Sprawling across the borders of Montana and Wyoming, a vast expanse of scenic wildlands centers on the Beartooth Mountains, which dominate the horizon like a staircase to the sky. This drive, following Rtes. 78 and 212 (the Beartooth Highway), traverses the region and, as a bonus, ends at Yellowstone National Park. Once on the road—passing swift creeks and snowy uplands—you will see why the late television commentator Charles Kuralt hailed Rte. 212 as America’s most beautiful highway.
1. Scenic Route 78
Heading south from Columbus, a quiet town on the banks of the Yellowstone River, Rte. 78 skirts the northern edge of the Beartooth Range. The road at first parallels the Stillwater River and its canyon to the little town of Absarokee, which was once the heart of Crow Indian territory. In Absarokee you might choose to take a side trip on Rte. 420, which leads farther up the Stillwater, or in summer, catch one of the rodeos that are held here.
Continuing south from Absarokee, Rte. 78 follows East Rosebud Creek to Roscoe, where the road and the creek part company. But here again a secondary road offers the opportunity for a pleasant side trip: Rte. 177 continues alongside the waterway, corkscrewing a route into the wilds. Usually passable, the gravel road skirts arid patches of sage and ancient, eroded cliffs, and finally dead-ends at East Rosebud Lake. Replete with a clutch of rustic cabins, piney woodlands, meadows, and steep mountain slopes, the area is a hiker’s paradise. One trail snakes west into the Beartooths; a second remains with the creek, which spills though a dramatic canyon.
2. Red Lodge
Crossing myriad creeks that are fed in part by melting snow in the up-country, Rte. 78 climbs 1,000 feet more before arriving at Red Lodge, a town that was settled in the late 1800s to tap coal deposits. Although the mines are no longer active, a historic district conjures up the lifestyles of the settlers.
Now an important gateway to the wilderness, Red Lodge has earned special renown as the eastern terminus of the Beartooth Highway. Opened in 1936, this extraordinary 68-mile stretch of road begins with a series of switchbacks, then climbs through glacier-gouged Rock Creek Canyon. It continues to higher elevations, passing through an area that averages 200 inches of snow per year. The road’s gradient, however, remains reasonable—about 4 percent—and turnouts invite drivers to pull over and enjoy the views.
3. Rock Creek Vista Point
A steady ascent, about a dozen miles in length, overlooks seemingly bottomless valleys and leads to Rock Creek Vista Point. Here, at an elevation of some 8,000 feet, the panorama takes in fields of sage, Rock Creek Canyon, and the road ahead, twisting and turning like a ribbon into the distance.
Although the area seems forbidding, wildlife is plentiful. Two hardy survivors—agile mountain goats and mountain sheep—can sometimes be seen leaping across the ledges. Spiraling overhead, hawks and eagles keep watch for potential prey.
4. Twin Lakes Headwall
Named for a pair of icy blue lakes, Twin Lakes Headwall, a long, sloping incline, is permanently covered with snow. A roadside turnoff looks out on the area, where young ski racers, some perhaps destined for the Olympics, gather each summer to schuss down the hill—its steep slopes pitched at a challenging 58° angle.
5. Gardner Lake
The 10-mile-long Beartooth Loop National Recreation Trail begins at Gardner Lake. Skirting creeks and lakes, the path traverses a stretch of austere alpine tundra, a landscape similar to that found near the Arctic Circle. Dainty but hardy wildflowers such as bluebells, gentians, and forget-me-nots flourish on the shores of the lake as well as on the trail; their 45-day growing season usually peaks in mid-July.