Camping, Hiking and Traveling in Montana
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Hike Index
H=Hike   C=Camp   V=Visit     S=Ski

Livingston Area
  Elephanthead Mtn. H

Paradise Valley
  S. Fk. Deep Creek H
  Pine Creek H,C
  George Lake H
  Passage Creek Falls H
  Crow Mountain H

Big Timber Area
  Boulder River H,C,V
  Natural Bridge Falls H,C,V
  Big Timber Creek Falls  H,C,V
  West Boulder Meadows H,C
  Twin Lakes  H,C
  Prairie Dog State.Park   V

Bozeman Area
Chestnut Mountain H
  Goose Creek H,S
  Mystic Lake H
  Lava Lake H

Central Montana
  Little Belt Mountains H,C,V,S
  Castle Mountains H,C
  Central MT Railroading V
  Cooney Reservoir C,V
  Crystal Lake H,C,V
  Judith Mountains V
  Judith Gap Wind Farm V
  Moccasin Mountains V

The Yellowstone River
  Upper Yellowstone Floating
  Yankee Jim Canyon

Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness
  Anvil Lake H,C
  Beartooth Lake H,C,V
  Beartooth Highway V
  Island Lake H,C,V

Western Montana
  Painted Rocks Rec Area V,C
  Salmon Lake State Park V,C
  Warm Spring Ponds  V

Camping Index
Montana Campgrounds
Selecting a Campsite
Selecting a Tent Site
Selecting a Tent
Sleeping Bags & Pads
The Camp Kitchen
Selecting a Camp Stove
Water Supplies

The Beartooth Highway and Beartooth Pass

     The Beartooth Highway (US Hwy 212) is one of the most spectacular routes in the continental United States. Running for 63 miles between Red Lodge, MT and Silver Gate, MT (the NE Entrance to Yellowstone Park) the Beartooth Highway travels through high-altitude wilderness terrain. The lands surrounding the road are almost entirely US Forest Service and the 944,000 acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness boundary is very close to the road in many places. Most people experience the Beartooth Highway as a scenic drive and as an access to Yellowstone Park. However, the road offers great access to hiking, fishing, camping and other recreational activities.

      Unmatched beauty is the lasting memory of a drive over the Beartooth Pass and the route is often found on lists of the most scenic drives in America. The US Forest Service designates the Beartooth Highway as a "Scenic Byway" and it was described by the late Charles Kuralt as "the most beautiful drive in America". The route is spectacular from either direction. There are lots of pullouts to admire the views and there are a number of campgrounds and recreation areas that offer opportunities to enjoy the area. Note that there are very few commercial services along the road.

Looking up Rock Creek near the top of the Beartooth Pass    Looking up the Rock Creek drainage from the Rock Creek Vista overlook. 

      I generally drive the Beartooth from the East (Red Lodge) to the west (Yellowstone Park) so I will discuss the highway as if driving that way. Just reverse my discussion if you are driving from Yellowstone. Red Lodge, MT is a typical Montana mountain ski town. Yes, Red Lodge is a ski town with Red Lodge Mountain just 7 miles from the city. Red Lodge is not a major resort area but the city fills with skiers during the season which typically begins early (around Thanksgiving). Red Lodge is also the home for spring and summer skiers who drive the Beartooth Highway to access great skiing - often well into July.

       Red Lodge is located at 5,570' elevation and the top of the ski hill is at 9,416't. However this pales next to the Beartooth Pass which is at 10,947' - 1,500' higher than the top of the ski area and more than a mile higher than Red Lodge! Obviously, if the highway climbs a mile in elevation there are some steep climbs between Red Lodge and the top of the pass. As you leave Red Lodge on US 212 you drive up the Rock Creek valley which starts from town as a broad flat valley bottom that quickly narrows dramatically as the mountains pull in on both sides of the road. If you have extra time you can fully explore Rock Creek by taking Forest Road 71 which heads west just outside of the city.

      About 10 miles from Red Lodge US 212 begins a very steep climb up the mountain walls on the east side of the canyon. For the next 10 miles the road climbs a series of twisty switchbacks and hairpin turns to reach the Rock Creek Vista Overlook which, at 9190', is about 3,500' higher than the road in the canyon bottom below. The Rock Creek Vista Overlook is a must stop location. As you have driven up the tight switchbacks you have had views and glimpses of the surrounding area. However the overlook gives you the opportunity to really enjoy the views. Take the very short walk to the overlook and you will be delighted by the views of Rock Creek Canyon below and the Hellroaring Plateau across the canyon.

A spectacular view of an environment above tree line The specatuclar vista of lands above the tree line

What is the Tree Line?     

     The tree line refers to the highest elevation at which trees grow. Above the tree line its too cold, or is snow-covered for too much of the year for trees to survive. Above tree line you only find shrubs, low growing plants and lots of bare rock ? this is the alpine zone. The harsh climate above the tree line is created by elevation. In the western mountains the temperature will generally drop about 3 degrees F for each 1,000 feet of elevation change. This results in significant temperature differences as you gain elevation.

      The elevation at which tree lines are found will vary significantly from place to place. The tree line boundary is very uneven and is more of a transition than an actual line. Besides elevation there are several factors that will dictate the elevation at which the alpine tundra becomes the dominate vegetation.

      In the Rockies tree lines on north-facing slopes are lower than on south-facing slopes. The shaded north-facing slopes hold snowpack much later into the spring and summer. This considerably shortens the growing season on these slopes.
      Its an easy assumption that harsh winter temperatures dictate where the tree line will occur. However, researchers say its actually summer that is most critical. While the trees in these areas are well adapted to harsh winters, they are poorly equipped to survive a mid-summer freeze and summer frost appears to be the primary factor in determining the tree line.

       For me one of the most interesting sights is the vast expanses of bare rock that you see on the Hellroaring Plateau. The plateau is mostly above 10,000' elevation which puts it above the tree line. All that grows are shrubs and low growing plants. Getting above tree line is a rare experience for most. Usually you cannot access the alpine environments without a significant hike. However, the Beartooth Highway takes you through miles and miles of alpine terrain. As you travel on the road past the Rock Creek Vista Overlook you continue to gain elevation and soon you are driving above tree line and you get a first-hand look at this unique environment.

      Just a couple of miles past the overlook the road leaves Montana and enters Wyoming. Other than a few signs there is little indication that you have crossed the state line. You are now driving on the Beartooth Plateau which is the largest high elevation plateau in the US. The Beartooth Plateau is composed primarily of ancient rocks more than 4 billion years old - some of the oldest rocks in the world. The huge plateau holds the Beartooth Mountains which contain some of the highest peaks in Montana, including Granite Peak Montana?s highest. While the word plateau may give you a thought of a relatively flat area, the Beartooth Plateau is actually far from flat. There are many undulations and it is common to gain or lose hundreds of feet in a short distance. Looking across the plateau you see nothing but lots of change in the landscape.  Enjoy the spectacular vistas!

      A bit further along the road, at an altitude of 10,730', you reach the Beartooth Basin Summer Ski Area (formerly the Red Lodge International Ski and Snowboard Camp). Weather and snow permitting, Beartooth Basin is open from late May to early July each summer. The ski area's two lifts provide 1,000 vertical feet of access to 600 acres of terrain. Historically, this was a private ski area operated as a training ground for teams of aspiring ski racers. However, just in the past few years, the ski area has opened to the public.

      Continuing on, the Beartooth Highway travels through the bare rock/tundra/scrub terrain that is found in the high country. You reach the Beartooth Pass is at 10,947'elevation where there is an overlook that offers panoramic views in all directions. 10,947? is a very high elevation and, particularly if you are a visitor from lower elevations, you might notice the "thinner" air especially if you do any walking or hiking.

       It is not only "thin" air that you have to be aware of. The high country along the Beartooth Highway is a different environment than anything you are accustomed to. Temperatures are always much cooler here and often it is cold! While most summer days are beautiful, it is common to have storms and fronts move through that bring cold temperatures and snow. Don?t be surprised to have temps in the 30s and 40s even in the middle of the summer.  Being above tree line, there is no shelter from the strong winds that often whip across the area. In short, be prepared for bad weather.

The Beartooth Plateau stretches for miles of wilderness

      As you start down the west side of the pass you soon encounter the Top of the World Store  which is located at 9400? just a few miles west of the pass. This is the only place to purchase anything between Red Lodge and Cooke City. Fortunately, the store is well stocked with the necessities that you might need. They offer accommodations, gasoline, groceries and much more. They even offer official Wyoming invasive species boat inspections and can get you set to boat on Wyoming waters.

      The Top of the World Resort is located between two of the most popular public recreation sites. Beartooth Lake is just a few miles to the west and offers a campground, boating, fishing, trails for day hikers and  a major access point for backpackers heading out to explore the Beartooth Plateau. Island Lake is a few miles to the East of the lodge and also offers camping, fishing, boating and hiking.  There are other access points along the highway as you travel toward Yellowstone and all offer opportunities for exploring the area.

      Continuing on, Highway 212 reaches its only significant intersection when it is joined by Wyoming Route 296 also called the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway. This road follows the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River as it begins its dramatic rush downward. The Chief Joseph Scenic Highway is another truly spectacular drive. It travels through breathtaking scenery as it drops downward toward Cody Wyoming. The Chief Joseph Scenic Highway is 47 miles in total and ends by intersecting with US 120 about 17 miles north of Cody. I run out of adjectives to describe how impressive all of the roads I am writing about are. If you have a chance to explore the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway take it. Along the way you will experience a drive across Wyoming?s tallest bridge, the Sunlight Creek Bridge which spans its namesake creek. This is actually quite a short bridge but the drop below is impressive ? about 300 feet straight down. If you continue on the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway you will enjoy great mountain scenery as you make your way towards Cody.

The spectacular Beartooth PlateauThe spectacular Beartooth Plateau

      While exploring WY 296 is a great trip in itself, here we are talking about the Beartooth Highway and continuing west from the intersection with WY 2396 Hwy 212 continues on as the ever spectacular scenery unfolds. You are gradually losing altitude as the road travels downward from the Beartooth Pass. Through this stretch the highway is travelling through Wyoming?s Shoshone National Forest. There are several campgrounds and trail heads. The trails into the surrounding mountains offer access to great wilderness camping, fishing and backpacking. The border between Wyoming and Montana is not far to the North and if you are planning to fish along this route you need to be sure to have the appropriate fishing licenses.

Learn More
There are a number of excellent books that can help you learn more aboutt this area. I recommend:

Day Hikes in the Beartooth Mountains

Hiking the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Fishing the Beartooths - An Angler's Guide

National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps
Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness East [Cooke City, Red Lodge]

      As you approach the western end of the Beartooth Highway you arrive at the very small town of Cooke City, MT. Cooke City has a colorful mining history and today is a center of outdoor recreation. In the summer Cooke is the gateway to the Beartooth Plateau and ion the winter it is a world-famous snowmobiling destination. As you drive the single street through town you will find full services with gas, food, shopping and more.

      Another couple of miles and you encounter the even smaller town of Silvergate, MT. This tiny town consists mostly of tourism related businesses and is nearly on the border of Yellowstone National Park. The NE entrance of the Park is just past the last of the Silvergate buildings. This entrance is open year-round as the route through Yellowstone is the primary road to Cooke City in the winter. From here you hav all of Yellowstone Park to enjoy but that is talk for other articles.

      The Beartooth Highway is a remarkable feat of road building that offers one of the most scenic drives in America. If you have the opportunity to drive the road take it. Plan on at least 2 hours to travel between Red Lodge and Cooke city - even more if you plan to spend time hiking or recreating. Plan your trip for the summer months if possible and enjoy a real treat of an experience.

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