I leave Cooke City with a dark cube of chocolate fudge in my backpack. Ribbons of firs in light green, turquoise and dark olive are spreading across the rough mountain massifs. The Yellowstone geysers are still exploding in my head as well as the eye contact I had with the massive, beautiful bison. With its big, shiny eyes like glass marbles in which the wilderness was reflected upside down. I’m driving from the north-eastern entrance of the National Park to Red Logde, Montana, via US Highway 212. Behind this unspectacular number hides one of the most beautiful streets in the world: Beartooth Highway.
Today I would like to take you on a road trip on this awesome street. Beyond clouds and above lakes, through hail storms and along vertical precipices.
“When you get to Yellowstone National Park, make sure to drive Beartooth Highway,” says one of my hosts in Salt Lake City. “This is one of the most beautiful highways on earth.”
I’m nodding meaningful and don’t believe one word, because it needs a lot to win the award “Hottest Shit on Earth” by now – simply because I’ve seen so many stunning places before. During my time in Yellowstone, however, I have the chance to take a look at the highly praised Scenic Byway with my wonderful Couchsurfing host. I recommend the north-eastern entrance of Yellowstone National Park as starting point for your road trip. Because this might be the area where you will probably have found somewhere to stay.
This point is easily accessible from the lodges of the park itself (but don’t forget to take a loan in advance if you’d like to stay there for some nights!) or from Gardiner and Aldridge.
The route is 68 miles long and runs alternately through Wyoming and Montana. However, it’s linear and therefore not suitable for a round trip. If you want to stay somewhere overnight during or after your road trip, you can do so in one of the Western villages along the highway (more loans needed) or you can find accommodation in Cody or Gardiner – the larger towns in that area with more reasonable prices. Motorhomes, campers and vans watch out: Walmart in Cody allows free overnight parking and sleeping in a huge parking lot – definitely worth a thought and in my opinion also safe.
For the whole length of Beartooth Highway you should consider at least half a day. Because it’s impossible to simply drive it down. A view from the window is enough to make your breath faltering and sliding over the wonderful glaciers down into deep blue lakes. And it still does not stop at the sight of the breathtaking, winding mountain roads.
Gas stations and food are not available everywhere. There are only three villages along the road: Silver Gate, Cooke City and Red Lodge. But as usual: don’t panic! Every town has its own restaurants. And even my small car in Germany is able to cover 68 miles without being refueled ten times.
Besides, I want to whisper: It’s a lie that distances between gas stations in the US are so huge that you have to be afraid of running out of fuel. Gas stations in the US are about as eminently important and frequent as beer gardens in Germany. Yes, even in the wilderness!
By the way: In Cooke City you can find the fantastic fudge I mentioned at the beginning. It’s Silvia’s Sweet Shoppe. About 17 miles from the city, the fantastic Chief Joseph Scenic Highway branches off the intersection of US 212 and WY 296.
After I passed the villages, Beartooth Highway starts getting higher and higher. The shoulders are still lined with snow – in mid July! Sometimes the highway does not open up until June and closes in September due to the extreme weather conditions and icy winters. So please make sure to check the road conditions before driving!
The pressure in my ears is rising, the bends are getting narrower, my eyes are getting bigger. Mile by mile the asphalt is climbing up the mountains, while temperature drops every minute. We’re close to 11.000 feet above sea level. I want to open the door while driving and yell, “I’m the king of the world!”
As the clouds condense, the sun breaks through the dark shreds in a unique way and sends down golden daggers to the unreal landscape. By reaching the highest point of the pass, I’m dropping out of the car and walking to the top of an overlook between rough grass and yellow flowers. The wind cuts my face and suddenly hail hits me. I’m throwing my arms in the air and dance around. It really hurts but at the same time it feels like the grains were pinching me to remind me all this beauty was real.
After some time it gets freaking cold and wet and my couchsurfing host lends me a big, warm fleece jacked in which I wrap myself.
Even in the summer you can go skiing here. There are also countless opportunities for hiking, wildlife watching such as bison, bears and moose and 13 campsites in the National Forest nearby. However, you should always be prepared for weather apocalypses: In addition to hail, there can be snowstorms up to May – but in high summer it can also get as hot as 80F degrees. Especially at this height, your skin burns faster that you can throw yourself into the snow.
By leaving the pass in direction of Red Lodge, Beartooth Highway winds down steep walls and huge rock formations like a ribbon of presents. The bends push along abysses and the valley folds up like a stony secret with only one dimension: depth.
It’s late in the afternoon when we finally arrive in Red Lodge. Time for a typical “linner” (this happens to me when it is too late for lunch and too early for dinner – and “dinch” sounds crap!). On the main road there are many small restaurants and I even notice some Irish flair. Behind the wooden houses, the outlines of the mountains are still piling up. The shadows of the firs become longer and fall silently on the road. I’m back down in the valley – but still flying. By getting back to Cody I’m texting my friends in Salt Lake City. Just one sentence: Beartooth Highway is one of the most beautiful roads in the world!
Find more information about current weather conditions on Beartooth Highway’s website.
Moreover, I’ve summarized tips and hacks for booking a rental car in my little series “Road Trips & Rental Cars”.