The Most Beautiful Drive in America
There are no guardrails in places where you might prefer them. Driving from east to west, starting in Red Lodge, Montana, you'll climb nearly 5,700 feet, to a total elevation of 10,947 feet over the course of 12 miles. It's very possible you see snow falling on this road in mid-July. The road is considered one of the most dangerous roads in the United States. Charles Kuralt, the late CBS News corresponded, called it "the most beautiful drive in America". While I'm sure arguments could be made for other stretches of road, it's hard to argue with Mr. Kuralt's assessment of the 69-mile stretch of US Highway 212 that makes up the Beartooth Highway.
The drive begins in the small town of Red Lodge, Montana. I found Red Lodge to be a great little town, with the right mix of touristy while keeping its small-town vibe. As you pass through Red Lodge, you'll find the urge to stop and explore the many small shops, which is well worth doing. But we'll resist the urge just yet and continue through town to make our way up the mountain pass. As you exit town to the west, you're already treated to the sights of the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains, Rock Creek winding back and forth along the road, and towering rock formations as those foothills become mountains.
There are pullouts all along the Beartooth Highway, which allow you to take in the view and possibly catch your breath. The first significant pullout however, is the Rock Creek Vista, where there are restrooms and a paved walking path that brings you to a spectacular view of Hellroaring Canyon, shown in the lead photograph on this entry. Rock Creek Vista is just the beginning. As you continue up the highway, you continue to climb higher and higher. The various pullouts will beckon you to stop and take a look. A few miles on, you'll cross the border into Wyoming. Just after crossing the border, there are a few pullouts that provide a stunning view of the first alpine lake you come to after leaving Red Lodge. It's actually two lakes, known as Twin Lakes.
Twin Lakes sits at about 9500 feet elevation, with the highway about 600 feet above the lake. The views from the three overlooks that have views of the lakes are spectacular, looking down into a bowl that contains alpine meadows, the lakes, and pine forests. My wife and I hiked down to the lakes. The views were incredible. We could see for miles. The meadows were covered in yellow wildflowers known as alpine avens. The occasional marmot (a species of large ground squirrel) would pop up to see what we were up to, and the bleating of mountain goats could be heard from somewhere nearby. The hike down to the lake was just over a mile and a half. We followed a small stream through the meadow and down to the lakeshore. Then followed the lakeshore around, taking in the fresh mountain air and enjoying the views. Getting back up to the trailhead was a bit arduous, climbing 600 feet in elevation over the course of about ¾ of a mile, but the natural beauty and fresh air more than made up for the exhaustion we felt when we reached the top again.
As you continue along the highway, you climb the last few hundred feet to Beartooth Pass. About a quarter mile before you reach Beartooth Pass Vista, marking the highest point on the highway at 10,947 feet in elevation, there is a pullout to the left, which overlooks Gardner Lake, the highest alpine lake on the highway. The view from the overlook is stunning, but if you're so inclined, there is a trail that leads down to the lake, just over a mile away. If you're really energetic, you can continue on the trail and hike around Tibbs Butte, which makes the round trip around 11 miles. At that elevation, being the sea level dweller that I am, I opted not to take this hike.
As you approach Beartooth Pass Vista, you begin to feel like you're at the top of the world. You look down across valleys to mountain peaks below you, and on several of the dozen or so drives we made over the pass, we found ourselves in the clouds. Here you're above the treeline, with only some grasses and wildflowers growing. In the mornings it was downright cold up here, in the mid-30's Fahrenheit, and it was always a good 20-30ºF colder than it was down in Red Lodge.
Lakes become more plentiful on the far side of the pass. As you descend the pass towards Cooke City (Montana is playing fast and loose with the term "city" here), you'll pass numerous lakes, some unnamed, and others larger, such as Long Lake, Little Bear Lake, Island Lake, and Beartooth Lake. Island Lake and Beartooth Lake both have campsites available if you'd like to pitch a tent or pull in the camper for a night or two. Nearby Top of the World Resort offers supplies, souvenirs, and food.
One morning, I had decided I wanted to photograph Pilot and Index Peaks at sunrise. I headed out around 3am, since the location I planned to photograph from was about 90 minutes' drive. I pulled in around 4:30am, and watched the light begin to come up on the peaks. I had a can of bear spray with me, since that's grizzly bear country and I didn't want to be breakfast for a grizzly! While I heard the sounds of some animals, including some grunting from a distance away, I managed to avoid seeing anything other than some birds. In the end, the image I had in mind is still on my hard drive, unedited, because after I left that spot, I made multiple stops along the highway and decided to edit those first! One such example is the above image of Crazy Creek. Thanks to the geothermal features in the area, the creek was steaming against the chilly ambient temperatures, giving the scene an ethereal feel to things. You can see my image of that just above.
The above image is Pilot Peak, but not the original photo I had in mind when I woke up early that morning. This was another spot I had seen on one of the many times we drove the highway. This wasn't too far from Crazy Creek, so I pulled over and made my way down to the creek to make a few photos. This image had been on my list from the first time I saw this spot, so I was glad the conditions cooperated and I was able to get something nice out of it.
That same morning, I also stopped at Clark's Fork Overlook, not far from the Beartooth Highway's intersection with the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway. From here you can see Cathedral Cliffs. I hadn't intended on stopping here, but the light on the cliffs was perfect, and the bit of fog hanging in the valley, as well as the darker clouds behind the peaks, picking up some color at the edges, was enough to make me hit the brakes and quickly pull over.
I knew this was going to be an amazing trip, but there's always some question as to what I'll get photographically when it's a place I've never been before. On our first day, after we had dinner, my wife and I drove up Beartooth Highway to see what we could find. We stopped at a few pullouts and I started snapping photos. We finally reached Twin Lakes and I knew that was a place I wanted to photograph for a while. I was at the middle pullout for viewing the lakes. From there, we could hear a sound that sounded like sheep. Jess asked me what it was, and as we looked around, in the distance we could see several mountain goats grazing.
We jumped back in the car and made our way up to the last Twin Lakes overlook, which was closer to where the goats were grazing. We got out and just watched as several adult goats and kids wandered the meadow and grazed. Luckily I'd brought my telephoto lens so I could zoom in a bit on the goats. It was an awesome moment to watch these animals in their home territory doing what they do, including what appeared to be disciplining their kids! It made for an awesome start to the trip, and boded well for the remaining time we had.
Where to Stay, Where to Eat
If you'd like to check out the Beartooth Highway for yourself, I can make some suggestions on where to stay and where to eat. My wife and I stayed in an AirBnB that while nice, I can't recommend for certain reasons I won't mention. I can tell you that Red Lodge, Montana, was an excellent choice as a place to base ourselves. There are a number of hotels and motels in the town that looked nice and in my brief research, were reasonably priced. Red Lodge is about two hours from the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park as well.
As for where to eat, here I can get more specific. One of our favorite places was a pub called Bogarts. The food was excellent, the service was friendly and attentive, and the atmosphere was fun. They had some great Mexican specialties as well as burgers and sandwiches. Another great spot was Foster & Logan's (also known as FOLOS). I couldn't get enough of their Tachos, basically nachos with tater tots instead of chips. The burgers and the Turkey Rachel were awesome as well.
If you like craft beer, Red Lodge Ales is your spot! My favorite brews of theirs was the Glacier Amber Ale and the Helio Hefeweizen. Their specialty is BBQ, so the burgers and pulled pork were outstanding. My final recommendation is Red Lodge Pizza Co. We didn't eat in here, but opted to pick up a pizza and take it to a scenic overlook on Beartooth Highway and eat it there. It was a great choice. The pizza was delicious.
It's been called "the most beautiful drive in America", but I'm sure some may beg to differ. I've been on a lot of beautiful drives in my life so it's hard for me to say, but I certainly couldn't argue against Beartooth Highway. Around each bend is another incredible view. The great thing about it is, you don't need to be a hiker to enjoy this area. All you need is a working car or motorcycle and some patience to stop at the pullouts and enjoy the view.