The fourth of July may be Independence Day across the country, but in the West, it’s also known as “Cowboy Christmas.” Historically, it was a rare day off for ranch hands, who would spill into town to show off their speed and strength by wrestling steers, roping calves, and riding bulls and broncos. What followed was an all-night birthday party for Uncle Sam. Today, the cowboy life lives on in rodeos, where millions of fans sit on the edge of their bleacher seats to watch roughstock athletes trying to hang on to bucking steeds, one hand in the air, for eight seconds. But you don’t have to be a longtime fan to get in on the action: Beyond the nail-biting competitions is a family-friendly scene that has a distinct state-fair flavor, often with western dancing, livestock showcases (cute baby-animal alert!), fireworks at night, and deep-frying smack-downs that involve lamb shanks and even Twinkies. From dusty high-desert corrals to outdoor arenas, here are three of the best in the West to check out this summer.
Wild Days (and Nights)
“Buffalo Bill” Cody was a pioneer of the western show, bringing Sitting Bull and “Wild Bill” Hickok to the stage. The showmanship is still on display, just east of Yellowstone National Park in Cody, Wyoming, at the Buffalo Bill Cody Stampede Rodeo. After sundown, once the horses are in their paddocks, follow the contestants to Buffalo Bill’s Irma Hotel, where the kitchen serves slabs of prime rib and Rocky Mountain oysters. But the real party goes on in the hotel’s plain-but-packed Silver Saddle Saloon. Jul 1–4.
A Tropical Corral
Many ranches in Hawaii have converted from cows to condos, but rodeo is still celebrated on the flanks of Maui’s dormant Haleakala volcano. About a 25-minute drive uphill from Hookipa, the world’s top windsurfing spot, paniolo (cowboys) gather for the Makawao Rodeo. Now in its 62nd year, the competition brings together tanned ranch hands and beach-town riding clubs at the outdoor Oskie Rice Arena. The hapu‘u ferns and eucalyptus trees surround the stands, filled with lei-wearing athletes sporting 10-gallon hats and crowds chowing down on sweet kalbi short ribs. Jun 29–Jul 2.
Horse and Feathers
At the country’s largest reservation in Window Rock, Arizona, riders saddle up at the Navajo Nation Fourth of July Rodeo for one of their last chances to qualify for the circuit finals. It kicks off with a fry-bread cooking contest—have it with honey as a treat—and continues with a traditional pow-wow of tribe members parading and dancing in full regalia. In between, visitors can check out the area’s mesas, where the Hopi tribe still carves their wooden katsinas. Or wander through the Monument Valley, famous for soaring buttes you may recognize from John Ford’s western flicks. After the rodeo finals, the weekend comes to a close with fireworks and a community dance under the stars. Jul 1–4.