Rugged Beartooth Highway

Along the forested, mountainous border of Montana and Wyoming, the views—and the elk potpie—are transcendent.

Pilot Peak and Index Peak along the Beartooth Highway on the Montana-Wyoming border, image

Pilot Peak and Index Peak stand guard over the Montana-Wyoming border.

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The Beartooth Highway isn’t just the most scenic route to Yellowstone Park. Take it slow on a clear day, and you might agree that it’s the most scenic route to anywhere. Stretching about 65 miles from Red Lodge to Cooke City, both in Montana, with a chunk of northwest Wyoming in between, the highway (which celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2011) travels through a high-country world of glacier-polished granite, icy lakes, year-round snowfields, alpine tundra, and out-of-this-world views. Climbing to nearly 11,000 feet at the summit, the road is usually open from Memorial Day through mid to late October, snowplows permitting. beartoothhighway.com.

Area code 406 except as noted.

  • Red Lodge An old mining town that’s now a hangout for skiers and backpackers, Red Lodge (population 2,500) is the main entryway to the Beartooth Mountains. Here you can find wine-infused fine dining—including huckleberry salad, lamb risotto, and elk potpie—at the casual yet well-appointed Bridge Creek Backcountry Kitchen (eatfooddrinkwine.com). Bogart’s is a favorite funky family spot for giant burgers and Mexican food (redlodge.com/bogarts). If you’re starting your day here, try the Red Lodge Cafe for large, basic breakfasts. Red Lodge Visitor’s Center: 601 N. Broadway, 446-1718, redlodge.com.
  • Switchbacks For the first 13 miles or so after Red Lodge, the highway follows Rock Creek at the bottom of a deep valley. Then the road starts to climb. For the next 12 miles, you’ll go through one switchback after another as the highway rises an ear-popping 2,800 feet in that short span. You’ll drive past several spots where rock slides wiped out the road in the spring of 2005. As the valley floor recedes beneath you, roadside trees get stubby and sparse until they disappear completely at the vast tundra of the Beartooth Plateau.
  • Beartooth Pass Ski Lift About 23 miles from Red Lodge and more than two miles above sea level, the Beartooth Pass ski lift parking lot offers sweeping views of the plateau and the Rock Creek valley. In early summer you might see skiers and boarders bombing down the near-vertical headwall. They’ll be talented, too: Beginners are discouraged from trying these slopes. This bare-bones operation doesn’t have a snack bar or a warming hut, just a lot of snow and plenty of steep. (619) 922-0726, rlissc.com. 
  • West Summit Overlook A little way past the ski lift and over the Wyoming border, you’ll crest the summit of the highway. The pullout here offers your first view of the jagged Absaroka Range near Yellowstone National Park. Small lakes dot the landscape ahead of you. It’s a good place to breathe some thin air and watch marmots hop around granite boulders—if the wind isn’t blowing so hard it knocks them off their feet. byways.org/explore/byways/2281/places/35635.
  • Beartooth Lake You’ll pass many lakes on your drive, but this one (about 42 miles from Red Lodge and halfway into your drive) is special. Sitting at the base of the Beartooth Butte—a geologically bizarre outcrop of buff sandstone and limestone in a world of granite—Beartooh Lake rewards anglers, canoeists, photographers, campers, picnickers, and even scuba divers. (Yes, it’s that deep.) In July and early August, be prepared for swarms of big, hungry mosquitoes. www.fs.usda.gov/shoshone.
  • Clark's Fork Overlook About 48 miles from Red Lodge, this pullout provides views of the deep, broad valley of the Clarks Fork River. The large swaths of burned trees are remnants of the Yellowstone National Park fires of 1988.
  • Two Mountains About 43 miles from Red Lodge (and approximately 23 miles from Cooke City) you can pull over for a view of these two iconic peaks of the Cooke City area. Confusingly, Pilot Peak (11,700 feet) is the pointy one that looks like an index finger, and Index Peak (10,700 feet) is the one shaped like a giant pile of soft serve ice cream. Both are volcanic mountains that help define the geologic boundary between the Yellowstone region and the Beartooths.
  • Cooke City Given its year-round population of just 100 or so, “city” is a misnomer for the gateway to the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Still, classic Western coziness can be found at the AAA-rated Elk Horn Lodge, where you can stay in a nicely appointed room in the main building or in a woodsy cabin with a kitchenette and a quilt thrown over the bed. 103 Main St., 838-2332, elkhornlodgemt.com. (To find a place to stay, visit AAA.com/hotels.) Enjoy outdoor seating near profuse flower boxes on one of those nice mountain evenings at the popular Beartooth Cafe, where a plate of mountain trout or buffalo steak makes a welcome topper to the day. From this perch you might even see a moose in someone’s front yard. Open late May through September. 838-2475, beartoothcafe.com. Cooke City Visitor’s Center: 206 W. Main St., 838-2495, cookecitychamber.org.

Photography courtesy Merv Coleman

This article was first published in August 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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