One late spring day, we traveled from West Yellowstone, Montanta, across Yellowstone National Park to the northeast entrance and the Beartooth Scenic Highway. Yellowstone is awesome, but vast! We drove about 70 miles to get out of the park onto the Beartooth Highway and then, at least, another 70 miles to Red Lodge, Montana. Of course, we stopped to take pictures of wild life and mountains—and streams and trees! Traffic is crazy. If an animal is spotted, everyone stops on both sides of the highway and it’s often a circus—as it was when a Mama bear and two small cubs were foraging close to the road. Some people walked dangerously close. People do not realize that a Mamma Bear, although looking docile, could suddenly turn and charge if she feels her cubs are in danger. The cubs ran up and down trees, but we never got a clear shot at them.
Heralded as one of the most scenic drives in the United States, the Beartooth Highway, a National Scenic Byways All-American Road, climbed a series of steep switchbacks, giving us views of the snow covered Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains and open high alpine plateaus dotted with glacial lakes and forested valleys. On some slopes, the mountain rocks peeked from snow blankets like a caramel colored tapestry veined with black streaks. Beartooth Highway is one of the highest and most rugged areas in the lower 48 states, with 20 peaks reaching over 12,000 feet in elevation, including Granite Peak, Montana’s highest at 12,799 feet. The road itself has the highest elevation of any highway in Wyoming (10,947 feet) and in Montana (10,350 feet), and is the highest elevation for a highway in the Northern Rockies. I’m not sure if snow ever melts. I’ve been on the highway in late July when snow banks were higher than my head.
“On the Road” correspondent Charles Kuralt claimed the Beartooth Highway as “…the most beautiful in America.” Between Yellowstone National Park and Red Lodge, Montana, the curving, zig-zagging roadway climbs upward and passes through portions of Custer National Forest and Shoshone National Forest and a wide range of ecosystems. We drove through lush, green lodge pole pine forests and alpine tundra. The surrounding snow-capped mountains lie within the 943,377-acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. The harsh climate at the highest elevation daunts the growth of trees and shrubs. The plants that do grow have adapted to convert sunlight to heat, and many conserve water in the same manner as desert plants. In late June and July, the fragile tundra blossoms with blues, pinks, and yellows of wild flowers. However, we saw no floral display on our trip in early June.
According to printed material, Grizzly and black bears make their home there, as do elk, deer, moose, Bighorn sheep, Rocky Mountain goats, mountain lions, and bobcats. However, we saw no wildlife on our trip. With over 950 alpine lakes and hundreds of miles of trails, the mountains offer numerous opportunities for hiking and backpacking. Many trails are accessible from the Beartooth Highway. Visitors can cross-country or downhill ski in June and July. Guided horseback trips are available, as well as fishing for trout in the streams and lakes adjacent to the highway. The National Forest Service offers a choice of 13 campgrounds for overnight stays.
The numerous switchbacks and steep climbs call to motorcyclists. However, I would not advise traveling the Beartooth in a motorhome or pulling a large trailer. If you drive in a car, plan on at least three hours driving time to make the trip between Yellowstone’s Northeastern Gate and Red Lodge, Montana. We took more time due to frequent stops for photographs of the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountain Range. Also, think about packing a jacket, even in mid-summer. At the summit, weather can change and be quite cool.
Beartooth Pass, at 10,947 feet, is closed in winter due to heavy snow and only opens from Memorial Day weekend through early October. In fact, two weeks after we made our drive to Red Lodge, the pass was closed due to a summer snow storm. Because of the high altitudes, the pass is also known for strong winds and severe thunderstorms.
We had dinner in Red Lodge—a quaint little Montana town—and then headed back the same route. Actually, the return trip was equally interesting and scenic—until darkness caught us about 10:00 p.m. Everything looks different traveling west to east—or east to west. And back in Yellowstone National Park, we saw more animals at dusk.
For weather information and road conditions prior to traveling, contact the U.S. Forest Service, 406-446-2103, or the Red Lodge Visitor’s Center at 888-281-0625.
Traveling in their motorhome several months each year, Arline and her photographer husband, Lee Smith, make their permanent home in Heber Springs, Arkansas. She currently is a presenter for Workamper Rendezvous, sponsored by Workamper News. Arline has dozens of magazine articles published, as well as five books: “Road Work: The Ultimate RVing Adventure” (now available on Kindle); “Road Work II: The RVer’s Ultimate Income Resource Guide”; “Truly Zula; When Heads & Hearts Collide”; and “The Heart of Branson”, a history of the families who started the entertainment town and those who sustain it today. Visit Arline’s personal blog at ArlineChandler.Blogspot.com