The Beartooth Highway (US Hwy 212) is one of the most spectacular routes in the continental United States. The highway travels through high-altitude wilderness terrain for 63 miles between Red Lodge, MT and the North East Entrance to Yellowstone Park at Silver Gate, MT. This article travels the road beginning in Red Lodge and ending in Yellowstone Park but it can easily be driven in reverse
While it’s often called the Montana Beartooth Highway it actually travels through Wyoming for a portion of the route. The highway travels almost entirely through US Forest Service lands and the 944,000 acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness boundary is close to the road in many places. While most people experience the Beartooth Highway as a scenic drive and as an access to Yellowstone Park, the road offers great access to hiking, fishing, camping and other recreational activities.
Unmatched beauty surrounds you as you travel over the Beartooth Pass and along the Beartooth Highway. This drive is often found on lists of America’s Most Scenic Routes and the US Forest Service designates the Beartooth Highway as a “Scenic Byway”. The route is spectacular when driven from either direction. There are pullouts to admire the views and there are a number of campgrounds and recreation areas that offer opportunities to enjoy the area. Be aware that there are very few commercial services along the road.
Red Lodge, Montana
Red Lodge, MT is a typical Montana mountain ski town. The ski area, Red Lodge Mountain, is just 7 miles from the city. There is no resort at the ski area but Red Lodge 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 5,570ft elevation and the top of the ski hill is at 9,416ft. However this pales next to the Beartooth Pass which is at 10,947ft – 1,500ft higher than the top of the ski area and more than a mile higher than Red Lodge! Obviously, with the highway gaining a mile in elevation there are some steep climbs between Red Lodge and the top of the pass.
Climbing 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 drive up the tight switchbacks there are 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.
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.
What is the Tree Line
The tree line marks the highest elevation at which trees grow. Above the tree line it’s too cold, or is snow-covered for too much of the year for trees to survive. Lands above the tree line are called the Alpine Zone and you will only find shrubs, low growing plants and lots of bare rock. The harsh climate above the tree line is created by elevation. In the western mountains the temperature will generally drop between 3 and 5 degrees F for each 1,000 feet of elevation change. This results in significant temperature differences as you gain elevation.
The elevation where trees cannot survive 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 the winter’s snowpack much later into the spring and summer which considerably shortens the growing season on these slopes.
It’s an easy assumption that harsh winter temperatures dictate where the tree line will occur. However, researchers say it’s 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.
The Beartooth Plateau
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 is home to 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 vision 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 , at an altitude of 10,730′, is 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. In the past, this was a private ski area that was operated as a training ground for teams of aspiring ski racers. However, in the past few years, the ski area has opened to the public.
Traveling at High Altitude
The Beartooth Highway continues through the bare rock/tundra/scrub terrain that is found in the high country. You reach the Beartooth Pass at 10,947ft where there is an overlook that offers panoramic views in all directions. 10,947ft 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’s 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. Often temperatures will be 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. You should always be prepared for bad weather.
As you start down the west side of the pass you soon encounter the Top of the World Store which is located at 9400ft 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, even the official Wyoming invasive species boat inspections that you need 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.
Chief Joseph Scenic Highway
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 length and joins US 120 about 17 miles north of Cody.
I run out of adjectives to describe how impressive all of the roads I’m 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.
While exploring WY 296 is a great trip in itself, the Beartooth Highway continues west from the intersection with WY 296. Hwy 212 continues on as the ever spectacular scenery unfolds. You are gradually losing altitude as the road travels downward from the Beartooth Pass. This stretch of highway travels 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.
On to Yellowstone
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 for outdoor recreation. In the summer Cooke is the gateway to the Beartooth Plateau and in the winter it is a world-famous snowmobiling destination. As you drive the single street through town you’ll find full services with gas, food, shopping and more.
Another couple of miles and you encounter the even smaller town of Silver Gate, MT. This tiny town consists mostly of tourism related businesses and is on the border of Yellowstone National Park. The NE entrance of the Park is just past the last of the Silver Gate 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 have 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.
There are a number of excellent books that can help you learn more about 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]