Drive the Beartooth Highway - Wyoming Magazine


Drive the Beartooth Highway


The Mountain Majesty of the Beartooth Highway

The Beartooth Highway that runs through majestic mountain peaks and verdant forests along the border of Montana and Wyoming is considered one of the most beautiful mountain drives in the world. The terrain is true wilderness and full of flora and fauna, and this is one place where visitors can still see untouched alpine landscapes. The road is a section of U.S. Route 212 that is between Red Lodge, Montana and Cooke City, Montana. It zigzags between Montana and Wyoming and reaches 10,947 feet at its highest point.

The Mountain Majesty of the Beartooth Highway

Beartooth Highway view. Photo Courtesy of Shari Green

How to Find the Highway?

The Beartooth Highway is a National Scenic Byways All-American Road and runs through the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains. National Scenic Byways are designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation to recognize and preserve certain roads for their cultural, archeological, historic, recreational, scenic and natural qualities.

Beartooth Highway

Beartooth Highway. Photo Courtesy of Jasperdo

There are countless glacial lakes, waterfalls, verdant valleys and wildlife to see along the way. The whole area is surrounded by National Forests, and the wilderness abuts Yellowstone National Park. For those visiting Yellowstone National Park, it would be a great days outing to drive the Highway. The Highway is 68.7 miles of spectacular scenery that has to be seen to be believed. Starting at the north east entrance to Yellowstone you can travel to Red Lodge, and get back in one day. However, there are hotels, inns and campsites along the way if you want to spend some time visiting the many sites in the region.

The campsites at the higher elevations open in July. The campsites at lower elevations usually open before Memorial Day Weekend. It’s important to understand the rules in case you see a bear because this is Bear Country.

Some Historical Background

Twin Lakes Beartooth Mountains

Twin Lakes, Beartooth Mountains . Photo Courtesy of Mario Quevedo

In the second half of the 19th century, an old hunter named Shuki Greer explored the Beartooth Mountains and had intimate knowledge of all the peaks and passes. When General Philip Sheridan and some of his men went on an inspection tour of Yellowstone National Park, they were looking for a shorter route back to their base, and took Greer’s advice for a faster way through the mountains. The Highway was opened in 1936 and basically follows the route Sheridan and his men took over the pass.

What to See and Do

The Highway mainly switches back and forth between more than 20 peaks that are higher than 12,000 feet including the highest peak in Montana, Granite Peak at 12,799 feet. There are glaciers to see all year around on the northern slopes of most of the mountains. It is recommended to plan on taking three hours for the drive because you’ll want to stop and enjoy the vistas. Some of the wildlife you may see are bighorn sheep, moose, Rocky Mountain goats, elk, deer, wolf and black and grizzly bears. In late June and July, the tundra is covered with a lavish show of colorful wildflowers.

An Alpine Lake on the Beartooth Pass

An Alpine Lake on the Beartooth Pass. Photo Courtesy of m01229

There are more than 950 alpine lakes and hundreds of miles of hiking trails that are accessible from the Highway. Visitors can take guided horseback trips, fish for cutthroat trout and stay in one of the 13 National Forest campgrounds. For those who enjoy wide open spaces on their motorcycles, this is the place to go. Some consider it the number one motorcycle road in America.

Three other scenic routes that connect to the Highway are:

  • The Chief Joseph Scenic Byway connects to the Beartooth Highway from the south. It is Wyoming 296 and follows the route Chief Joseph and his followers fled north towards Canada.

Chief Joseph Scenic Byway

Chief Joseph Scenic Byway. Photo Courtesy of jodene e

  • Another scenic byway is named after Buffalo Bill Cody. It travels across the Wapiti Valley along the Shoshone River bank and ends at Yellowstone National Park’s eastern gate where it meets the Beartooth Highway.

Buffalo Bill Cody

Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway. Photo Courtesy of Kent Kanouse

  • A scenic loop heads north into the wilds of Montana. It’s a 400-mile loop that travels through four National Forests and many rural communities. It will also take you to Glacier National Park.

St Mary Lake and a View of Mountains (Glacier National Park)

St Mary Lake and a View of Mountains (Glacier National Park)

Photo Courtesy of Mark Stevens

The three gateway towns including Cooke City and Red Lodge in Montana and Cody in Wyoming still retain their wild west heritage while offering all the modern amenities. They provide an authentic western experience for the whole family.

The biking trails in the area are a mountain bikers dream. The trails are challenging with parts that travel over 10,000 feet. These trails are not for beginners.

The Beartooth Highway boasts some of the wildest water in the world. The crystal clear glacial water provides incredibly beautiful sites. Two of the most popular waterfalls are:

  • Crazy Creek Falls are near the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway intersection. The creek has a zigzag pattern down the mountain. There is a walking path to a viewing platform about half a mile from the parking area.

Crazy Creek Falls

Crazy Creek Falls. Photo Courtesy of Dan Davis

  • Lake Creek Falls and Historic Bridge is a mile and a half off the Highway near the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway. It tumbles between steep granite walls, and the bridge is one of the few structures remaining that were built during the Great Depression. It’s a marvel of architecture and completed in 1932.

Lake Creek Falls


Lake Creek Falls. photo Courtesy of

The Clay Butte Lookout

Near the Highway is the Clay Butte Lookout. It is about a mile from the Highway up a winding gravel road. It was built as a fire lookout in 1942 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and staffed until the early 1960s. After that, aircraft was used for fire detection, and today, it is a visitor information center.

Views from Clay Butte Lookout

Views from Clay Butte Lookout. Photo Courtesy of Scott Hamlin

It provides a 360 degree view of the whole area including wildlife, botanical areas and the area burned in 1988. Visitors can also see the places where the ancient seas once covered the Beartooth Plateau. It was remodeled in 1962 as a visitor’s center and has been staffed with volunteers since 1975.

The Beartooth Nature Center

Beartooth Nature Center

Beartooth Nature Center. Photo Courtesy of Carol Vinzant

The Beartooth Nature Center is in Red Lodge Montana. It is a non-profit 501 (c)(3) educational organization that is dedicated to the preservation of Montana’s natural habitats and wildlife. It gives the best animal care to more than 60 native Montana animals that are unable to survive in the wild because of human interference or an injury. Some of the animals that visitors can see are cougars, bobcats, black bears, elk, foxes, wolves, golden and bald eagles. The center is open all year around and is supported solely by private donations.

When to Go

The Highway is closed during the winter months. The best time to visit is from the middle of May to the middle of October. However, when the road is closed to vehicles, it is open to snowmobiles. You can find guided tours to the Top of the World. You can travel basically the same route as the Highway or take side roads and enjoy an unparalleled winter wonderland.

There are strong winds and severe thunderstorm even during the summer and there can also be snowstorms. It is recommended to take warm clothing even if you are only making a day trip, because it will be chilly when you stop to enjoy the views.

Beartooth Highway covered with snow

Beartooth Highway. Photo Courtesy of Shiny Things

If you’re looking for summer skiing, Twin Lakes Headwall is the place, weather permitting. The ski area often opens in April and stays open through July. There is skiing and snowboarding as well as cross country skiing, and many of the lodges in the area provide skiing from their front door. Red Lodge is home to Red Lodge Mountain where there is excellent skiing and snowboarding all winter.




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