America’s Wild West – an era of 19th-century pioneers, cattle drives that traversed rugged terrain and heroes who fell on either side of the law – was dominated long ago. Like wranglers taming feral horses, Americans eventually conquered the mysterious frontier, industrializing its scenery, ousting its native peoples and reigning in its lawlessness.

But look closely enough and you will find pockets of traditional American Western culture that stay true to their heritage; places where real life cowboys still ride across untamed landscapes.

Following the American Civil War (1861 to 1865), the growth of the nation’s cattle industry gave rise to the prominence of the American cowboy in Texas. Ranchers began herding their cattle to railroads in the East to meet the increasing demand for beef.

In Fort Worth, a city serious about its western heritage where Texas Longhorn cattle are still herded through town twice a day for tourists to see, the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame celebrates the lives of past and present influential cowboys. Its Chisholm Trail Exhibit leads visitors along the 19th-century trail (named after the Cherokee-Scottish trader, trail guide and interpreter Jesse Chisholm) upon which ranchers drove cattle from Texas to Kansas. A great exhibit for children is the Adventures of the Cowboy Trail. Although being indoors in a museum does take some of the “adventure” out of it, the exhibit features interactive stations where kids can re-enact such activities as packing for a trail, preparing the cook’s wagon, branding cows, and digging for Native American arrowheads.

On 28 July, Fort Worth’s Stockyards historic district celebrates the National Day of the American Cowboy, featuring events such as the Hay Stacking World Championships and Cowboy Idol, a country-western version of the TV singing competition American Idol.

From Fort Worth, head five hours south to Bandera, the self-declared “cowboy capital of the world”. The Bandera area is home to a number of public ranches. All summer long, on BR Lightning Ranch in Hill County, a few miles from downtown Bandera, the Summer Buckle Series Rodeo hosts weekly events such as bull riding, calf roping and steer riding. The ranch also prides itself on being the only place where you can find a high-diving aqua mule act in which the animals dive off a 24ft-high platform into six feet of water. Unsurprisingly, this show has sparked controversy and garnered a great deal of criticism from animal activists. A more animal-friendly experience can be found nearby at Hill County Alpacas, a ranch with award-winning (and adorable) huacaya alpacas, bred for their soft fur.

Oklahoma City’s National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum (formerly the National Cowboy Hall of Fame houses some of the country’s most renowned Western art. Currently, the Prix de West Invitational, an exhibit featuring over 300 works of authentic Western art, is bringing together talented contemporary painters and sculptors from around the US. Also on display is a collection of the drawings and writings of Will James, an artist who worked to promote positive public perceptions of the working American cowboy during the early 1900s.

Continue the hunt for authentic Western artwork at a fantastic outdoor fair that draws cowboys and collectors from all over the country. The Cowboy Trade Day, two hours northeast of Oklahoma City in Catoosa, takes place every September and is a treat for anyone on a quest for treasures from the true Old West. Craftsmen and antiques wranglers come to sell, trade and buy such prizes as historic spurs and belt buckles, Native American jewellery, old guns (modern firearms are not allowed), pioneer memorabilia, and handcrafted modern and antique saddles, hats and boots.

Colorado recently approved funding for the establishment of a Professional Bull Riders University in the city of Pueblo, two hours south of Denver. The school will be a training facility for rodeo sports and, the town hopes, a tourist attraction for spectators of those sports.

The measure is a strong indication that the cowboy lifestyle is thriving in certain pockets of Colorado. Even the metropolis of Denver still hosts the annual National Western Stock Show, a livestock event that displays 20 different breeds of cows in addition to bison, alpaca, llamas, yaks and more. 

For a unique and perhaps more progressive slice of cowboy culture, the Jefferson County Fair Grounds (20 minutes west of Denver) welcomes the Rocky Mountain Regional Gay Rodeo, taking place 13-15 July this year. The events are what you would find in rodeos elsewhere in the region, but the rodeo bucks the tradition of cowboy sports being associated with chauvinism.

New Mexico
Officially nicknamed the Land of Enchantment, one of New Mexico’s captivating assets is its tradition of Native American art. In the Old West, Navajo and Zuni artists learned the craft of silversmithing from Mexican traders and eventually came to make intricate silver jewellery, embellished with precious stones. Exquisite 19th-century Navajo and Zuni silver and turquoise pieces can still be found today at the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, in northern New Mexico.

Head southwest to discover another New Mexican point of pride and privilege, its striking natural landscape. Lakes, cliffs, and canyons adorn the Gila National Forest where the Geronimo Trail Guest Ranch hides. Take a respite in the ranch’s two quiet cabins, where the Apache and the cowboys and outlaws themes are fitting, considering that the surrounding area was both the birthplace of Apache leader Geronimo and refuge for western outlaws like Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, and the Sundance Kid. Plenty of outdoor activities can be enjoyed in these forests, including hiking and horseback riding, and elk, grey wolves, bald eagles, black bears and mountain lions have all been spotted here. 

New Mexico’s capital of Santa Fe, located between Taos and Geronimo Ranch, is worth a visit for its nuevo-cowboy cuisine. Fresh, local, sustainably raised meats are inventively prepared at the critically acclaimed Aqua Santa (451 West Alameda Street; 505-982-6297), while traditional steakhouses Rio Chama and the Bull Ring serve up Western classics such as burgers, chilli, ribs and, of course, steaks, all popular with locals.

By all accounts, the crown jewel of Arizona is the Grand Canyon. Standing on the rim of this immense rock formation, the endless mosaic of reds, yellows and oranges is humbling and awe-inspiring. The canyon was inhabited by native peoples as far back as 10,000 BC, European explorers braved the inhospitable terrain first in the 1500s and then again in the 1800s, and the canyon became accessible to its first influx of visitors in 1901 when the Grand Canyon Railway was built to service mining claims. Although the Grand Canyon Railway was out of commission from 1968 until the late 1980s, the train is back up and running. The historic railway runs south to north, from the Williams Depot in Williams, Arizona to the Grand Canyon Depot, 65 miles north.

Two hours drive south, embark on a genuine cowboy adventure in the heart of the Coconino National Forest. A scenic drive, including a bumpy stretch of dusty gravel road takes you to  M Diamond Ranch, a 100-year-old family-owned cattle ranch where real cowboys work and live. These wranglers double as tour guides, leading horseback rides through the surrounding arid lands, with views of the red rock mountains of nearby Sedona. Along the way, visitors learn how M Diamond raises its grass-fed cows to produce high quality, sustainable meat. No 20th-century antibiotics or growth hormones on the premises here -- only healthy, happy cows with plenty of space to roam and graze. Guides Gordon Chastain and Bill Jones regale trail riders with tales of former Arizona residents Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the aforementioned Geronimo – as well as sharing stories from their own remarkable lives (ask Chastain the one about the Italian mob boss).

After an afternoon of riding through prickly pear cacti in the strong Southwestern sun, your reward is a relaxing cowboy cookout during a lovely sunset. Acoustic guitarist Alvie Self provides the calming soundtrack, strumming tunes by the likes of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash while you savour succulent steaks, the fruits of the resident ranchers’ labour. The evening is topped off with a round of cowboy poetry.

You cannot ride off into the Arizonan sunset without the proper footwear. Bootmaker Espinoza in Phoenix handcrafts beautiful cowboy boots custom-fit to the shape of each customer’s feet. This intimate workshop and store is a veritable museum of artisan leather products, providing visitors a glimpse into every stage of creation. The leather is buttery soft, the designs are intricate, and the resulting boots, which one customer described as clouds for your feet, will last for the rest of your life.

Get back up on the horse in Utah for a trail ride with a stunning backdrop. Navajo cowboys lead horseback tours of arrestingly picturesque Monument Valley, taking tourists to the national park’s sacred Navajo monuments and mighty sandstone formations. Monument Valley has been part of the Navajo Nation since the 1800s.

North of the valley, visitors can retrace the steps of Utah’s historic outlaws. In the midst of canyon country, Robbers Roost, near the town of Green River, was both a hideout and base for Butch Cassidy, leader of the Wild Bunch Gang, a thieving group infamous for its train and bank robberies. Within the Robbers Roost area lies Bluejohn Canyon, revered in the canyoneering community for its remoteness and grandeur. Bluejohn garnered national attention after climber Aron Ralston amputated his own arm to survive an accident that trapped him under a boulder. Safer hikes and climbs can be found throughout the surrounding Canyonlands National Park. The park also offers opportunities for camping, star-gazing, four-wheel driving and horseback riding. 

Nevada is known for its gambling and so was the Wild West. One of the oldest casinos still operating is the Golden Gate Casino in Las Vegas, first opening in 1906, though its lost some of its historic look over the years. From the casino, head to an old timey saloon. Near Lake Tahoe on the border with California lies the oldest saloon in Nevada – or so it claims. Genoa Bar and Saloon was built in 1853 in Carson Valley. The watering hole’s owner also claims that its clientele has included historic figures and celebrities such as Mark Twain, Clark Gable, Lauren Bacall and US presidents Ulysses S Grant and Theodore Roosevelt. The high-stakes poker tables have been replaced by pool tables at Genoa, but the place still looks and feels like a typical Old West saloon.

California’s mining tradition has left behind many relics for travellers to explore. The ghost towns of Bodie and Deadwood (no relation to the acclaimed television programme based on the real South Dakota town of the same name) in the north and Calico in the south are all former mining camps where gold and silver were found in the 19th Century.

Outside of Sacramento in northern California, Coloma is home to the site where James Marshall found gold in 1848. People from all over the world flocked to California the following year in what was known as the 1849 Gold Rush. Seduced by the hope that this glistening metal would bring prosperity to their lives, they forever changed the face of California’s population. This area is now the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, which has a museum on the history of gold in California and various historic buildings.