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 Although the mines are no longer active, a historic district conjures up the lifestyles of the settlers.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.
6. Beartooth Pass
Marking the crest of the byway, the pass, at 10,947 feet above sea level, makes this section of road one of the world’s highest. Turnouts allow you to stop and breathe the pure, crisp—and very thin—air. And the view (visibility can reach 75 miles) takes in snowcapped peaks, glacier-etched valleys, flowery meadows, and coniferous forests. Look to the north for the Bear’s Tooth, a rocky peak piercing the sky.
7. Beartooth Lake
The road descends 2,000 feet to this shimmering lake, which lies in the shadow of Beartooth Butte. The great rock—bulky and banded with colorful layers—was once part of an ancient seabed. Today archaeologists search its slopes for fossils, some more than 500 million years old.
But scientists aren’t the only ones who enjoy this area; the lake and the surrounding plateau attract anglers, campers, and hikers. Even admirers of waterfalls can have their fill: Beartooth Falls, on the opposite side of the highway, makes a plunge of 100 feet.
8. Clay Butte Lookout
The fire tower at Clay Butte, another imposing monolith, permits a far-reaching vista. The dramatic, jagged skyline is defined by the Bighorn, Beartooth, and Absaroka ranges; standing guard on the distant northwest horizon is 12,799-foot Granite Peak, the highest point in Montana.
9. Chief Joseph Scenic Highway
After descending through a forest of pine, spruce, and aspen, Rte. 212 meets the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway (Rte. 296). Consider taking a side trip along the road: it rambles beside the Clarks Fork Yellowstone River, which has carved a stunning gorge 1,200 feet deep. Of particular note along the way is Sunlight Basin, where a secluded 50,000 acres of verdant hills are laced with willow-lined creeks and roamed by an array of wildlife, including coyotes, moose, deer, and elk.
10. Colter Pass
Back on Rte. 212, the drive proceeds along the Clarks Fork River toward Colter Pass. To the south lie Pilot and Index peaks, two ragged horns that have long been relied upon as landmarks. Watch for black bears, moose, eagles, and other wildlife before rejoining civilization at Cooke City and Silver Gate. The two towns, both onetime mining settlements, lie nestled among towering mountains—and just miles from the northeastern entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
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