Though chronically over-romanticized in literature and on film, there's still no more compelling period in American history than that of the Wild West, replete with its colorful cohort of fabulously lucky prospectors, crafty cardsharps, dastardly outlaws, steel-nerved lawmen, and hard-nosed but lovely "soiled doves." You may not want to have lived back then, but to visit -- and especially spend the night in -- a restored boomtown is a sensual and educational treat for any 21st century adventure-seeker.
To be sure, there's generally no escaping the gamut of hokey tourist dross -- staged gunfights, wax museums, ghost tours, and the obligatory Boot Hill cemetery. But neither is there any denying the emotional appeal of clomping down raised boardwalks, busting through swinging saloon doors, and turning your imagination loose as you fall asleep in authentic, if modernized, period digs. And the kids will love all the action, costumed pageantry and hands-on experiences.
So, should you happen to be traveling out West this summer, here are profiles of six of the 19th century's most iconic and best-preserved boomtowns, each worth a detour.
LOCATION 80 miles southeast of Tucson
CLAIM TO FAME The "town too tough to die" was founded in 1877 by prospector Ed Schieffelin, who had been assured he would find nothing in the Apache-infested desert except his own tombstone. What he found was the first of some $37 million worth of silver. Today, however, Tombstone is known worldwide for what happened in just 30 seconds on Oct. 26, 1881 -- the gunfight in the O.K. Corral that pitted Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers against the Earp brothers (Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan) and "Doc" Holliday.
ACTIVITIES Absorb history at the 1882 Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park; marvel at the Bird Cage Theatre, a drinking-gambling-prostitution emporium that opened on Christmas Day 1881, and stayed open 24/7 for eight years; read up on western history at the offices of the Epitaph newspaper. And, of course, watch any number of daily re-enactments of the West's most famous shootout.
Crystal Palace Saloon (436 E. Allen St.) and Big Nose Kate's Saloon (421 E. Allen St.), named after Doc Holliday's girlfriend, where the Clantons and McLaurys stayed the night before the gunfight.
BED DOWN Period bed-and-breakfasts include Marie's, a 1906 adobe ($73-139, 101 N. Fourth St., 520-457- 3831, mariesbandb.com) and the Tombstone Bordello BandB ($79-99, 101 W. Allen St., 520-457-2394, tombstonebordello.com). Opened just last year is Virgil's Corner B-and-B, a re-creation of Virgil Earp's house on the exact site ($120, 92 E. Fremont St., 520-548-1025, virgilscorner.com).
INFO Tombstone Chamber of Commerce, 520-457-9317, tombstoneweb.com
LOCATION 42 miles northwest of Rapid City, convenient to Mount Rushmore
CLAIM TO FAME The Black Hills Gold Rush swept into this gulch of dead trees in 1876, bringing with it a torrent of fortune-seekers, including the legendary Wild Bill Hickok, who was shot in the back by Jack McCall during a card game that August. The return of legalized gambling in 1989 provided Deadwood with a desperately needed face-lift, though at the cost of much historical authenticity.
ACTIVITIES Tour the opulent Queen Anne-style Adams House; pore over the historical artifacts and displays at the extensive Adams Museum; pan for gold at the Lost Boot Mine. Attend the nightly trail of Jack McCall at the Masonic Temple; pay your respects to Wild Bill and Calamity Jane at Mount Moriah Cemetery.
BELLY UP Half museum, half bar, the Old Style Saloon #10 (657 Main St.) is where Wild Bill Hickok met his end -- and now does so again and again, four times daily.
BED DOWN Try either Deadwood's first and finest hotel, The Bullock ($130-$230, 633 Main St., 800-336-1876, historicbullock.com) or the 1903 Franklin ($89-$209, 700 Main St., 605-578-3670, silveradofranklin.com).
INFO Deadwood Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, 800-999-1876, deadwood.com
DODGE CITY, KAN.
LOCATION 150 miles west of Wichita
CLAIM TO FAME "The Queen of the Cowtowns" sprang into existence with the arrival of the Santa Fe Railway in 1872, allowing first for the shipping of native buffaloes (slaughtered by the hundred thousands), followed by longhorn cattle driven up from Texas. Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp both dispensed frontier justice in this hard-partying, end-of-the-trail town, but "Gunsmoke's" Matt Dillon was entirely fictional.
ACTIVITIES Experience wild and woolly Front Street, circa 1876, as re-created at the Boot Hill Museum, on the site of the original Boot Hill Cemetery; see the remnants of 1865 Fort Dodge five miles east, and the ruts of the even older Santa Fe Trail nine miles west; check out the resident herd of cattle at Longhorn Park.
BELLY UP Miss Kitty's Long Branch Saloon (inside the Boot Hill Museum) serves up beer and sarsaparilla in addition to a nightly chuck wagon dinner. Stick around afterward for the hourlong, family-oriented variety show.
BED DOWN The Dodge House Hotel, founded in 1873, is still in business, though not in the original building, which burned in the 1920s ($114-139, 2408 W. Wyatt Earp Blvd., 620-225-9900, dodgehousehotel.com).
VIRGINIA AND NEVADA CITIES, MONT.
LOCATION 75 miles southeast of Butte, convenient to Yellowstone National Park
CLAIM TO FAME More than $90 million worth of gold was pulled out of 14-mile-long Alder Gulch from 1863-75, catapulting Montana into territorial status. Preservation -- not revitalization -- began in the 1960s, and is now managed by the Montana Heritage Commission, which keeps these twin towns (three miles apart) refreshingly free of tacky commercialism.
ACTIVITIES Check out the re-created village (but with all original buildings) at the Nevada City Open Air Museum; ride the Alder Gulch Shortline Railroad; catch the Virginia City Players (family melodrama) at the Opera House or the Brewery Follies (cabaret) at the H.S. Gilbert Brewery; check out Robber's Roost, alleged hideout of highwayman sheriff Henry Plummer.
BELLY UP The Bale of Hay Saloon (344 Wallace St.) or the Pioneer Bar (210 Wallace St.)
VIRGINIA CITY, NEV.
CLAIM TO FAME The Comstock Lode, the single richest deposit of silver and gold in the continental United States, was struck here on the side of Mount Davidson in 1859, triggering a deep-mining boom that would last 20 years and attract some 25,000, including a budding young writer by the name of Samuel Clemens.
ACTIVITIES Venture inside the 1861 Chollar Mine; ride the Virginia & Truckee Steam Railroad; tour Mackay Mansion, the opulent home of mine owner Thomas Mackay; see where Clemens discovered his inner vein at the Mark Twain Museum at the Territorial Enterprise; immerse yourself in Comstock lore at The Way It Was Museum.
BELLY UP The Bucket of Blood, Delta, Washoe Club and Ponderosa saloons (the latter with its own mine in the back) all on architecturally authentic, if touristy, D Street.
BED DOWN The Gold Hill Hotel, Nevada's oldest operating inn ($45-145, 1540 Main St., Virginia City, 775-847-0111, goldhillhotel.net) or the Tahoe House Hotel ($70-185, 162 S. C St., Virginia City, 775-847-5264, tahoehousehotel.com)
CRIPPLE CREEK, COLO.
LOCATION 45 miles west of Colorado Springs; on the eastern slope of Pikes Peak
CLAIM TO FAME Cripple Creek's moniker, "the World's Greatest Gold Camp," stems from the fact that more gold (over 22 million ounces) was discovered here, beginning in 1890, than in California and Alaska combined. But with more than 25,000 residents, turn-of-the-20th-century Cripple Creek was a true city, and a very wealthy one at that.
ACTIVITIES Glance back into the past at the Cripple Creek District Museum; descend 1,000 feet into the Mollie Kathleen Mine; enjoy the scenery on the Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad; guffaw at the Butte Theatre's spoof melodrama; ogle the opulence of the Old Homestead Parlour House Museum, Cripple Creek's finest house of ill repute; pose with the town's resident free-roaming donkeys.
BELLY UP As in Deadwood, most of Cripple Creek's original watering holes have been usurped by limited-stakes casinos. But there's still The Creek (317 E. Bennett Ave.), mercifully free of slot machines.
BED DOWN Hotel St. Nicholas ($80-150, 303 N. Third St., 719-689-0856, hotelstnicholas.com) originally a hospital, or the Imperial Hotel ($125-225, 123 N. Third St., 719-689-2561, imperialhotelrestaurant.com).
INFO City of Cripple Creek, 877-858-4653, visitcripplecreek.com