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Catching onto Casper, Wyo.

Discover massive fossils, fine art, a restored riverside, and delicious food in Wyoming’s second-largest city.

  • Casper, Wyo., downtown, image
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    Sports utility vehicles rule in downtown Casper, Wyo.
  • Haven gallery in Casper, Wyo., image
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    Contemporary furniture and edgy art occupy a gallery at Haven.
  • Mammoth fossil at Tate Geological Museum, Casper, Wyo., image
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    A Columbian mammoth fossil presides over the Tate Geological Museum.
  • Woman dining at Monsoon, Casper, Wyo., image
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    As a Bollywood movie plays, a diner at Casper's Monsoon retaurant digs into Tandoori chicken.

Strolling the wide sidewalks of downtown Casper, Wyo.—passing couples on wrought iron benches under globe lamps, stores full of jewelry and Western wear, and sculptures representing what may be the state’s best array of public art—I had just one question: Why did it take me so long to catch on to Casper?

Set on the North Platte River at the base of Casper Mountain between Billings, Mont., and Denver—each four hours away—this central Wyoming city of 55,000 has a long history of people passing through in a rush to get somewhere else. Between 1840 and 1869, half a million emigrants crossed the river here en route to California, Oregon, and Utah. The pony express raced through, too. But it wasn’t until 1888 that many of these travelers began to stick around, and Casper blossomed. During a series of booms, corbelled brick buildings were going up about as fast as newly found oil could be pumped from the ground.

Casper’s recent revitalization got started right where the city itself did—along the North Platte, which cuts through downtown several blocks from the key intersection of Second and Center streets. Imagine San Antonio’s inviting River Walk, which was Casper’s inspiration, but with ripariam restoration as the top priority rather than restaurants. Today the Platte River Parkway has 11 miles of paths through willows and cottonwoods, a man-made white-water park as popular with anglers as with boaters, and a par 72, Robert Trent Jones Jr. golf course on land where an Amoco oil refinery stood 20 years ago.

The renewal planners showed good taste. It’s one thing to bulldoze an outmoded refinery; it would have been quite another to knock down the 1924 Mountain States Power Company building. Instead, the monumental brick structure now houses the Nicolaysen Art Museum, aka the Nic, the heart of Casper’s lively art scene. Its 6,265-piece collection highlights contemporary works by regional artists and others influenced by the Rocky Mountains. Pieces by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and Kevin Red Star, both of whom have paintings in the Smithsonian, are featured here. So are drawings by Carl Link, a prolific German American illustrator enchanted by the West, along with the entire contents of Wyoming landscapist Conrad Schwiering’s studio.

Casper’s dining landscape is evolving too. Sherrie’s Place, where cinnamon rolls come with steak knives and patrons seem to compete to wear the scruffiest ball cap, remains a top spot for breakfast and lunch. But dinner choices are widening. You can bite into lamb vindaloo or chicken tikka masala at Monsoon, outfitted with linen tablecloths, pastel landscapes, chandeliers, and a stage for the occasional Bollywood dance performance. Botticelli Ristorante Italiano offers familiar pastas but also such specialties as roast duck with a sage-scented white wine sauce.

Right out Sherrie’s front door lies the Old Yellowstone District, the most recently redone of the city’s central neighborhoods. It’s an easy stroll to the Iris Stadium 8 theaters and to such offbeat businesses as Corner Upholstery & Yellowstone Scooters, where you can prowl for new sofa cushions or zoom off on a zippy Stella.

The neighborhood also embraces Casper’s contemporary design scene. Earlier this year, photographer Shawn Rivett opened Haven, a 2,400-squarefoot shop selling a carefully curated collection of modern furniture, photography—portraits of local luminaries, stills from the Paris catacombs—and home decor including antler sculptures painted with high-gloss auto paint.

“I had always imagined living in a vibrant downtown where there were restaurants, museums, and theaters I could walk to,” says Rivett, a 30-year resident of Casper. “I never imagined that downtown would be in my hometown.”

Photography by Lynn Donaldson

This article was first published in September 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.