July 31st, 2023
The Beartooth Highway, an All-American Road runs 68 miles from Red Lodge, Montana to the east entrance of Yellowstone National Park, just outside of Cooke City, Montana.
The Beartooth Highway has been called “Highway to the Sky” and was named the most beautiful drive in North America by late journalist Charles Kuralt. It’s official name is more boring – US Route 212.
This incredible highway was constructed from 1931 to 1936 as an eastern approach to Yellowstone National Park. The construction followed the path that General Philip Sheridan took in 1872 after an inspection of Yellowstone National Park.
The Beartooth rises to 10,947 feet above sea-level and zigs and zags with switchbacks and hairpins through the Gallatin, Custer and Shoshone National Forests and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. It crosses the 45th parallel and skirts the Montana-Wyoming border. The peaks you can see from the road rise as high as 12,000.
The Beartooth Highway is only open about 5 months a year. It is managed on the Montana side by the state, but Wyoming says that the road does not meet it’s state standards, so they do not manage it. That portion of the highway maintenance falls to the National Park Service. Neither of them plow it in the winter, thus is is closed to traffic from mid October to about mid May depending on the weather
It was nearly August when we made the drive and although the temperatures have been well into the 90s for more than two weeks, there are still large patches of snow on the peaks. That makes sense, since the region averages over 200 inches of snowfall each year. Snowpack averages 47 inches and has gotten as high as 126” in recent years.
The wilderness contains nearly 1000 gorgeous high mountain lakes. We didn’t have time to hike down to any of them, but they are beautiful to look at!
We finished the Beartooth Highway and took another lap into Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley. Even though we only drove in a few miles before heading back out to continue our drive, we saw a black bear and got a VERY close encounter with several of the “fluffy cows” that frequent the area.
We then stopped at Cooke City and had some amazing trout at the Bistro. They have wifi, too!
We took the beautiful Chief Joseph Scenic Byway back towards Cody so we could continue back to Red Lodge. This 46 mile long Wyoming state highway is the route Chief Joseph used to lead nearly 1000 members of the Nez Perce tribe out of Yellowstone and into Montana as they attempted to flee from the US Cavalry and escape into Canada. They did not make it, they were captured just 30 miles from their destination and were forced onto a reservation in Oklahoma.
This highway runs through the Shoshone National Forest and the Absaroka Mountains. The views from this road are not as mountainous, consisting mainly of gorgeous valleys and forests and waterfalls!
As the byway crosses the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River, you can peer into a deep canyon and see the powerful waters below.
It was a LONG day, but filled with incredible views and history. I’d recommend going on a weekday, because we hear that the weekends are much more crowded!
Sources: Beartooth Highway website, wiki, roadside signs and my own eyes.