Named a National Scenic Byway’s “All-American Road,” the Beartooth Highway (U.S. Highway 212) climbs 5,000 feet through lodgepole pine forests leading you to an enchanting world made of alpine lakes, 20 peaks over 12,000 feet, glacially carved cirques and vibrant wildflowers. The highway connects the towns of Red Lodge, Mont. with Cooke City/Silver Gate, Mont. at the Northeast Entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Weather permitting, it is open Memorial Day through Columbus Day every year.
Start in Red Lodge, Mont.
A charming, historic town, Red Lodge, Mont., lies north of Yellowstone National Park, and it is where your route starts if you want to drive the Beartooth Highway from Montana to Yellowstone. Home to about 2,500 residents, Red Lodge is a fantastic place to spend a few days or a week, as the town does an incredible job celebrating its Wild-West past and its present-day mix of residents who include small-business owners and tech-industry transplants.
On Broadway Avenue, the town’s main street, you’ll discover Old West-style saloons and trendy restaurants, along with boutiques, art galleries, a full-service grocery store and a number of restaurants. A few minutes from downtown sits Red Lodge Ales that has a great outdoor area for kids to play and adults to take in the fresh mountain air. The brewery’s creatively named beers include the Dylly Vanylly Porter, Czechmate Pilsner and the Beartooth Pale Ale.
To get to the Beartooth Highway from Red Lodge, you will take U.S. Highway 212.
Take a Break at Vista Point Rest Area
As you leave the valley floor, the road snakes up the mountainside in a series of tight switchbacks that seem to magically appear around each corner. It quickly becomes apparent what a feat it was to build this incredible highway that was completed in 1936. And why you want to do some research and know your comfort levels with mountain roads before you drive your RV up here.
Twenty-one miles from Red Lodge, you’ll see the Vista Point Rest Area that sits at 9,190 feet. Pull over to walk along the wheelchair-accessible trail dotted with a series of interpretative panels that highlight the area’s natural history, as well as the highway construction. There are restrooms here, as well.
Cross the 45th Parallel
Continue on and you’ll find yourself at the exact halfway point between the North Pole and equator. Yes, you’ll cross the 45th parallel, and with it, you’ll feel as though you are hovering above the Earth with a bird’s eye view of Montana’s alpine country.
Watch Skiers at the Beartooth Basin Summer Ski Area
From there, 23 miles from Red Lodge and near the summit of Beartooth Pass, you’ll see Beartooth Basin Summer Ski Area, one of the oldest alpine ski areas in the country. Open to the public in the summer, when there is enough snow, the area’s owners describe it as “backcountry skiing with a lift.” The area has two high-speed Poma lifts to bring you up hill. When it is open, half-day, tickets cost $35 and full-day tickets cost $45. At this barebones area, there is no lodge, equipment rental store or warming hut.
See the Bear’s Tooth
One of the most fascinating sights you’ll see along the way is a near-perfectly carved pyramid rising up between the granite mountains. It almost looks as though someone picked up one of the great pyramids of Egypt and placed it among the Beartooth mountain range. Carved exquisitely by glaciers, its unique shape led the Crow Indians to name it “bear’s tooth,” which is how the mountain range and highway got their name.
Shop at The Top of The World Store
On the other side of the pass, you’ll see The Top of The World Store, a charming little building, which sits at 9,396 feet. It’s the only shop on this stretch of road, making it seem like an oasis in the wilderness. Thirty-eight miles from Red Lodge and 25 from Cooke City, it’s a great place to buy an ice cream or local artwork and stretch your legs. The Top of The World Store, which is in Wyoming, is open Monday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sundays 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Adjoining the store is a rustic 4-room motel, so if you fall in love with this corner of the world, you can inquire if there are any vacancies. Otherwise, the motel owners recommend advanced reservations ⎯ there are only four rooms after all ⎯ although they have a strict no-cancellation policy.
Stop at an Alpine Lake
Don’t finish this incredible drive without stopping at at least one of the 950-plus lakes in the Beartooth Mountain Range. Just down the road from the Top of the World Store is Beartooth Lake, which attracts kayakers, canoe enthusiasts, fishermen and hikers. From there, continue on through Cooke City and Silver Gate to the Yellowstone National Park’s Northeast Entrance.
To find out if the Beartooth Highway is open, visit www.redlodge.com/beartooth-highway.asp, call the U.S. Forest Service at 406-446-2103 or call the Red Lodge Visitors Center at 888-281-0625.