If you like your road trips short and sweet, try taking a bite out of the Beartooth Highway.
The winding route, which straddles the Montana-Wyoming border, is only 68 short miles from start to stop, but that abbreviated trek packs a powerful punch, with a 5,000-foot climb into a land of alpine lakes and glacier sheets, wildflower meadows and coniferous forests—and not to mention 20 peaks towering more than 12,000 feet above the trees.
Though technically traversable in just over an hour, the drive crosses some of the world’s most extreme country, and has plenty to offer for those who like to savor the journey.
Its destination isn’t half-bad either.
A westerly ride along the highway will drop you off at Yellowstone National Park’s doorstep, where you’ll be able to rest your head in one of the country’s most expansive nature reserves.
But be careful: The National Scenic Byway All-American Road can sometimes be as fierce as its animal namesake.
Beartooth Highway is only open from Memorial Day through Columbus Day each year, and partial closures are common through June, due to spring snowfalls in the mountains. (Check the weather before leaving.)
As the pass itself reaches 10,977 feet, temperatures in those higher altitudes can take extreme swings, even in summertime, dropping from the 70s on sunny days to below freezing, should a snowstorm sneak into the peaks.
And access to the road—as well as services along it—are limited.
There are only three “gateway communities” to enter Beartooth Highway—Cooke City, Montana; Red Lodge, Montana; and Cody, Wyoming—while the road houses just one commercial entity, the Top of the World Store, where travelers can re-up on supplies.
But a bit of careful planning is all it takes to trek what CBS journalist Charles Kuralt called “the most beautiful drive in America.” Just make sure that among all the packing, you don’t forget to bring your camera.
Red Lodge, Montana
Start your ferociously beautiful journey in the most eastern “gateway community” to the road, Red Lodge.
The historic mountain town makes not only for a perfect place to begin your trek, but for a fun site to explore itself.
For those who just can’t wait to get into the wild, Red Lodge offers a number of hiking, biking, and ski trails, as well as a nature center and golf course. Aquatic aficionados can take in the maritime activities of Wild Bill Lake, including boating and fishing.
And the entire family can spend time taking in the town’s charming nods to its past, like the row of Old West-style saloons and storefronts along Broadway Avenue.
Lodging in Red Lodge may also be more comfortable—and accessible—than camping in Yellowstone.
But there’s still plenty more to see before reaching that destination. From Red Lodge, hop on Highway 212 and head West to begin the journey along Beartooth.
Vista Point Rest Area
The pull-off point represents the first chance you’ll get to rest after entering the highway—and you may need it.
Preceding the pitstop is 21 miles of mountainous switchbacks, which climb up to an altitude of 9,190 feet. The drive can be dizzying, so make sure to reward yourself with a chance to take in the stunning views from the safety of the rest area.
Vista Point also includes a trail along which travelers can stretch their legs, breathe in the pristine mountain air and learn about the area’s natural history—and the construction of Highway 212, which was completed in 1936—from a number of plaques and signs.
Don’t forget to visit the bathrooms before jumping back into the car. The rest of the highway awaits.
The 45th Parallel
Shortly after your first break, you’ll encounter a geographic quirk: The roadway crosses directly over the halfway point between the North Pole and the equator.
Though the feature comes and goes with little fanfare—a lonely roadside sign is all that indicates the location—it still offers a wondrous backdrop upon which to mark the unique accomplishment, and wonderful insight on where one is in the world.
But don’t get too caught up in your own thoughts. You’re just about to reach the roadway’s namesake, which is truly a sight to behold.
Bear’s Tooth Pass
The eponymous site is just 23 miles west of Red Lodge, and just beyond Beartooth Basin Summer Ski Area, where outdoorsy types can get the chance to slide down the slopes even in warm weather.
Open only when there’s enough snow, the ski area is home to both backcountry and downhill runs—for cheap. But buyers beware: The resort includes little more than a lift. There are no lodgings or equipment rentals to be found.
If the weather or the mood for skiing doesn’t strike, focus instead on the incomparable Bear’s Tooth, the wonderfully out-of-place pyramid structure nestled within the Montana mountain range. The granite monolith owes its unique shape to the glaciers that carved away the sides of the mountain it once was, and its descriptive name to the local Crow Indian tribe.
And don’t forget to visit the lone retailer along the route, the Top of the World Store. Located just on the other side of Beartooth Pass, the shop sits at an impressive 9,396 feet and is conveniently located a litte more than halfway through the highway—38 miles from Red Lodge and 25 from Cooke City, where the road ends.
The site also has a 4-room motel, so if you’re a particularly savvy or lucky traveler, you could even stay high up in the peaks for the night.
And if it isn’t already out, make sure to find your camera before leaving the stop, in order to document the beauty of the rest of the drive—or any of the hundreds of alpine lakes or trails you may decide to visit along the way. But make sure to save enough room for the final destination along Beartooth Highway: Yellowstone National Park.
Cooke City, Montana
Where the Beartooth Highway ends, the real adventure begins. Cooke City is not only a gateway town to the picturesque road, but to Yellowstone itself, offering a number of places for visitors to sleep, eat, and shop outside of the national park.
Tucked away in the mountainous foothills, the tiny town boasts its own museum and trading post, aside from a number of lookouts and trailheads.
But the true jewel of the area, of course, is Yellowstone, the nearly 3,500-square-mile patch of untouched wilderness that has captured the imagination of explorers since the time of Teddy Roosevelt.
See Old Faithful soar, hear wolves cry, and try to avoid coming in contact with any other bear’s teeth while enjoying one of the most gorgeous expanses of land left in the country.
Coming from the east isn’t the only way to see the Wild West. If you prefer to take the southern route to Yellowstone—or Beartooth Highway—you’ll have to start in a different gateway community, although the alternative path comes with its own beautiful sites.
Taking its name from William Cody—better known as Buffalo Bill—this northwest Wyoming town is home to a number of Old West tributes, which can be found in the area’s many museums.
The gateway community is also home to Old Trail Town, a recreated frontier village with buildings and furnishings straight from the 1800s. And nature enthusiasts will get many of the same recreational opportunities from the area, such as campgrounds and hiking paths.
Chief Joseph Scenic Byway
Also known as Wyoming Highway 296, this picturesque route will lead you from Cody to Yellowstone—or all the way through to Beartooth Highway.
The 47-mile route traverses through the beautiful Shoshone National Forest and is home to a number of hiking trails and its own gorgeous vistas.
But if you decide to trek along the paved trail, keep in mind the same weather-related warnings for Beartooth. While singularly beautiful, the road can be treacherous in the wrong time of year.