Basking in the Beartooths on the Beartooth Scenic Highway

Basking in the Beartooths on the Beartooth Scenic Highway

July 26, 2019

For a breathtaking tour along the top of the world drive the Beartooth Highway east of Yellowstone National Park. This 68-mile, scenic section of U.S. Route 212 zigzags along the Montana-Wyoming border connecting the park’s northeast entrance community of Cooke City, Montana, to Red Lodge, Montana, in a series of steep and thrilling switchbacks. The route peaks at the Beartooth Pass—at nearly 11,000 feet— and offers a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains before beginning its sharp descent. Pack a lunch; grab a camera; and enjoy a driving experience like no other!

Beartooth Highway courtesy of MTOT
Cruising the Beartooth Highway/Montana Office of Tourism

How to Get There

Start from Gardiner, Montana, the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park. After eating breakfast at one of the town’s many restaurants and coffee shops pick up a “grab and go” lunch from the Yellowstone Grill or Gardiner Subway where you can call the night before and place an order. You can supplement your cooler with snacks and beverages from the Gardiner Market. After filling your cooler, checking you have your camera, and packing sunscreen, bug spray, and warm layers drive through the park’s North Entrance station and turn east onto the Northeast Entrance Road once you arrive in Mammoth Hot Springs. Click here to see a roadmap for Yellowstone. Once you’re in the park, cell phone and wifi access is limited, so write down directions in advance if you think you’ll need them. Hard copies of the map are available at the park’s North Entrance station and the Gardiner Visitor Information Center.

The Northeast Entrance Road will take you east to the community of Cooke City, Montana, and connect you to the Beartooth Highway at the opposite side of town.

What to Expect En Route

As you travel through Yellowstone on your way to the Beartooth Highway you’ll pass through some of the most wildlife-rich habitat in the United States. Bison, elk, pronghorn, and moose are often visible with the naked eye from the roadway. Bears, wolves, and other predators are often visible from a distance. The Yellowstone Forever store in Gardiner sells binoculars and spotting scopes for better wildlife viewing and has an interactive map showing recent sightings. Remember to use pullouts when viewing wildlife and to maintain a safe distance to protect yourself and the animals.

The road passes through the widespread Tower-Roosevelt and Lamar Valley regions of Yellowstone before travelling into thick, old-growth forests and ancient volcanic mountains that define the northeast corner of the park. Here you’ll exit through the park’s northeast station and pass through the communities of Silvergate and Cooke City, Montana, where gas and other services are available. At the far side of Cooke City look for stunning arrays of wildflowers and ambling black bears as you begin your ascent on the well-marked Beartooth Highway.

Cooke City MT courtesy of MTOT
Cooke City, Montana is a Beartooth Highway basecamp/Montana Office of Tourism

Along the Highway

Chosen by the U.S. Forest service for designation as a National Scenic Byways All-American Road, the Beartooth Highway climbs up and out of deep forest to the top of the Beartooth Mountains above treeline. Because of its high altitude and the area’s snowy conditions the road is only open for short time during summer. To check current road conditions click here. The highway rounds the impossibly craggy Pilot and Index peaks, part of the Beartooth Mountain Range, before paralleling the sparkling waters of the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River. Pullouts along the way allow visitors a chance to exit their cars and safely take photographs of the mountain scenery. Some pullouts offer views of waterfalls tumbling down steep ravines; some are trailheads for hikes of varying lengths (remember to carry bear spray while hiking); and some—like the Clay Butte Fire Lookout Tower—offer interpretive displays for visitors wishing to learn more about the area. A map of pullouts, campgrounds, and other points of interest can be found by clicking here.

Activities to Enjoy

- Picnicking offers a relaxing way to take in views and to fuel the body for the remainder of your adventure. Few services are available once you exit Cooke City so pack plenty of food, water, and other provisions. The Top of the World Store, situated at 9,400 feet above sea level approximately 25 miles east of Cooke City, offers snacks and beverages and souvenirs (they ship!) ranging from postcards to ballcaps to coffee mugs. Look for high-elevation animals like marmots and pika when you picnic, but for the safety and health of the animals never feed them.

- Hiking along the Beartooth Highway allows visitors to stretch their legs, get some fresh air, and enjoy the surrounding scenery without the added distraction of driving. Explore the Clarks Fork Picnic area 4 miles east of Cooke City for a short, accessible, interpretive walk or for the start of a longer hiking expedition. For more information visit the Custer Gallatin National Forest website. The Beartooth Bridge, Falls, and Ravine is also a nice spot to get out of the car and do some exploring. For more information on this and similar water destinations click here.

- Camping at one of the many developed campsites along the Beartooth Highway offers an opportunity to spend the night outside and feel the intimacy of sleeping out in nature. Different campsites offer different services. Some sites require hard-sided camping equipment. Some accept advance reservations. All offer a unique experience in terms of sleeping under the stars and waking with a sunrise. For information on individual campgrounds and what they offer and require visit here. Be sure to bring plenty of bug spray as mosquitos are present during much of the summer.

Camping the Beartooths
Camping in the Beartooths/Loren Barrett

Ending the Adventure

After reaching the top of Beartooth Pass and taking in the sweeping scenery, including high-alpine lakes, either continue east to Red Lodge or retrace your route to rest at one of the many lodging options in Gardiner. Be sure to drive safely no matter your route and soak in the sights and experiences of your day.

Chelsea DeWeese is a writer based in her hometown of Gardiner, Montana, at the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.

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