The Beartooth Pass is utterly stunning, noted by Charles Kuralt as the most beautiful roadway in America.
Construction started on this 68 miles of highway in 1927 by local Doc Siegfriedt, and was finished in 1936. It’s generally open from Memorial Day through September/October, but opening can be delayed and closing can come early due to weather.
Unless you live in a snow-heavy area, you probably haven’t seen snow removal on this scale.
There are roadside markers jutting up year round so the crews know, mostly, where the highway is located. Drifts topping forty feet can inhibit the snow blowers and road graders as they work to get the piles out of the way.
There’s a celebration when the Pass opens—Red Lodge loves a good festival—that used to take place at The Top of the World Bar, but that’s long closed. Leave it to the Red Lodge-onians (?) to make up for any slack in the party department.
With 19 switchbacks and the topmost hunk of highway sitting at 10,947 feet, you have to realize that driving this 68 miles isn’t the same as driving flat highway miles from … say Columbus to Livingston (another lovely trek). From Red Lodge to Yellowstone Park, it will take you at least two and a half hours—and that doesn’t include the zillion times you’ll stop to take breathtaking pictures.
Stopping at Vista Point—9,190 feet—you look across the valley holding the highway and see the Hellroaring Plateau. If you want to hike there, be prepared for driving over five miles of washboard, pot-holed, narrow dirt road without guardrails. It’s not for the faint of heart. Descriptions of it remind me of the way folks talk about the Road to Hana on Maui. Don’t do either if you aren’t prepared. I’ll settle for the views of the plateau from across the way or enjoy the art of Red Lodge professional photographer Merv Coleman. Merv has some spectacular shots of the Hellroaring Plateau on his website. (Available for purchase at reasonable rates!)
If you choose to lunch at Cooke City, remember that this tiny town of 100 residents is all about welcoming visitors on their way to/from the park or driving the captivating detour to Sunlight Basin via the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway.
Our stop was at Long Lake for a water side picnic and the fun of indulging my great nephew in a bit of fishing. At the end of June, the sun was hot, the air warm, and the pockets of snow scattered about still demanding to be trod through by both kids and adults.
Like the Haleakala National Park on Maui, there can be huge weather differences between Red Lodge and the lakes you stop at for fishing or the trails you hike. The altitude will almost double, so bring appropriate gear. I’ve been on the Pass in early June late August and been snowed-out.
Luckily, on this day, we had gorgeous weather and while no fish were biting, we sure enjoyed our lunch (PB&J sandwiches for all except Jackie. She can’t stand the combo. Can you say, un-American?), relaxation and views that never get old, no matter how many times you lay eyes on them.
On the way back to Red Lodge, we spotted a herd of mountain goats—always a treat to see. The granddaddy of them all was shedding and I wanted to reach out and gather up the wool and knit a sweater.
Of course, I don’t knit so the fact that I can’t wrestle a wild animal to the ground to shear it was irrelevant.