I leave Cooke City, Montana, with a dark cube of chocolate fudge in my backpack. There are ribbons of fir trees spreading across the rough mountains in shades of light green, turquoise, and dark olive. The geysers of Yellowstone are still exploding in my head. And I still see the wilderness of the North reflected upside down in the eyes of enormous bison. These magnificent animals have eyes that shine like glass marbles.
I’m riding away from the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park as I head toward Red Lodge on the mundane-sounding US Highway 212. But the first 68 miles are one of the most spectacular roads in the world. It is so unique that it is even given a special name: the Beartooth Highway!
Today I would like to take you on a road trip along this awesome highway. We will go above lakes, beyond the clouds, through hailstorms and along vertical precipices on our journey.
“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 nod as if I understand, any yet I don’t believe one word. There is now a very high barrier to overcome in order to win the “Hottest Shit on Earth” award. My trip through the USA so far has taken me to so many stunning places. However, during my time in Yellowstone, my wonderful Couchsurfing host has given me the opportunity to ride on this praised Scenic Byway.
I recommend using the Northeast Entrance of Yellowstone as a starting point. It is easily accessible from nearby Gardiner and Aldridge and all of Yellowstone’s campgrounds. And if you remember to take out a loan in advance, you may even stay for some days in one of the Park’s lodges.
Starting in Montana, the 68-mile Beartooth Highway winds into Wyoming and then back out to Montana. Be cautioned: there is no loop. This is an out and back, or just out to the Red Lodge Montana. You may want to consider staying overnight in Red Lodge, or even Cody, which is only another hour away. Motorhomes, campers and vans can stay in the Custer National Forest campgrounds for a fee, or park overnight free and safely at the Cody Walmart—which is great if you are on a limited budget.
You should plan on taking at least a half-day to cruise the Beartooth Highway. It is almost impossible to simply make the drive without stopping several times to enjoy the view. Just the view from the window will cause a case of bated breath as your gaze slides over the wonderful glaciers and down into deep blue lakes. Nor does it stop there as you continue a breathtaking view of winding mountain roads.
Note that gas stations and food are not available everywhere. You will only find three very small towns along the road: Silver Gate, Cooke City and Red Lodge. But you don’t need to worry. Each little village has its own restaurants and gas stations. And even my small car back home in Germany can cover 68 miles without the need to refuel 10 times.
Here I feel as if I should whisper a secret into your ear: the distances in the US are huge, but it is not true that you have to worry about running out of fuel if you simply watch your gauge. Gas stations in the US are as important and as frequent as beer gardens in Germany. This is true even in the wilderness.
In Cooke City you will find the fantastic fudge I talked about at the beginning of this article. Just stop in at Silvia’s Sweet Shoppe. Yum! As you continue east toward Red Lodge for about 17 miles, you will a turn for the fantastic Chief Joseph Scenic Highway at the junction of US 212 and WY 296.
After passing the small towns of Silver Gate and Cooke City, the Beartooth Highway begins to climb. Even in mid-July, the shoulders are lined with snow. Frequently the highway does not open up until sometime in June and will only stay open until September or October due to frequent snow in the high elevations. So please check road conditions before you plan to drive this road.
The pressure in my ears is rising as we ascend. The hairpin turns on the switchbacks are getting sharper. My eyes are getting bigger. The asphalt continues to climb, mile after mile. At the same time the temperature begins to drop, minute after minute. At the top we are almost 11,000 feet above sea level. I want to open the door while the car is still moving just to shout, “I’m king of the world!”
As the clouds begin to shift, layer upon layer, the sun suddenly breaks through the dark shreds in such a unique way that golden daggers of light stab their way onto the almost supernatural landscape below. As we stop at the highest point, the Beartooth Pass, I jump out of the car and walk to the top of an overlook that lies between some sparse green grass and yellow flowers. The wind cuts my face. Suddenly I am assaulted by hail. I throw my arms in the air and begin to dance! The hail hurts a bit, but it seems that the small grains of ice are only pinching me to remind me that this mystical beauty is real.
Soon I get freaking cold and wet. My couchsurfing host lends me a big, warm fleece jacket. I wrap myself up to stay cozy and dry.
Skiing. You can go skiing until early July in the Beartooths. There are also countless opportunities for hiking, wildlife viewing, and camping. You may be able to see bison, bears, and moose in the 13 campsites in the nearby Custer National Forest. However, you need to be prepared at all times for a possible weather apocalypse. In addition to hail, there is the possibility of snow during any month of the year. At the same time, it can get very hot, up to 80F. At this altitude, your skin can redden and burn almost before you are able to jump into the nearby snow to cool down.
As you leave the Beartooth Pass and head toward Red Lodge, the highway begins to wind down into steep walls and huge rock formations that adorn the sides of the highway like a ribbon of wrapped gifts. The bends in the road seem to push into an abyss as the valley folds up into a stony secret which has only one dimension: depth.
In the late afternoon we finally arrive in Red Lodge. Just in time for a typical “linner.” (Linner is when I get hungry, but it is too late for lunch and too early for dinner - I tried “dinch,” but it sounds like crap!).
There are many small restaurants lining the main street, including some that even sound a bit Irish. As I look at the wooden houses, I notice the outlines of the mountains that seem to stack up behind them. There are shadows of fir tress that are becoming longer, now falling silently onto the road. I feel as if I am back down in the valley but still flying high.
As I journey back to Cody, I’m texting my friends in Salt Lake City. I send just one sentence, "Beartooth Highway is one of the most beautiful roads in the world!"
I've put a Lonelyroadclip about my trip on Beartooth Highway on my Instagram account. Enjoy the breathtaking view and some insider tips of places to stop and visit besides the road.
I've also summarized some tips and hacks for booking a rental car in my little series called Road Trips and Rental Cars.