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When compared to epic road trips like Route 66 or the Pacific Coast Highway, Beartooth Highway is a hop, skip, and a jump.
However, don’t let its short mileage fool you. This scenic drive packs a lot into its 68.7 miles. The late Charles Kuralt called it “the most beautiful drive in America.”
It’s also one of the most dangerous routes; reaching an elevation of 10,947 feet, Beartooth Highway winds and wends its way through twenty peaks that exceed 12,000 feet on hairpin curves marked by sheer drop-offs and guardrails that offer the barest illusion of safety. The weather is mercurial, and, even if the road is open, you never know if you’ll get caught in a blizzard.
And yet, there are glaciers and 10,000 mountain lakes, three National Forests and tumbling streams. Overlooks that look over ripples of evergreen trees contrasted with alpine tundra, and if you look down, if you dare to look down, the snaking blacktop of Depression-era daring.
Is it worth it?
The road’s only open a few months of the year. As my husband, Jim, and I planned our northwestern U.S. road trip, we optimistically added “Drive Beartooth Highway” to the itinerary, knowing full well we might be turned around at Red Lodge. I anxiously checked the status, relieved when this All-American Road opened three weeks before we were scheduled to drive it.
The date finally arrived. It was early June. We woke up in Billings, Montana, and that evening we’d be sleeping in Yellowstone National Park.
Beartooth is a section of US-212, a road we could have taken directly from Belle Fourche, South Dakota, but if we had, we would have missed Devils Tower and Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. While those destinations exacerbated our convoluted, roundabout route, just like our decision the year before to drive around Death Valley so we could ride the oldest electric elevator west of the Mississippi, they were worth the extra miles.
The road from Billings to Red Lodge was a fairly straight course through a flat plain. We neared the town and it looked like the road dead-ended at the big wall of a mountain in our windshield.
Up until 1936, that’s basically what it did. Red Lodge had been a coal mining community, but when the mines closed, the citizens lobbied to have a road constructed through the mountainous terrain from Red Lodge to the first National Park.
President Herbert Hoover signed the Park Approach Act in 1931 and construction on the road began in 1932. It was the Great Depression, and men lined up to carve a road into the mountains for 50 cents an hour with steam shovels, hand tools, and dynamite. Four years and two and a half million dollars later, the road opened.
Through Red Lodge, US-212 was lined with two-story buildings flying U.S. and Montana flags. We passed a Carnegie library, a theater marquee advertising handmade chocolates, and a church that looked like a rook, and we barely resisted the urge to stop and explore the historic main street.
We did, however, stop at a wayside exhibit near the end of town. We learned that the Crow who lived here before Europeans arrived painted their council tepee with red clay, that “Liver-eating” Johnston kept the peace as Red Lodge’s first constable, and that the Beartooth Plateau was made up of the oldest exposed rocks in Montana and some of the oldest on Earth.
Five minutes out of town the road curved, and curved again, following the swerves of what was now a valley. We climbed higher. Deciduous trees gave way to evergreens. A creek (crick? spring?) gurgled and cascaded. We pulled over to listen to it for a bit, then hopped back in and continued ascending higher and higher until we reached the open gates telling us that Beartooth Highway was open for business.
Was this “the most beautiful drive in America?” We were about to find out.
It was a partly cloudy day, and the landscape was random splotches of gray and green with streaks of snowy white. As we got higher, the valley got greener and the shoulders got steeper. More rocks, less grass. We followed the switchbacks up up up and could see where we’d be, eventually. We pulled over and jumped in the snow, startled when a man wearing ski boots came out of the woods. Driving higher and higher, there were large swaths with no growth at all, and I imagined an avalanche clearing everything in its path.
The higher we drove, the shorter the trees. Maybe they just seemed shorter, because everything else was beyond a measurable scale. Melting runoff trickled here and there, feeding the creek we’d left some time ago. It was nearly all brown now. Just a few trees holding things in their place. The blacktop, considering its annual freeze and thaw, was in excellent condition and I wondered how often they repaved it.
At 9,190 feet we pulled off at Rock Creek Vista Point. We walked to the overlook and chipmunks scampered. (That’s what they do, right? They scamper?) A raven flew and we looked over the tops of peaks and down down down into the valley below.
In the distance the clouds grew darker, so we left the vista and continued towards Yellowstone. And climbed up. And up. And up. Being the passenger, my view was a whole lot of air. There was a guardrail, at least, but I wasn’t sure how much protection it would provide. Thank goodness there wasn’t much traffic and Jim is an excellent driver.
Soon the trees were gone and we were in the clouds, driving between ever-deeper snow banks. Stakes lined the shoulder to indicate where the road was supposed to be when the snow covered the pavement completely. We entered Wyoming again. We drove through a passage where the stakes were completely buried and after a few more turns came across people skiing.
Ah – that’s where that guy had come from.
The darker clouds were no longer in the distance. They were coming in fast, and lightning peppered their approach. We began descending through rain and sleet. Finally we drove into patches of blue and the storm stayed behind like a petulant child.
With the squall safely behind us, we pulled off at Beartooth Lake.
It was simply breathtaking. Pines stood on half of the opposite shore, and a bare slope and butte rose out of the other, both reflected in the alpine water.
Just past the lake we crossed a tall bridge and noticed a waterfall. We pulled to the side of the road in front of a few other cars and walked back.
This was unlike any waterfall I’d ever seen, or heard, or experienced. The sheer power overwhelmed the senses. I couldn’t fathom the volume of water pummeling through the canyon lined with pines, and the noise drowned out every other sound. The current was entirely froth and, despite the onslaught, a tiny tree growing out of a rock in the center held fast.
We hadn’t even gotten to Yellowstone yet, and I could barely speak.
We hiked back to Jeannie the Jeep. Beartooth Highway turned north back into Montana, cut through Cooke City, and 68.7 miles from those open gates, the All-American Road ended and Yellowstone National Park began.
Was it worth it?
You tell me.
I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from my book, “Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2.”
Driving Beartooth Highway
Beartooth Highway begins outside of Red Lodge, Montana. The road enters Wyoming and ends in Montana again in Cooke City.
The road is only open during the warmer months of the year, typically mid- to late-May and into October. However, as I mentioned at the beginning, that can change at any time. Ten days after our drive, a blizzard tore through and closed the road. Visit the Montana Department of Transportation to check the status.
Allow two to three hours for the drive, more if you like to stop at every pull-off like we do. Take it slow; this is definitely about the journey, not the destination!
Places to stay near Beartooth Highway
Lodging is available in Red Lodge and there are several campgrounds in the National Forest.
Planning on driving Beartooth Highway? Save this for later!