; a Walk Through Time featuring touchable fossil samples; and Mesozoic Marine and Terrestrial displays. Tours, lecture series, and even week-long dinosaur digs (safaris) are also offered to channel your inner paleontologist.
Downtown Walking Tour
An estimated 1.5-hour self-guided walking tour of Casper’s downtown core is a step back in time where today’s hub at Center and 1st Street echoes the city’s beginnings in the late 1880s. Display signs highlight the town’s historical significance in three parts: “Casper’s Oil Legacy;” “Sagebrush to Bricks,” noting the evolution from tents to buildings from the early 1900s to 1920s; and “Tracks of Casper,” defining the town’s timeline from dinosaurs to the railroad.
Ornate patterns, sculptures, and classical Greek and Roman carvings enhance the exterior elegance of downtown buildings, earning several a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Learning the stories of luminaries like Ernest Hemingway, Dizzy Dean, and Ty Cobb, who also passed this way, enlivens our connection to the past, as do the bold, colorful murals we spot en route, designed to foster peace, community, and cultural understanding.
Naturally, all that walking is sure to work up a visitor’s thirst and appetite, and we found plenty of watering holes and eateries to choose from downtown. Start your day off with a classic BBB (Bluebird Breakfast) at The Bluebird Restaurant. Then enjoy a mid-morning art & coffee break at Scarlow’s Gallery. Go for a brew and a signature J’s cheeseburger with sweet potato fries at J’s Pub & Grill, and quench your thirst with a craft cocktail at The Drinkery or Backward’s Distilling Company.
The Bishop Home Museum
Our Casper visit offered a peek into the daily life experience of the town’s early residents on a tour of a local landmark, the home of the Bishop family, who lived in the region for over 100 years. The youngest daughter, Lucile, lived in the home from birth in 1908 until her death in 1997. Beautifully renovated and now a museum, the home features keepsakes of the period, such as clothing, children’s books and toys, and furnishings.
National Historic Trails Interpretive Center
If all roads lead to Rome, after a visit to Casper’s National Historic Trails Interpretive Center, you will leave with the knowledge that the most significant historic Western trails crossed through Casper, Wyoming, in the late 1880s.
A walk through the Native American Gallery calls attention to how the abundance of Wyoming’s landscape sustained indigenous populations. Further exhibits reveal not only what attracted 500,000 emigrants from 1840 to 1869 on each of their journeys: “free gold” (California), “religious freedom” (Mormon), and “free land” (Oregon); visitors can also experience how that felt in a virtual wagon ride across the North Platte River, complete with bumps and rocking along the way. NHTIC also displays the history and pathways followed by the Pony Express National Historic Trail through Casper as it traversed the country from Missouri to Sacramento in its short-lived, though memorable, run.
Diary entries from the region’s pioneers pepper enticing exhibits, include a virtual stagecoach ride and an 18-minute multimedia program, “Footsteps to the West,” narrated by American actor Wilford Brimley.
Fort Caspar Museum and Historic Site
Along the crossing of these historic trails, the reconstructed Fort Caspar military post gives visitors a fascinating first-hand look at life in this community from 1865 to 1867. Named in honor of Army Lieutenant Caspar Collins, who was killed in the Battle of Platte Bridge Station against the Lakota and Cheyenne in 1865, the site invites exploration of several buildings, including Sutler Store that housed supplies for soldiers and emigrants who passed through the territory, soldiers’ living quarters complete with furnishings and clothing of the times, a mess hall, and more. Also on site: a reproduction of the Mormon ferry, the first commercial ferry offering transport across the treacherous North Platte River from 1847-1849, and a section of the Guinard Bridge built by Louis Guinard in 1859-1860.
Inside the museum, the Native American exhibit highlights the history of the Native Americans on the Northern Plains. At the same time, artifacts, photographs, and interactive displays provide further insight into Fort Caspar’s role in Wyoming history.
Historic Trails West
Those of us who live in the Pacific Northwest are no strangers to the history of the Oregon Trail. Yet it’s one thing to walk part of the trail; it’s another to follow along in a covered wagon guided by Morris Carter, the owner of Historic Trails West. We meet in the parking lot of the Trails Center only to have Morris tell us that the trail is too muddy for the horses without risking their injury the day of our visit. Since none of us wished that, we still couldn’t conceal our disappointment, especially after one in our group donned a pioneer bonnet to fully embrace the experience after purchasing one from the Trails gift shop.
Fortunately, Morris has devised a plan to take us on an improvised tour of a shorter route that promises a covered wagon experience without harming the horses. We’re delighted! As he regales us with tales of Wyoming’s history through the lens of the pioneers along the Oregon Trail, our minds wander, imagining the hardships and grit of those who bravely paved the way so that others might follow. We end our covered wagon journey with the treat of a Dutch oven Conestoga Cobbler, giving thanks for our journey through Casper’s fabled history. Yum!
For places to stay on your visit to Wyoming, check out this article.
Thanks to Visit Casper for hosting my visit.