Experience the true flavor of the West in and around the city that will host FMCA’s 107th International Convention & RV Expo this August.
By Susie Wall
You’d be hard-pressed to find a place that more perfectly embodies the West than Gillette, Wyoming. Gillette lies in the northeast corner of the state, in Campbell County, surrounded by wide-open plains and vast grasslands where pronghorn antelopes and prairie dogs are more prevalent than people. Also known as the Energy Capital of the Nation, Gillette is made up of around 30,000 hardworking, friendly folks who are proud of their heritage and respectful of the land and the natural resources that support them.
Those attending FMCA’s 107th International Convention & RV Expo August 23 through 26, 2023, at the CAM-PLEX Multi-Event Facilities will find many opportunities to get to know the town and explore all the things Gillette has to offer.
Dig Into Gillette
Start your exploration in Gillette’s vibrant downtown. Stop at the Campbell County Convention & Visitors Bureau and Gillette Main Street visitor center at 314 S. Gillette Ave. to pick up guides and maps and glean ideas from the helpful staff. Be sure one of those guides is for the Downtown Gillette Walking Tour. The tour takes you along seven blocks of Gillette Avenue through the heart of downtown to learn about Gillette’s fascinating history over the past 130 years via its historic buildings.
Continue your tour by visiting the many locally owned shops, among them Pat’s Hallmark Shop, the largest Hallmark store in Wyoming. Another local favorite is the Ice Cream Café, known for its homemade waffle cones and ice cream.
Branch out to Gillette’s many city parks, from the shimmering fishing pond and whimsical sculptures in Dalbey Memorial Park to the tree-lined pathways and military memorials at Lasting Legacy Park. Located just down the road from the expo headquarters is CAM-PLEX Park. Here, you can choose the perfect picnic table, stroll the shaded walking trails, play a round of disc golf, and learn about local tree species at the Campbell County Arboretum.
For a fascinating look at the his-tory of Gillette and surrounding Campbell County, head over to the Rockpile Museum. Extensive exhibits educate visitors about the daily lives of the county’s inhabitants through the years. Displays range from Native American artifacts to a variety of buckboards and sheepherder wagons, as well as elegant hats and coats of the fashionable ladies who lived in town. Don’t miss the wealth of exhibits about the importance of Gillette’s mining industry. Next door at the Annex Building, check out walk-in examples of a homesteader’s cabin, a saloon, and a print shop. You also can walk through two one-room schoolhouses and a railroad caboose on the museum’s grounds. Admission is $10 for adults; $8 for seniors; and $5 for students; free for children 5 and under, as well as military veterans and their spouses.
Just down the road, visit the fun and funky Frontier Auto Museum and Relic Store. The museum covers 13,000 square feet and is part antique shop, part automobile and history museum. Cavernous rooms feature classic cars and pickup trucks, close to 300 gas-pump globes, and enormous neon signs that hang overhead. Grab a soda and a box of old-fashioned candy and delight in the indoor “drive-in theater.” Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a regular feature, giving a nod to the film’s location at nearby Devils Tower. Adult admission is $12; seniors, $10. Children 12 and under are admitted free.
Take A Tour
To get an insider’s view into how locals use the land in unique ways to fuel the economy, sign up for two tours offered through Visit Gillette & Wright, Wyoming.
Close to 3,000 bison roam 55,000 acres of the Wyoming prairie at the family-owned Durham Bison Ranch, located 35 miles south of Gillette in the town of Wright. The ranch offers tours that grant visitors close-up views of these magnificent animals as they roam across the landscape. The staff at the ranch have great respect for the animals and their wild nature, so humane handling practices are a must, and the use of growth hormones is never allowed.
Check in for the tour at the gift shop just inside the ranch gates, where you can purchase hyper-local bison meat. A guide will lead the group into the barn to learn all about ranch operations. Then it’s onto the bus for a drive out to the herd. Once there, the guide will allow everyone to disembark. He asks you to stay close to the bus, but the experience is still thrilling, as there is nothing between you and the bison. As massive bulls lumber past and spry red calves trot along behind their mothers under the cobalt-blue sky, envision a time when herds like this covered the plains. The tour is offered Mondays and Wednesdays at 10:00 a.m. and Fridays at 3:00 p.m. The cost is $25 per adult; $10 for children 5-15; free for ages 4 and under. Special group tours can be arranged by calling the Gillette visitor center at (307) 686-0040.
Coal mining has long been Gillette’s bread and butter, and many of the residents in some way make their living through this industry. They are proud to show off their innovations and sustainable practices through the Eagle Butte Coal Mine Tours.
When most people think of taking a tour of a mine, they imagine going deep underground. Not so with Gillette coal mining. These are surface mines, meaning the coal reserves lie very close to the Earth’s surface. Although the land does need to be disturbed to access the coal, surface mining allows for easier reclamation once the coal is gathered. Also, coal from this area is in high demand for electricity production. It has an unusually low sulfur content, which results in reduced carbon emissions and a cleaner form of energy.
Board the tour bus in downtown Gillette. Your guide will be a local who knows all about Gillette’s mining industry and its importance to the community. Once at the mine, you will be afforded views of the entire operation. Watch as gargantuan haul trucks are loaded up with 240 tons of coal by even more gigantic shovels. The packed trucks, each supported by six 12-foot tires, lumber past the van looking like enormous beetles on their way to dump the coal into underground grates to then be loaded onto train cars for distribution. On the way back to Gillette, your guide will explain in detail the process of reclaiming the land after the coal has been extracted. The tours run twice a day Monday through Friday and cost $10 per person; free for children 4 and under.
To take a tour on your own time, hop in your vehicle and drive the Campbell County Wildlife and Natural History Loop Tours. A map of the tour routes can be picked up at the Gillette visitor center. The loops take you along backroads east and west of town with designated spots to stop and look for Wyoming wildlife. Follow the loops in the morning or evening for the best chance to see sage-grouse leks (communal breeding grounds), active prairie dog towns, and pronghorn antelopes. The roads are flat and range from pavement to gravel.
Beyond, To The Black Hills
If you are looking to extend your trip before or after the convention, there is no better option than a short hop across the border to the Black Hills of South Dakota. The town of Custer is a good base camp and only 114 miles from Gillette. As you leave
the interstate and enter South Dakota and the Black Hills, the road begins to wind, the pine trees close in, and jagged rock formations jut up from the hills.
Wind Cave National Park lies roughly 20 miles south of Custer and provides a wealth of activities above and below ground. Above ground, bison and elk roam the expansive grasslands. To best explore the park, hike one of the many trails, which range from short nature walks to strenuous climbs, or drive along the park roads for spectacular views. Then go below on one of the six ranger-led cave tours. Follow a series of 150 stairs to see wondrous formations on the Garden of Eden Tour. The Accessibility Tour is stair-free and takes visitors into one of the larger rooms of the cave. There is a fee for each tour. You can sign up in person, but to guarantee a spot, make a reservation online at recreation.gov.
Custer State Park sits on the north border of Wind Cave National Park. You could easily spend a week exploring the park’s 71,000 acres, but if pressed for time, drive the Wildlife Loop Road. Living up to its name, the road offers amazing wildlife-watching opportunities, including bison, elk, coyotes, songbirds, raptors, and wild burros. Stop into the three visitor centers along the loop to learn about all aspects of the park, from its history to its bison herds. Twenty dollars grants you a seven-day pass to the park.
Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road are two unique drives that lead out of Custer State Park and are must-sees if you have the time and a vehicle nimble enough to handle hairpin turns and tight tunnels. Each drive is very windy and steep, forcing you to take your time, pull off often, and enjoy the scenery. Needles Highway is a 14-mile road that takes you through pine, birch, and aspen forests and past the prominent granite rock formations that gave the road its name. Eighteen-mile Iron Mountain Road offers spectacular views of the surrounding Black Hills and tunnels that perfectly frame Mount Rushmore in the distance. It is known for its pigtail bridges — a bridge that loops over its own road.
Keep in mind the vehicle height and width restrictions before setting out. The smallest tunnel on Iron Mountain Road is 10 feet 9 inches wide and 11 feet high. The smallest on Needles Highway is 8 feet wide and 9 feet 9 inches high. Other tunnels, though slightly larger, are not passable by most RVs; so, it’s best to explore via towed/towing vehicle.
Gillette prides itself on offering a small-town Americana experience with a flair for the wild. Visitors can explore a mix of history and modern amenities in a picturesque setting with plenty of room to roam and abundant opportunities for spotting wildlife. Why not make this the summer you set aside time to explore the American West?
Visit Gillette & Wright, Wyoming
Black Hills & Badlands South Dakota