While alphaviruses spread naturally via mosquito vectors, some can also be transmitted as aerosols making them potential bioterrorism agents. One such pathogen, western equine encephalitis virus (WEEV), causes fatal human encephalitis via multiple routes of infection and thus presumably via multiple mechanisms. Although WEEV also produces acute encephalitis in non-human primates, a small animal model that recapitulates features of human disease would be useful for both pathogenesis studies and to evaluate candidate antiviral therapies. We have optimized conditions to infect mice with a low passage isolate of WEEV, thereby allowing detailed investigation of virus tropism, replication, neuroinvasion, and neurovirulence. We find that host factors strongly influence disease outcome, and in particular, that age, gender, and genetic background all have significant effects on disease susceptibility independent of virus tropism or replication within the central nervous system. Our data show that experimental variables can be adjusted in mice to recapitulate disease features known to occur in both non-human primates and humans, thus aiding further study of WEEV pathogenesis and providing a realistic therapeutic window for antiviral drug delivery.