An Illustrated Guide to Grand and Historic Restrooms of the American West

The 6th Most Valuable Advice You'll Ever Receive, Guaranteed, or Your Money Back: 
How to Enjoy Your Summer Vacation, Even if You Travel With Others 
Part 2: An Illustrated Guide to Grand and Historic Restrooms of the American West 

Early into our 2010 Wild West Adventure roadtrip, I realized that I had what you might call an overly healthy tendency to photograph public restrooms, and that the rest rooms of the American West are really unrivaled in their splendor, grandness, and historicity.  I invite you to join me on this travelogue pictorial, which I hope will inspire you to consider a Grand and Historic Rest Room Tour of your own. Reader photos are always welcome, as this is an ongoing collection.

Here, then, is your Guide to Grand and Historic Restrooms of the American West (as in, West of the Mississippi, not just West of the Rockies. Those who would like to debate the point at which the West begins can do so in the comments, or better yet, on their own blogs).

There are several categories of Grand and Historic Restroom that you should distinguish before you begin your travels: we might refer to these as luxury, deluxe, traditional, and rustic.  Many of you are already thinking "I'm avoiding rustic," but let me tell you, that's not necessarily a safe idea. "Traditional" restrooms (i.e. the kind you find in restaurants, gas stations, hotels, etc) are quite often the most desirable to avoid, and you'd be surprised at how pristine and, um, interesting some of the roadside stops turn out to be.

You might also note before you begin your journey that, depending on your region of travel, the definition of "grand" and "historic" may vary widely, with "grand" meaning as much as "gilded" and as little, in some locations, as "containing soap."  "Historic," likewise, could mean anything from "of historic consequence" to "decrepit." Leave room for interpretation, and take note of the details and I think you'll find that the places you visit of necessity often rival those you visit by choice, if not, indeed, surpass them in their splendor, quaintness and charm.

1. Expect the unexpected.

Headed west, this was one of our first stops: a brand new rest area on I-94 in Wisconsin between Madison and Baraboo. So stunning that my daughter asked if this was our hotel (20 minutes from home). A portentous potty-break, indeed.

In South Dakota, they take branding to the next level. Don't miss the Chamberlain rest area which includes a Lewis & Clark Interpretive Exhibit.  I think we spent two hours here. There's also a tourist info booth where they gave the kids a big bag of goodies that kept them busy in the car for ages - coloring books, a button, stickers. Classy touch, for a public restroom.

I didn't even know there was such a thing as virgin toilet paper, much less 100% virgin toilet paper, but they have it in Custer, South Dakota. You learn something new everywhere you go. That's the nice thing about traveling.


Just because you're in the middle of the world's largest mineral spring, doesn't mean they can't build a public restroom there. Take Thermopolis, Wyoming, for instance. I wonder if they have environmental protection laws in Wymoing...


Tsunami. It could happen, you know.This restroom on the Pacific coast south of San Francisco gives you fair warning.

The most unexpected restroom in the American West
has got to be the 6th floor Macy's ladies' room in San Francisco on Union Square.  It looks like an ordinary restroom, but once you enter: HOLY HISTORIC GRANDEUR!!! From the marbled commode to the glitzy chandelier, I did not expect this. At all. Next time you're in San Francisco, you have to check it out. It's awesome. Maybe all their restrooms hold this opulent secret, I don't know. But my husband reports that the men's room was run-of-the-mill. Sexists.

 Grand, huh? Super grand. And, I imagine, historic.
2. Expect the expected. Specifically, in the West, expect taxidermy. And plenty of it.

Left: A jackalope greets the ladies in Ten Sleep, Wyoming. 
Center and Right: Buffalo Bill's Hotel Irma in Cody, Wyoming, still in operation, is packed with history. Including the sad history of mindless game slaughter in the American West and the racist enigma that is our ongoing infatuation with Buffalo Bill Cody. The Buffalo Bill Historical Center does a pretty good job with this, but be prepared to be reminded of a lot of terrible things on this vacation. And teach your kids the truth, please. Because they make it pretty easy not to, especially in the gift shop department.

3. Follow the instructions.

Some restrooms  have a lot of specific instructions. Just follow them, ok?
This (above) was at a roadside picnic area in the Bighorns. Why make someone's life harder than it already is? Pack it in, pack it out.
If the Wyoming Highway Patrol finds out who did this, someone's getting convicted. And someone's getting $500.
Hawaii, which is as far west as you can get, has some very specific instructions about what you can and cannot put down a toilet. I suggest you follow these instructions, and maybe even take it a step further by leaving your sticks outside the restroom to retrieve when you are finished.

(Above) I wasn't thinking of smoking at all, until I saw that sign in the world's bossiest restroom.  Same with washing my rocks at Crazy Horse Memorial.

(Below) Like I said, the restroom at the 1880 Train depot in the Black Hills is really bossy. I was going to flush anyway, but even if I wasn't, I heard you the first time!


4. Don't touch anything you don't have to. Like these West Central Electric promotional materials, also at the 1880s Train depot. (See how bossy they are? They even make you share germy things!)

5. Pay your share.  If you're headed West into the Badlands, you must stop at Okaton, a ghost town with a population under 20 that has little more than some skeletal houses you're free to wander and the Okaton Gas Station and Rock Shop,whose bathroom is seen here.
The fine print: you should have bought a squirrel rock.

6. Rule of thumb: If the ceiling is gilded, check out the restrooms. Exhibit A: The Occidental Hotel, Buffalo, Wyoming. In addition to being insanely reasonably priced for a historic hotel, The Occidental is impeccably preserved and is much the same today as when Teddy Roosevelt slept there.  Spend the night if you can, but if you can't look through all the rooms that aren't occupied (you may, just ask), and be sure to use the restroom. The pipes are, as they warn you, older than you are, though. So don't even think about flushing sticks.

7. Keep in mind: not all historic restrooms are that grand, but it could be worse. You could live there.
The path to Alcatraz is lined with portapotties, but you needn't worry; they have flush toilets, too. The tour guide said, "Just look for the building that looks like a Taco Bell."

Inside, it's a different story. Imagine using these restrooms for life. Historic, but not grand:

8.  Get ready for some grandeur.  Some restrooms are grand by virtue of their surroundings, which makes them all the more a welcome stop, as is evidenced by these lovely stops in and around Yellowstone National Park:

9.  Don't just assume that the first restrooms you find are the nicest restrooms in that place. If possible, follow the clearly marked trail to the newer, deluxe restrooms at the back.  Wall Drug (Wall, South Dakota) knows how to sell 'em, that's for sure. I couldn't wait to get to those deluxe restrooms!  They couldn't help but not live up to the hype, though. I had very high expectations after all that advertising.

 Oh. That was kind of anticlimatic. 
Deluxe means something different in South Dakota, I guess.

10. If you're barely able to bear puns, I don't recommend the restrooms at the Teddy Bear Town World Record "Museum" in Hill City, South Dakota. But the charming proprietor, who all-but-for-a-Britney-Spears breakdown would have been on Dr. Phil, makes it worth a stop. Also, she has nearly 7000 run-of-the-mill teddy bears that she mainly bought with her own money on display, which is wonderful and sad, even for kids. Also, it's free.

11. Some restrooms, and some towns, are not as public as they appear. These signs are usually pretty easy to read.  The kind locals of Cooke City, Montana, for instance, make it clear by posting that Families Are NOT Welcome. And also by putting padlocks on the portapotties.


12. Don't bring anything into the restrooms that you don't want to set down, and forget about, then have to drive back for. Like your sunglasses. Especially nerve-wracking in Yellowstone outhouses like this one.

12. Best Restrooms in the West, and possibly the entire United States: Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone National Park. If you can live for a couple of days without a bathroom in your room, stay in the old part of the Inn that has the dorm-type communal bathrooms and enjoy their splendor. Especially great: the giant tubs so big you'll worry your kids will drown. And rumor has it you don't need to be a hotel guest to use the tubs - just ask for a key at the desk and check it out!



Wild West street humor. Get used to that, if you plan to motor west.
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  1. Excellent tour of the water closets of the west! It makes me want to run out and take pictures of all the potties I use in public! :)

  2. Awesome, Heather- keep it coming. Dad