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A wilderness adventure by car: Exploring the Beartooth Highway

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At nearly 11,000 feet, the top of the Beartooth Highway winds through open alpine plateaus carpeted with a spectacular array of mountain wildflowers.
Like a diorama, the mountainscape affords 360-degree views of the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains. Carved by giant ice masses, the granite peaks and precipitous cliffs are as spectacular as they are unforgiving.
Designated as a National Scenic Byway All-American Road, the Beartooth Highway connects Red Lodge, Montana, to Cooke City, Montana – a gateway community to Yellowstone National Park. While many travel the road on the way to Yellowstone, the Beartooth Highway, starting an hour outside of Billings, Montana, is stunning in its own right and a must-see and drive for those visiting the area.
Shimmering glacial lakes dot the landscape. A short hike to one of these lake shorelines and you’ll find water so clear, the lake bottom is visible at every depth.
The highway, which opened in 1937, is considered something of an engineering marvel. Winding 68 miles through pristine forests, alpine tundra and spectacular mountain vistas, it crosses one of the highest and most rugged wilderness areas in the lower 48 states. The drive is also unique in that it passes through a series of diverse ecosystems.
Day trippers can easily make a loop from Billings over the Beartooth Highway through the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park then back through Gardiner, Montana.
The journey starts south of Red Lodge, where Hwy 212 enters the Custer National Forest. The byway wraps around the base of Wapati Mountain before climbing toward a series of switchbacks where the road begins a series of steep hairpin turns and twists up the mountainside. At the midway point, take time to stop at Rock Creek Vista for a cinematic look at Rock Creek Canyon and Hellroaring Plateau.
As you continue the drive, be on the lookout for wildlife – this is home for marmots, elk, mule deer, black bear, grizzly bear and wolves. This rocky plateau is the preferred habitat for mountain goats, their thick white coats blending with the last sheets of snow. Adults and juveniles can often be spotted along this vista, unconcerned with the steady stream of vehicles below.
The lanes are narrow, but frequent pullouts allow visitors the opportunity to stop and admire the views or take short hikes. Don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself driving through thick, billowy clouds which roll frequently across the mountain.
As the byway snakes across the top of the Beartooth Plateau, grand vistas appear. The awe of surrounding mountain ranges vies with the alpine tundra for attention. Both are equally compelling.
Summer thunderstorms are frequent, seeming to appear almost instantly. Should you be lucky enough to experience one, you’re in for a treat. The storm clouds are typically lower than the top of the mountain, giving a rare opportunity to watch lighting from above.
Curious changes in the landscape takeplace as you drive the short distance over the top of mountain. Crumbled chunks of granite at the pinnacle turn to giant, smooth boulders and then to enormous outcroppings of geologic overthrust.
Glacial lakes come into view as you begin to descend. If you take a moment to hike to one of these icy cold lakes, you’ll see a bounty of colorful rocks through the clear water.
The road continues down, hugging the steep mountainside. Just below 10,000 feet you pass back through the tree line, and stands of pines and aspen groves appear once again. Along the way, visitors will take in scenic waterfalls, streams and mountain lakes – perfect backdrops for picnicking or even an overnight camp.
Several historic markers and scenic outlooks help tell the story of the land and how the road was originally constructed. There is also information on the flora and fauna, and the diverse ecosystems within the wilderness area.
The Beartooth Highway officially ends at Cooke City, but the story is much grander than the 68-miles of roadway. Considered a “destination unto itself,” the Beartooth Highway allows travelers to experience the wonders of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness by car.
If you go …
Open from the end of May until mid-October, the Beartooth Highway reaches nearly 11,000 feet in elevation. At that altitude, weather conditions can change quickly, and snow is possible anytime. Be prepared and be sure to bring the following items:

  • Warm jacket
  • Layered clothing
  • Food and water
  • Roadside safety kit
  • Bear spray for hiking and picnicking

Note: There is no cell phone service
 — Story by Allyn Hulteng, Courtesy Visit Billings

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