American Road Trip: The Beartooth Highway

The name did it.  As long as I was driving on something called the Beartooth Highway it didn’t really matter what it was like.  All I knew was that it was listed as a key Montana/Wyoming scenic byway and that it was closed for much of the year due to snow so I figured it must be at a fairly high altitude.  It turned out to be one of the best drives I’ve ever done but it wasn’t for the faint hearted.

I was basing myself in Cody, Wyoming because it was the only place where I could get a motel room for under $200 close to both Yellowstone National Park and the Beartooth Highway.  Cody isn’t on the route so I first had to drive for about an hour to the starting point at Red Lodge, Montana but that in itself was a wonderful drive.  There wasn’t a whole heap to see once you got used to the high desert landscape but the roads were ridiculously straight and long, the speed limit was 70mph and it was mostly empty, making it an excellent route to crank up the music, put your foot down and enjoy the big skies of Wyoming and Montana.

 

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Not long after crossing into Montana I got to the cute small town of Red Lodge and after a quick mooch around I struck for the Beartooth Highway.  It was amazing how quickly the climb left the desert floor and began to ascend what I can only not-so-eloquently describe as a big ass mountain range.   It didn’t quite offer the fear factor of some of the roads in South America and Asia that are often the subject of internet clickbait headlines such as ‘You Won’t Believe How Scary These 10 Roads Are’, but it was an incredible experience nonetheless.

The ultimate object of this drive is to get to the Beartooth Pass, pretty much the summit of the mountain of the same name.  After a gentle climb up a small picturesque valley the road narrows significantly then climbs from an elevation of 5,000ft to about 8,000ft over 12 steep miles of hairpin bends.  These looked incredible on my GPS that increasingly appeared to be taking me through a game of Snakes & Ladders rather than an actual road.  At one point I tried to take a photo of the GPS screen to show how crazy it looked but it quickly became clear that taking my eyes off the road for more than a second would mean certain death, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

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It is hard to imagine anyone being crazy enough to build a road through here at all, let alone in the 1930’s which is when construction on this highway began.  I was in a high alpine region, dotted with trees and surrounded by very steep shingled mountainsides that only the craziest mountain goat would dare to traverse.  Apart from the road itself presenting plenty of winter dangers it was obvious that these steep stony drops would create spectacular avalanches.  It was a miracle that the road existed at all and hard to understand why it was constructed in the first place.  Apparently one of the first people to traverse this route was a Civil War General with a group of soldiers in tow trying to find a shortcut back from Yellowstone National Park.  About 70 years later the road was built pretty much following his exact path and since then it has remained a precarious short cut.

It is impassable between October and May, experiences a multitude of landslides and as a result is in need of constant repair.  Even in the middle of summer it can experience closures due to snowstorms.  Just when I thought I was truly in the middle of nowhere I had to slow down for a large road crew repairing a section that had been destroyed by a rock fall the previous winter.  These folks were working in terrible conditions even in summer with everything from unstable road edges to gale force freezing winds to deal with, all whilst in sunshine more than capable of giving you severe sunburn.

There weren’t too many people driving the road on that sunny yet cold and windy day.   It was the kind of place that is so unusual and overwhelming that complete strangers start mixing with each other at the various turnouts along the route.  As I struggled to stay upright against a freezing wind roaring through the valley at the first turnout, I exchanged a raised eyebrow with a father and two sons from Washington state.    There weren’t really any suitable words for us to converse with because this place rendered us speechless.  We were barely a third of the way up and already it felt like we were on a different planet.  In the end we just agreed that it was bloody cold.

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If you look closely you can the road looking tiny below.  This was the beginning of a climb that was to get far more precarious.

As I continued on the road got even narrower and instead of hugging the mountain I was driving with a sheer drop on one side with no barrier to reassure me.  That on its own would have been ok but the wind was buffeting my car so that it felt like a battle to say in my lane.  I’m not sure if the danger was real or perceived but that was a moot point as I gripped the steering wheel trying to avoid oncoming cars on one side and a devastating drop onto a loose sheer shingle mountainside on the other.  Usually when I drive on roads like this I am reassured by the fact that a big tree will likely slow if not stop my falling car, but here the trees were few and far between due to the lack of stable ground to grow in.  If I did head over the edge I couldn’t see myself stopping for a very long time.

I made it to the next turnout without toppling off the mountain and joined a few brave folks on a trail that lead out to a kind of mini-peninsula or bluff overlooking the valley.  It was a short yet fascinating walk.  The first part had rocks on one side that sheltered me from the worst of the wind but the people returning from the end of the track told me to brace myself and they weren’t wrong.  Once I got to open air on either side the gusts were almost unbearable.  My ears began to ache with the cold and I had to hold onto the rock walls to stay upright.  My supposedly alpine-grade fleece jacket may as well have been a tank top against the fierce freezing wind.

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The road through the lush valley floor below gives an idea of how steep the climb is into a landscape that quickly becomes fairly barren.

I managed to battle the gales to the very end of this mountain peninsula to find breath taking views across to the opposite mountains and down into the valley.  In the midst of this visual and sensory assault a ground squirrel decided that I looked like something worth further inspection.  It is amazing how us humans can be so easily taken with cute furry creatures.  In a split second the incredible spectacle in front of me was completely forgotten and instead I was utterly enchanted with this tiny squirrel who wanted to inspect me a little more closely in case I could offer food, or perhaps somewhere warm to sit for a while.  So rather than take in the vista, I spent most of my time unsuccessfully taking pictures of a damn squirrel, similar to any squirrel I could see in any downtown park in America.  And it wasn’t just me, a small crowd of Beartooth tourists also crowded around to point expensive cameras at it and to coo a lot.

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After wasting about 20-minutes and 50 photos on the squirrel I battled my way back to the car and continued up the mountain.  I soon made it to the summit where the scenery changed drastically once again into pure alpine landscape.   Barren rocky hills were covered in a beautiful patchwork of stubborn snow that would not melt no matter how sunny it got.  Here and there patches of wildflowers provided a wonderful contrast to brown grass, grey rock and white snow, with all of this being set against a deep blue sky.  And best of all, most people had stopped at a tourist attraction near the summit a mile or so back so I had the turnouts mostly to myself for the rest of my journey.

As a driver it is a wonderful feeling to step out of the car on the top of a mountain to survey the landscape and to be buffeted by some of the purest winds on the planet.  I can’t even begin to imagine what it feels like for a climber who has given every last ounce of energy they have to ascended a peak far from civilisation then enjoy the same kind of vistas and air that I was.  That said I was pretty bloody happy that I had a warm car to get back into.  Then something amazing happened, right as I climbed over the summit the song Take Me to Clouds Above (LMC vs U2) came on my iPod.  Not only incredibly fitting but strange as I was only up to the ‘L’s’ on my songs and this one starts with T.   Clearly it had somehow been categorized by the artist instead of the title, but I still thought it was pretty cool.

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The thing about mountains is that they are full of surprises.  From the ground a huge mountain generally looks fairly uniform, a big blue/green mass perhaps with a white snow cap on top.  Yet when you actually get to the mountain itself there is a huge amount of variety that can’t be guessed from sea level.  What looks like a uniform face from the ground is in fact a maze of valleys and ridges, and as the altitude changes so does the flora and even the fauna.  But one thing that never fails to amaze me is how different each side of a mountain can be.

The side of Beartooth I’d just climbed was mainly made up of steep shingly faces with the odd clump of determined pine trees clinging on.  The side I was now descending through offered a much gentler gradient and whilst there was a lot more snow around it was a more forgiving landscape.  There were extensive forests and small lakes.  Meandering streams replaced the dramatic snowmelt waterfalls of the other side of the mountain.  In all it was a magical landscape yet a still a little too cold for me to dally in too long.

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After much ear popping I eventually made my way to a valley floor where the road was relatively flat and surrounded by green meadows covered in wildflowers that gently made their way up to treeline.  Even before I saw the sign I knew I was in bear country just because I recognised this type of landscape from pretty much every documentary I’d seen about Grizzly Bears.  Although the road opened up enough for me to get above 30mph for the first time in a while, I kept the pace slow and scanned the meadows, rivers and treelines for a bear.  In fact by the end of the day my eyes actually hurt from looking so hard but I never saw one, probably because it was a little late in the day.  A fairly universal law about viewing wild animals is that the best times are right after dawn and just before dusk, whereas by now it was early-afternoon and the least likely time to see anything.  That didn’t change the fact that I always felt like something hungry was watching me whenever I got out of the car to snap a photo.

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The road continued to climb down out of the alpine scenery and into sub-alpine desert landscape.  By now I was well into Wyoming on the road back to Cody and on a beautiful route called the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway.  Whilst the hair-raising mountain driving was long gone this was still a wonderful drive.  The road gradually turned into desert landscape but not before showcasing big fast moving rivers, incredible rock formations and extensive forests.

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Shortly before I left this highway I crossed a large bridge-come-viaduct and noticed a sign for a scenic viewpoint that I hastily took.  I wandered out of the parking lot and down onto the bridge which turned out to be an unpleasant experience.  I’m not sure at what point I became afraid of heights and it isn’t something I dwell on a lot.  When I was 17 I bungee jumped off a bridge in New Zealand with no problems at all yet somehow over the years it has become an issue, but only when I’m on the ground.  I’ve done a few thrilling aerobatic flights that involved dives toward mountaintops and I would happily do one again, but don’t ever tell me to look over the edge of a tall building.  I even have to close my eyes in glass elevators.

Because I’d driven over the bridge then approached it from a grassy area I had no idea how high it was until I peeked over the railings and suddenly felt a wave of adrenalin shoot straight up from my feet, through my head then on to god only knows where.  I quickly drew back from the edge and noticed a young man not too far away.  Thinking that contact with another human would calm me down, I commented to him that it was a bit high for my liking and that I could barely take a photo as it scared me too much to even look at the huge drop through my camera.  Whilst hanging precariously over the railings he told me that he loved heights and that he came from a farm nearby and loved to scale the water tower which was 200 feet high.  He said that if I threw down just one piece of rope he would scale it all the way down to the churning rapids below and love every second.

After establishing that he was 16 years old I proceeded to regale him with my story of once being a fearless bungee jumper yet now being unsure if I could even get off this bridge without crawling all the way.  I then realised that I sounded like a stupid old fart, the kind I never wanted to be.  So I told him to forget about everything I’d just said, to enjoy his climbing and to try to never be a boring old fart.  I left him extremely confused on the bridge, no doubt convinced I was high or had dementia, then nervously trudged back to my car feeling about 150 years old.  You’d think that getting older would make you less scared.  Nope.

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After climbing another small mountain range I eventually wound back in the high desert and in Cody.   I failed to mention at the start of this post that I sacrificed a day in Yellowstone National Park in order to do the Beartooth Highway.  I just had a feeling that it would be worth it and it was.  Yellowstone is incredible but there was something far more adventurous about the Beartooth Highway even if I was playing it safe by driving a car instead of hiking or biking it.  And there was something about being that close to the sky that made it incredibly special.  Hopefully if you visit this region of Wyoming and Montana you’ll have time to thoroughly do both, but if you don’t then I think sacrificing one day in Yellowstone to drive the Beartooth is worth it.

Travel Tips:  Whilst you can actually use the Bear Tooth Highway to get to or from Yellowstone National Park, I found it extremely difficult to try to plan a logical route that incorporated the Bear Tooth, the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, even though they are all in the same region.  In the end I based myself in Cody and did a couple of day trips, forgoing the Northern Loop of Yellowstone and Grand Teton.  That was because I was pressed for time and cash so the most important thing is to book ahead (thus saving cash) and to allow enough time.  I think you need a minimum of a week to do all of these drives but you could easily spend 10 to 14 days in the region.

Handy Links for Trip Planning:  Beartooth Highway  | Chief Joseph Scenic Byway  |  Yellowstone National Park (NPS)  |  Grand Teton National Park (NPS)

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2 thoughts on “American Road Trip: The Beartooth Highway

  1. Pingback: American Road Trip: Wyoming – The Wandering Wincer

  2. Pingback: American Road Trip: Magnificent Montana – The Wandering Wincer

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