Across Northern Wyoming: Interstate 90, Gillette, Buffalo


On the final night of my trip, as I ate dinner at a restaurant in Salt Lake City, I told the waitress about the long drive I had just completed.  She told me she grew up in Wyoming, and asked me how I liked it.  Then, she did something that surprised me.  She apologized for the middle of the state.

I wasn’t certain for what she was apologizing, since I chose to remember the best parts of the state, and forget the less exciting places.  But now that I’ve given it some thought, she must have been talking about the long, lonely stretches of Interstate 90 on either side of Gillette.

After driving for more than 60 miles from Devils Tower to Gillette, I was once again surprised by the size of the town I discovered.  Despite being the only town of any measurable size, for at least an hour’s drive in any direction, Gillette is very, very tiny.  Fewer than 20,000 people live here (as of the 2000 census), and Gillette’s downtown (along Gillette Avenue) lacks any tall buildings.

With night approaching, I wanted to make it to the next town, Buffalo, 70 miles away.  So I set out…

… on a very flat road.  There is nothing out here.  If anyone ever tells you that America is too crowded, send them on a drive between Gillette and Buffalo.

With a couple dozen miles left to go before Buffalo, the imposing Big Horn Mountains appeared on the horizon.  Thanks to the clouds, they’re a little tough to see in this picture, but trust me, they’re there, they’re huge, and you won’t be able to stop staring at them for the rest of the drive into Buffalo.

Buffalo, WY

If you go by population alone, Buffalo is a much smaller town than Gillette.  In the 2000 census, it had less than 4,000 residents.  Even so, it somehow felt bigger to me.

Just like Gillette, Buffalo’s downtown is just a few blocks long.  But on this cool night, as the sun set, Main Street (south of the US 16 turnoff) was beautifully lit.  Of course, everything was closed, but it was still a nice place to explore.

Buffalo’s most famous business is the Occidental Hotel.  The Occidental was founded in 1880, and the current building dates back at least to the early 20th century.  Author Owen Wister helped make the Occidental known worldwide, when he wrote The Virginian.  He based many of the book’s characters on the people he met in the hotel’s saloon.

In addition to Owen Wister, the long list of famous folks who visited or stayed at the Occidental include: Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, Ernest Hemingway, Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane, General Phil Sheridan, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and lawman and hired gun Tom Horn.  You can learn more about the Occidental’s history, and check room rates, on its webpage.

“Buffalo, Wyoming… more than a one horse town!”

I would have re-visited downtown Buffalo the following morning, if I hadn’t needed to get an early start.  Instead of the Occidental (which is a bit pricey), I stayed at one of the generic chain motels sandwiched in between I-90 and I-25, on US 16.

I had the bad luck of making this trip during the high gas prices of the summer of 2008, when a gallon of regular unleaded hovered near $4 a gallon.  I quickly discovered that all the gas stations in Buffalo were even more expensive than that — around $4.15 if I remember correctly (gas was cheaper in Gillette).  I was so frustrated with the price, I only bought 5 gallons, before leaving town on a very long and lonely trek across the Bighorn Mountains.  This was, of course, a mistake, and I spent far too much time on Day 8 driving on fumes.  So, top off your tank in Buffalo, even if it hurts.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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