Deep, broad valleys, cupped by daunting mountain ranges, provide some of the most livable pockets of the Rocky Mountain West. Not only do the mountains provide some protection from howling storms, but their snowmelt keeps streams running through the summer and their beauty supplies a spectacular backdrop for the communities nestled below.

Such a valley runs down the center of Wyoming, cradled by the Bighorn Mountains in the east and the Absarokas and Yellowstone Plateau in the West. Though the area around the town of Cody gets only about 10 inches of moisture annually, founder William "Buffalo Bill" Cody recognized a century ago that with a few dams and ditches in the right places, the mountains' snowpack could supply water year-round. His legacy continues to shape the basin's economy today: A great summer scene of cowboy fun attracts hordes of visitors, and green fields of sugar beets and grains stretch for miles from the mouth of the Wapiti Valley.

While Cody was staking claims to water rights along the Shoshone River in the early 20th century, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was storing that water behind the Buffalo Bill Dam, the world's tallest when it was completed in 1910. The reservoir today irrigates about 100,000 acres in central Wyoming, and the swift winds that skim the lake's surface attract the bravest of windsurfers.

In the post-"Buffalo Bill" era, the charms of north-central Wyoming have taken many a visitor by surprise on their journey to and from Wyoming's famous national parks. And quite a few travelers find reason to linger longer in the nearby valleys, exploring a wealth of American-Indian and Wild West history, geology, mountain scenery, outdoor recreation, and small-town charm. Highlights include fun-loving Cody, the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, the gushing hot springs of Thermopolis, and the forests and rivers of Shoshone National Forest and other public lands.

The combination of stunning scenery and historic cattle operations makes the Cody area a natural center for dude ranches, where visitors can saddle up and swing a lariat. Or you can mount a more stationary seat in the stands at one of the summer rodeos. Cody's rodeo grounds light up every night in the summer, and nearly every town in the basin has its special rodeo weekend. On the Wind River Indian Reservation, the evening outdoor entertainment is often a powwow, featuring drum groups, colorful garb, and traditional dancing, with visitors welcome and food stands offering Indian tacos and other treats.