Field Notes

Beartooth Highway

by Monica RobinsonApr 17, 2024
Clouds Float Over The Peaks In The Beartooth Mountain Range That Can Be Seen From The Iconic Beartooth Pass

The Beartooth Highway is a scenic mountain pass located in the Rocky Mountains of the United States. It runs through southwest Montana and northwest Wyoming, connecting Yellowstone National Park to Red Lodge, Montana via the Beartooth Pass. Nicknamed the “Highway to the Sky”, it is famous for stunning vistas and high elevation with its summit reaching 10,947 feet. It is widely considered as one of the most beautiful drives that one can take in the US. When exploring Yellowstone and the neighboring northern towns, the Beartooth Highway is worth a trip!

An overlook of the famous Beartooth Highway showing clear skies and rugged mountains

History of the Highway

Part of Route 212, the highway winds through both Montana and Wyoming over 69 miles. It is a dramatic mountain pass that has constant breathtaking views through alpine forest and arctic tundra. The route was first used by Native Tribes to cross the Beartooth Mountains. Later, it was used by the U.S. Army while they were inspecting Yellowstone as it was first becoming established as a national park. Construction began to create the road itself during the Great Depression in 1931, coming to completion in 1936. The road was built after many years of political lobbying by both the National Park Service and the state of Montana. Doing so would boost the town of Red Lodge for its residents as a gateway to Yellowstone and to support the local mining industry.

Attempts to improve the road were made prior in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but the terrain proved too difficult. The nature of the mountain pass meant construction was extremely challenging. While the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) had the means to tackle the dangerous job, the high elevation and steep terrain posed many difficulties for engineering needs. Workers had to contend with steep grades, unstable rock formations, and extreme weather conditions, including heavy snowfall and avalanches. Construction crews used dynamite to blast through mountainsides and construct the roadbed, often working in treacherous conditions at high altitudes. Nevertheless, construction progressed steadily over the course of several years, improving access to remote areas of the Rocky Mountains and opening up opportunities for tourism and economic development.

An open meadow along the Beartooth Highway on a sunny day
Clear skies over a pristine alpine lake can be seen from the Beartooth Pass

Traveling the Beartooth Highway

Access to the Beartooth Highway is limited to the summer months due to the extreme weather that the high elevation experiences. Depending on conditions, the road is open from late May or early June to late October. Dates can vary, and it’s important to plan ahead and check conditions of the road before attempting to travel.

The highway can be divided into the west side and the east side of the Beartooth Pass. From Red Lodge, Montana, it’s about a 25-mile drive to the top of the pass through the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains. After the summit, it descends through switchbacks into Wyoming, turning to flatter terrain before approaching Cooke City and the gate for Yellowstone National Park. The entire highway has several attractions to consider, each offering its own unique scenery and challenges.

Rock Creek Vista is a scenic overlook along the highway at 9,190 feet. This is a fantastic stop as it offers a spectacular view of Rock Creek Valley and the Hellroaring Plateau from an observation platform with interpretive plaques offering fascinating information. There are also restrooms at this spot.

Crazy Creek Falls is an impressive waterfall for its sheer power from massive amounts of runoff water. It isn’t very tall, but it is 30 feet wide and creates a thunderous sound. It’s a natural feature that is worth a stop!

The Beartooth Basin Summer Ski Area is a backcountry ski area that has its own ski lift! Beartooth Basin has snow late into the season, often into July. It attracts skiers and snowboarders for the novelty, but the terrain is also incredibly challenging and steep. Even if you’re not a skier, watching from the road is a thrill in itself.

The Top of the World Resort might be just about the last thing you’d expect to find traveling along the Beartooth Highway, but this general store that dates from the 1930s is a welcome stopover. This log cabin style building offers souvenirs, fishing and camping gear, and gas.

grizzly bear in yellowstone

Prepare for Your Journey

The Beartooth Highway was designated as a National Scenic Byway in 2002 and has since become a cherished route for travelers seeking adventure and natural beauty in the Rocky Mountains. Despite its challenging nature, thousands of people take to the highway every year. Before embarking on this adventure, make sure you have enough gas and check your brakes and tires. Any kind of car trouble is difficult, but you want to take extra precautions on such a rugged and remote road.

It is imperative to take extra care when driving the highway, eliminate distractions and keep your eyes on the road. Particularly for RV drivers, slow down and be prepared for steep grades.

Prepare for your journey, and enjoy!

A Raven Clad In Black Turns It's Head For A Better Look At The Photographer
Our Expert

Monica Robinson

Naturalist Guide
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