One of the things we have always wanted to do in conjunction with a trip to Yellowstone is drive the Beartooth Scenic Highway. The highway is actually U.S. Highway 212 that runs between Red Lodge, Montana and Cooke City, Montana. It scales the 10,947’ Beartooth Pass for 64 miles and 82 curves. It was crossed in 1872 by General Phil Sheridan after an inspection of Yellowstone. We have read and heard about how spectacular it is, so we thought it was time we decided for ourselves. We were not disappointed.
Because we were staying in Gardiner we drove the route west-to-east starting in Cooke City. This is the only road open year-round through Yellowstone. Cooke City is a small gateway city to Yellowstone. To give you an idea of its size, its population is 140. After Cooke City, the highway runs along the Clark Fork of the Yellowstone River. The morning we drove the road, the skies were clear, and the temperature was crisp. There were some tremendous views of Index and Pilot Peaks.
We started our climb up the winding switchbacks and the vast openness of a mountain highway. We made it up to Beartooth Lake, just near Top of the World Store. The lake was so blue and clear. Maggie even got a chance to get out and walk and take a drink of the ice, cold mountain water.
We finally made it to the summit about an hour and a half after we left Cooke City, a total of 33 miles! At 10,947 feet, it was cold, windy, and very sunny. We stopped for the mandatory “Summit Photo” and got back in the car.
Probably one of the most inspiring stops was at Vista Point. It is a fully developed rest area at 9,190 feet. There is a short walk out to the vista where you can see 360 degrees into the valleys below and into Rock Creek Canyon. It is switchback hell arriving and departing.
We made it to Red Lodge and drove around the town. It took us an hour and a half to get the 45 miles from Gardiner to Cooke City and then another 3 hours from Cooke City to Red Lodge. For you math majors out there, that means it was seriously lunch time. We found a nice spot in a pullout alongside Rock Creek for our picnic, got Maggie another cool drink out of the river and started back. If we thought the switchbacks were harrowing on the way down, revisiting them on the way up was not one of Jennifer’s favorite activities. More on that later.
This time through the pass we stopped at the Island Lake overlook. At 9,518 feet, it was yet another of the deep blue lakes set in the contrasting green grasses with gray rock with white snow.
We stopped at the summit again, but this time, took the short detour out to the overlook to see what we could see. The Beartooth Plateau was clear and visible from miles away. The most amazing sight was the highway. You could see all the switchback, curves and bends yet ahead of us as we made our way back down towards Cooke City.
As we drove back down to lower elevations and back into the trees, you could see the aspen and other deciduous trees starting their fall color transformation. Pilot Peak is the remains of volcano at almost 11,000 feet in elevation. It really was stately standing alone as the backdrop to Clarks Fork and the yellow aspen.
Our last stop was Lake Creek waterfalls. They are set back from the road with an old foot bridge crossing the creek.
All in all, even after the 6-hour round trip, we were totally amazed by the Beartooth Highway. It lived up to all the hype we had read about it. It was not our first “Summit Road”, as we have driven Going-to-the-Sun road in Glacier National Park and Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. Beartooth Highway was without a doubt on par with these, and maybe even a little better. We are definitely glad we made the drive. However, one thing is for sure, Jennifer will not be taking a narrow, steep drop off, switchback road again for quite some time.
Next up, back into Yellowstone and some of the sights and features of the north side.