When Charles Kuralt from the famed television show On the Road calls a route “the most beautiful drive in America,” you had better pay attention… He was talking about the Beartooth All-American Road aka the Beartooth Highway that leads from just outside Red Lodge, Montana into the Northeast Entrance to Yellowstone National Park, and he may just be right. The Beartooth Highway has been mesmerizing travelers since it first opened in 1936.
Just shy of 70 miles, the drive will take at least 3 hours thanks to exciting switchbacks and the ever-present temptation to pull over for pictures. When you add in all the stops along the way, you can easily spend the entire day enjoying the Beartooth All-American Road as it rises nearly 11,000 feet to Beartooth Pass in Wyoming.
The Beartooth All-American Road passes through what is known today as the Beartooth Corridor. Surrounded by the Custer, Gallatin, and Shoshone National Forests, traveling parallel to the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, and abutting Yellowstone National Park, the Highway sits in a million-plus acre wilderness. Visitors have the rare opportunity to experience and explore pristine, untouched alpine and montane landscapes, lush forests, and alpine tundra in the space of a few miles. It is one of the highest and most rugged areas in the lower 48 states, with 20 peaks reaching over 12,000 feet in elevation. In the surrounding mountains, glaciers are found on the north flank of nearly every mountain peak over 11,500 feet high. The Road itself is the highest elevation highway in Wyoming (10,947 feet) and Montana (10,350 feet), and is the highest elevation highway in the Northern Rockies.
Here are a few of our favorite places to stop along the way:
Rock Creek Vista Point Rest Area: At an elevation of over 9,000 feet, the Rock Creek Vista Point is tucked into some of the most harrowing switchbacks of the Beartooth Highway. From here you’ll get remarkable views of Rock Creek Canyon and Hell Roaring Plateau.
West Summit (Beartooth Pass Overlook): The highest point on the highway (almost 11,000 feet), the West Summit gives you a panoramic view for miles and miles. Be advised… This elevation can cause some gnarly weather so this stretch of the highway is closed from time to time.
Top of the World Resort: Roughly half way between Red Lodge and Cooke City, this store is the place to grab a bite, fuel up, buy some gifts, or even spend the night along the Beartooth Highway. Originally on Beartooth Lake, it was moved to the road in the 60s and operated under a special permit from the Shoshone National Forest.
Clay Butte Lookout Tower: Half the fun of this stop is driving up the 3 miles of gravel road to get there… Once an active fire lookout, now it’s more of a visitor center with views of Granite Peak and Beartooth Butte as well as displays telling the history of the 1988 wildfires of Yellowstone.
From Beartooth Highway:
The Clay Butte Lookout was built in 1942 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and was used as a fire lookout. It was staffed until the 1960s, when aircraft proved a better tool for fire detection. Today, because of its popular scenic vantage point and proximity to the Beartooth Highway, Clay Butte is used as a visitor information site. It was remodeled in 1962 and has been staffed since 1975 by volunteers. The focus of Clay Butte today is to give visitors a glimpse of how fire lookouts functioned 60 years ago. Sightseers driving the scenic byway stop to obtain information or take in the view, which includes wildlife, botanical areas, the effects of the Clover-Mist wildfire of 1988, and the geology of ancient seas that once covered the Beartooth Plateau.
BIG MAJOR IMPORTANT ROAD TRIPPER TIP: Check the weather before tackling this drive:
Reaching 10,977 feet at Beartooth Pass, and surrounded by 20 mountain peaks that reach over 12,000 feet, the Beartooth Highway crosses some of the most extreme country in the world. The high alpine climate ensures that severe weather conditions occur almost every month of the year. Summertime temperatures can range from the 70s on sunny days to below freezing during sudden snowstorms. Keep these extreme conditions in mind when planning a visit to the Beartooth Highway. Pack appropriate clothing including warm jackets and hats. Those planning outdoor recreation time may want to include additional foot wear and other items that will provide more warmth.
The road is normally plowed by Memorial Day, but closures are common through June due to spring snow storms. From the opening near Memorial Day, the road is seldom closed more than one day to remove the snow. It is not uncommon to experience blizzard type conditions both in the spring and the fall, especially at higher elevations. When these events occur, travel is slowed considerably or the highway is closed until it can be reopened by maintenance crews.
Cover Image: Go Bike Go