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From the bucking broncos of the state's license plates to the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar on Jackson's town square, Wyoming relishes its image as a last bastion of the romantic American West. This is a state where people really do make their living astride horses. But Wyoming is just as well known as an outdoor paradise, home to the world's first national park, Yellowstone, as well as to little-visited wilderness areas, national forests, and even a vast national grassland.
Stretching from the high plains to the Rocky Mountains, Wyoming ranks ninth among the U.S. in size and last in population, with fewer than a half-million people in a state the size of the former West Germany. Wyoming has three times as many cattle as people, and even the once-endangered pronghorn antelope nearly outnumbers human beings--although this may be hard to believe when you're inching along in a midsummer Yellowstone traffic jam. It's important to remember that, although Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks are definitely worth seeing, there's a big, uncrowded state beyond Wyoming's marquee destinations.
Wyoming has six state-designated tourism regions. In the far northwest corner, you'll find Yellowstone country and Grand Teton country, taking in the two famous national parks. Devils Tower-Buffalo Bill country spans the northern third of Wyoming, including the lively tourist town of Cody, the Big Horn Mountains, and the western edge of the Black Hills. Jackson Hole-Jim Bridger country, the west-central region, covers the area where 19th-century mountain men met to trade beaver pelts and tall tales. Oregon Trail-Rendezvous country parallels the North Platte River and the route used by tens of thousands of frontier pioneers; it also includes most of the only Indian reservation in a state that was once central to Native American life. Wyoming's southern third traverses Medicine Bow-Flaming Gorge country, a region filled with railroad lore and off-the-beaten-path scenic byways.
Wyoming took its name from a shortened version of two Delaware Indian words, mecheweami-ing, which mean "at the big plains." The area has been occupied for at least 12,000 years; in recent centuries, Wyoming was home to such Plains Indian tribes as the Arapaho, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Nez Perce, Sioux, Shoshone, and Ute, among others. John Colter, an alumnus of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, was among the first Anglo-American visitors, exploring the Yellowstone area in 1807. His reports of the weird geothermal phenomena in the region led to it being nicknamed "Colter's Hell."
Fur trappers and missionaries made other early 19th-century forays into Wyoming. By the late 1840s, the trickle became a river of humanity, as tens of thousands of people moved through the region on the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails. The nomadic newcomers and the Native Americans got along well during most of this time. But as pressures on the Indians increased, so did tensions. Wyoming was the setting for many key 19th-century battles between Native Americans and the U.S. Cavalry.
In 1869, the Wyoming territorial legislature became the first in the world to grant women the right to vote, which is why Wyoming is nicknamed "the Equality State." Ester Hobart Morris of South Pass City became the first female justice of peace in the U.S. just a few months later, and in 1924, Nellie Tayloe Ross became the nation's first elected woman governor to take office.
In many ways, Wyoming remains a difficult place to live, geographically isolated and prone to weat her extremes. But if you ever get to wondering why anyone would call this place home, one look at Wyoming's clear blue skies, open plains, and towering mountain peaks should put the question to rest.