Beartooth Highway: A Montana Road Trip

Beartooth Highway: A Montana Road Trip. Sharp-turning road with trees on all sides and dense fog in valley below cuts around the mountain.

If you are a fan of scenic drives, this all-american road trip is simply amazing and one of the most beautiful drives in the U.S.

Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors / Summer 2019

If you are a fan of scenic drives, this all-american road trip in the Northern Rockies is simply amazing and one of the most beautiful drives in the United States. In fact, Charles Kuralt, former long-time CBS anchor, called it the "most beautiful drive in America." Nestled between south-central Montana mountain peaks at 7,600 feet above sea level, the approach to Cooke City from the East is generally shut off to everything but snowmobiles from mid-October through mid-May (or roughly Memorial Day). And you do want to enter from the East, because the drive is breathtaking. That's not an exaggeration - you will gasp audibly at the dramatic beauty of this landscape. Though this road is sometimes steep and winding, it is relatively wide and very smooth.   The route is a loop, and though it will be described beginning in Red Lodge, MT, it could just as easily be traveled in reverse from Cody, WY.  

Introduction

Switchback road crosses green valley as it climbs up the mountain.

A few words of caution before we begin. Be mindful of weather conditions and road conditions, as sudden snow, strong winds, and thunderstorms are common in the Beartooth Mountains. The change in elevation along this trip approaches 5,000 feet, and with the high elevation comes some potentially extreme climate. Even if the morning is warm when you begin, bring a good jacket and a hat, as it WILL be much cooler at elevation. Pants are recommended over shorts, especially if you plan to take a hike. Remember also that this is grizzly bear country, so always be "bear aware." In late July, the annual Beartooth Rally brings bikers in from across the country, so watch the road carefully if you choose to go during this time. Top off the fuel tank before you leave, because there are only a few gas stations along the way, and the law of supply and demand is in their favor!

Starting off

Highway runs through evergreen forest with dense fog on either side.

To start the day off right in Red Lodge, have a hearty breakfast at Cafe Regis (vegan, gluten-free, and omnivore friendly) or grab coffee and a bagel from Honey's. From town (elevation 5,568'), you'll take the Beartooth Highway (U.S. Highway 212) south, following Rock Creek up a gentle rise for about 8 miles before beginning the steep, switchbacked climb to Rock Creek Vista Point (9190′). Aside from boasting a lovely view, Vista Point (as the locals call it) is the last bathroom you'll see for a while, so it's well worth the stop.

Here's a video of the ride up to Vista Point:

Vista Point to Wyoming

Leafless tree sits in the foreground with mountain peaks in the background.

After Vista Point rest area, the elevation gain is more gradual. Well above the treeline, the landscape becomes alpine tundra. You'll cross the state line into Wyoming, and then begin to encounter the mountain lakes. The Beartooth Plateau is littered with hundreds of lakes and ponds, interconnected in a wetland web of streams and marshes, that are typical of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area and Gallatin National Forest that border the highway. Moose can be spotted wading in the bogs, and trout leap from the still pools. Wildflowers make the most of their short season this high up, blooming with desperate intensity in late June and July. Shortly after crossing the state line you'll encounter the Beartooth Pass Vista Point, which has breathtaking views near the highest elevation point on the drive,10,948 ft.

Here's a video of the view from Vista Point:

Beartooth Pass to Top of the World

Picturesque view of snow-filled mountains and green valleys below.

As you continue across the Beartooth Plateau, you'll dip back below the treeline and begin to travel through evergreen forests. Outlook points dot the highway, with interpretive panels that tell of the history, ecology, and geology of the mountains. Aspen stands will begin to alternate with the firs and pines around the lakes, and just shy of 15 miles past the MT/WY state line, you'll see the Top of the World Resort and Store. Supplying fuel and snacks as well as a good stock of souvenirs and fly fishing gear, the Top of the World is a tempting pit-stop.

Beartooth Lake & Chief Joseph Campgrounds

Man stands on rock next to body of water in Montana wilderness.

You'll pass many campsites and trailheads, though it is difficult to recommend one site over the others. Signage is usually quite good, though, so as long as you pay attention you'll be fine. With a day-trip in mind, the Beartooth Lake Campground (16.6 miles from state line) features a picnic area and 7.9 mile loop trail. The trail head across from the Crazy Creek Campground (31 miles from state line) leads 3.1 miles one way to Little Moose Lake, but the first 3/4 mile follows Crazy Creek up through old-growth forest, so there's no need to follow the whole trail to find a beautiful view. The Chief Joseph Campground (now closed), just outside of Cooke City, has a gentle 1/2 mile trail segment that meets with an off-road vehicle trail you can follow another 1.5 miles up to Kersey Lake.

Pilot Peak and the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park

Epic view of Beartooth Pass from side of the road.

Near the end of the first leg of the journey, Pilot Peak rises starkly to the west just before you re-enter Montana and descend through the tall pines into Cooke City (64 miles from Red Lodge), the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Six blocks long with a permanent population of 140, Cooke is the picture of a rustic mountain village. Have lunch at the Beartooth Cafe and try the house-smoked rainbow trout or the hearty bison burger, then walk down to visit the Cooke City Store, which carries a small but excellent selection of maps and field guides, as well as souvenirs, supplies, and sundries. One block farther down is the Loving Cup Cafe (now closed), featuring espresso drinks, soups, sandwiches, and hand-scooped ice cream. Legs stretched, head back to the car for the second half of this adventure.

Elk Sightings and the Chief Joseph Highway

Elk stands majestically along side of the road with fog in background.

Backtrack east on Highway 212 for 13 miles, until you reach the turnoff for the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway (WY 296). This road follows the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone River southwest down through Sunlight Basin along the same route that Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Tribe took as his people fled from the U.S. Cavalry in 1877. Shortly after you make the turn (6.5 miles), you'll pass Painter Outpost, an RV park featuring a home-style restaurant and a convenience store that carries gifts and souvenirs as well as fuel.

Elk are often seen in the middle elevations, and there are several scenic overlooks and a few small campgrounds along the way. This landscape is somewhat more stark than the lush Beartooth Plateau, but the light plays across the granite peaks and golden grasses in a way that's difficult to describe - it's like something right out of an old western film. 45 miles from the junction with 212, Chief Joseph Highway meets in a T with WY 120, and lonely Heart Mountain juts out of the sagebrush plains to the southeast.

At this point, depending on your timing, you may wish to turn south and cruise the easy 17 miles into Cody, WY for dinner, a bit of shopping, or the rodeo, which is held every night from June through August. The Cody Cattle Company is an excellent choices for dinner. There's also The Rib & Chop House, which serves steak and seafood, but don't be afraid to try the gumbo - the restaurant is owned by a Louisiana native.  The Local frequently features elk and bison on their gourmet menu, and the Silver Dollar Bar & Grill is famed for its beastly burgers. This round-trip detour adds 34 miles and about half an hour driving time to the trip.

Returning home and final thoughts on the Beartooth Highway

Man stands on rock looking out at mountains surrounding snow-filled valley with highway running through.

To return to Red Lodge, go north on WY 120 for 31 miles from the junction with WY 296, until you reach Belfry, MT. Turn west on MT 308 in Belfry, and 14 miles later you'll be admiring the view of the mountains you ascended that morning! Here's the full trip on Google Maps for reference.

As you can see, this is truly one of the great all-american road trips and the pictures do not do it justice. If you happen to be in the area or want to take an unconventional route to Yosemite, we recommend adding this route to your itinerary - you won't be disappointed.

Looking for more on the Beartooth Highway and other outdoor adventure? Try these:

“The mountains are calling and I must go.”

— John Muir

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Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors / Summer 2019

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