The phrase “authentic West” might bring many images to mind: bison, cowboys, free-range horses, and ghost towns. While these iconic symbols and places still exist, there are other aspects to consider when trying to glean a truly western experience.

Kurt Shaver, destination sales executive of California’s Sonoma County Tourism, has a good handle on the authenticity of the West. “When some people hear the term ‘West,’ they might think of gold miners in the Sierra Mountains or cowboys in the desert Southwest,” he says. “But it doesn’t get more ‘West’ in the continental U.S. than the Pacific Coast.”

As such, he says, Sonoma is a good place for tour groups to begin their exploration because there is no dearth to the number of activities and places groups can experience here, including outdoor adventures, plus art, culinary, luxury, and wine itineraries.

California Getaways

No visit to Sonoma is complete without touring the area’s vineyards, and according to Birgitt Vaughan, director of public relations for Sonoma County Tourism, there are plenty to choose from. At the Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery, located in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, guests can stroll across lush gardens and enjoy expansive views of the vineyard while sipping classic or reserve wines alongside Italian-inspired dishes. Groups can pair wines with handmade pizza or, during a Sunday brunch, with other Italian delicacies.

Sonoma County Tourism offers more suggestions, including 72-hour itinerary ideas for groups wishing to visit the local vineyards. Along the way, explore the cities of Santa Rosa and downtown Sonoma and their boutiques, cafes, cheese shops, and farm-to-table dining options. Make sure to visit Russian Valley, which is known for its production of pinot noirs.

Several adventure out!ts are available in the Sonoma region, but that doesn’t mean your clients have to be thrill seekers. There is plenty for them to do that won’t tax the body. Timber Cove Resort in Jenner, California, offers both a pleasant place to stay and an opportunity to take in the views. The resort sits on 23 acres with breathtaking scenery that will rejuvenate the spirit. Built in 1963 as a place for meditation and tranquility, Timber Cove is earmarked by the Bufano Peace Statue, a 93-foot monument on the nearby cliffs that serves as a symbol of the area’s tranquil beauty. It is said famed photographer Ansel Adams visited the cove time and again to find inspiration. The resort itself has 46 guest rooms, a coastal kitchen with indoor and outdoor seating, and easy access to miles upon miles of hiking trails, including to the monument.

For the adventurous, tap one of several groups to ride the Russian River (WaterTreks EcoTours), zipline beneath a canopy of redwoods (Sonoma Zipline Adventures), or take a guided bicycle, hiking, or kayaking tour (Getaway Adventures). Shaver says to be sure to ask about a tour of Armstrong Redwoods State Park.

While in Sonoma, make other Northern California destinations part of your itinerary, including the cities of Monterey, Napa, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Tahoe City.

The West’s Wild Side

For group planners and tour operators seeking a little more “wild” in their authentic West experience, there is a whole saloon of options. Cross the border to Virginia City, Nevada, where classic novelist Mark Twain once lived and worked as a newspaper reporter. It’s tough to tell how factual the emerging novelist’s reporting was at the time, but the writing he produced helped hone his craft as a great American storyteller. Today, Virginia City offers visitors the opportunity to step back in time at The Way It Was Museum, which boasts the world’s largest collection of Comstock mining artifacts. Visit Piper’s Opera House to watch plays, some that have been known to feature the city’s favorite aforementioned novelist.

Head south to experience Tombstone, Arizona—dubbed “the town too tough to die”—which features all the trimmings of a truly Wild West town, perfect for tour groups looking to hitch a ride to the past. Here, watch gunfight shows—including reenactments at The O.K. Corral—tour museums, and have a drink or watch a play at Wyatt Earp’s Oriental Saloon & Theater.

Deadwood, South Dakota;
Credit: Travel South Dakota/Byron Banasiak

In similar fashion, Deadwood, South Dakota, has its own gunslinger shows, including a reenactment of the cold-blooded shooting in 1876 that dropped “Wild Bill” Hickock while he was playing cards—since then called “the Dead Man’s Hand”—at Saloon No. 10. Every evening, the saloon reenacts the shooting, allowing “Wild Bill” to be resurrected only to go through the same ordeal again. Visit historic hotels; some, such as the Historic Bullock Hotel, rumored to be haunted. There’s even the chance to learn more about the area’s history and hauntings on a paranormal tour of the town.

“Amidst historic Deadwood’s Old West atmosphere and the refreshing pines of the Black Hills National Forest, there’s no better destination for groups to explore,” says Katlyn Svendsen, global public relations and content services senior director for Travel South Dakota. “Offering a wide variety of experiences, including saloons, historic reenactments, live concerts, haunted hotel tours, and delicious, local restaurants, it’s all nestled in the heart of historic Deadwood.”

Visit the Beehive State and the small town of Torrey in south-central Utah to find big adventure, especially since it serves as the gateway to Capitol Reef National Park and Goblin Valley State Park, both where visitors can see Mother Nature’s sculptures. “In my opinion, Goblin Valley is one of the most spectacular experiences that really transports you to another world,” says Anna Loughridge, spokeswoman with the Utah Office of Tourism. “It has short, little goblins—smaller hoodoos—that make you feel like you’re on Mars.”

Also out of this world—or what might seem like a place out of time—is Muddy Creek Mining Co. in the “robbers roost” region, where Butch Cassidy and other Old West outlaws would hide out when fleeing from lawmen. “When I think of the authentic West, I can’t help but think of the Wild West, and so much of southern Utah is wild because it is so rugged,” Loughridge says.

Torrey also offers many options in the way of dining and shopping. “There is so much fun history here,” she adds.

Another place she recommends is Kanab, near the Utah/Arizona border. “Kanab is so amazing,” Loughridge continues. “Every place in southern Utah has some proximity to a national park, and Kanab, on the east side of Zion, is such a unique area.” Among its attractions is Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the largest animal sanctuary in the U.S.

Fun fact: A number of Western-themed movies were filmed in Kanab, as well as some popular television shows, including episodes of “The Lone Ranger,” “Gunsmoke,” “Grizzly Adams,” and “The Six Million Dollar Man.”

Terry Bison Ranch, located in Cheyenne, Wyoming, allows groups to see what takes place on a working bison ranch that spans more than a century. Although founded by Charles H. Terry, Terry Bison Ranch’s ownership changed in 1881 when F.E. Warren, one of the territory’s first governors, purchased the property and used it as the south headquarters for his Warren Livestock Co., according to Jennifer Galloway, sales director of the ranch. Today, the site is owned by the Thiel family, who purchased 27,500 acres in 1991. #ey opened the ranch to the public in 1993.

“We offer group tour combos that include a meal option and train tour, which is wonderful for groups of all ages,” Galloway explains. “Being able to hand-feed our Bison is an amazing experience.” Besides the bison, there is much more to see and experience at the ranch. Among its offerings are the popular narrated train tours that take visitors around the property to see the bison. Six trains are available for the tours, but each ride has limited seating. Fishing, horseback riding, pony riding, and self-guided tours are also available.

“There is an array of wildlife and different animals to see and visit while at the ranch,” she continues. “We have cabin rentals and an RV park, and you can make a ‘staycation’ out of the trip. … We are open every day, except Christmas day, and all activities are available weather permitting, except the fishing pond in the winter months.”

For the hungry or those who want to take home a souvenir, there’s the Senator’s Steakhouse and Brass Buffalo Saloon and a gift shop. Because of its offerings, Galloway says Terry Bison Ranch helps create the authentic West experience visitors crave, including allowing guests to get up close and personal with the animals. “There is nowhere else,” she says, “to hand-feed bison.”

By Andrew Weeks

Main Image: Scribe Winery, Sonoma, California; Credit: Unsplash/Josh Bean