Beartooth Pass - Random Reasonings

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At the Northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park, on the Wyoming and Montana border, you can get on route 212 and head north into Montana on the Beartooth Highway.

Years ago, CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt called The Beartooth “America’s most beautiful roadway.”

The Beartooth Highway is also considered one of the most dangerous routes to drive in the U.S. It’s 68.7 miles of constantly winding hair pin curves that take about 3 hours to drive, not counting time for stops to take photos or a short hike.

Some of the peaks in the mountains are as high as 12,000 feet. There are steep dropoffs and short guardrails, if any, that offer little in the way of safety.

But the views are spectacular and the magnificence makes the sometimes unnerving drive so worthwhile.

The Beartooth can only be traveled in summer. It’s closed from Columbus Day through Memorial Day, but even in summer it is possible for parts of the Beartooth to be closed depending on the amount of snow still there from winter or a freak summer blizzard.

So before getting on route 212, always check that the entire highway is open. Also, check to be sure rain isn’t in the forecast. This is a road best traveled in good weather.

At the end of July in 2011, my husband and I drove the entire 68.7 miles of the Beartooth Highway, crossing the Beartooth pass, heading to the town of Red Lodge, Montana. It was a lovely summer day with temps in the 70s when we left Wyoming.

By the time we reached the summit of Beartooth pass, at 10,947 feet, temps were around 50. At 9,400 feet sits the Top of the World Store, which is a welcomed place to stop, get a cup of hot coffee, and do a bit of shopping. In fact, it’s the only place to stop and shop on the entire stretch of road.

We barely encountered any other vehicles that day, having the highway mostly to ourselves. It was an exhilarating drive, made even better at the end of the trip by the friendliness and ambiance at the Pollard Hotel in Red Lodge where we stayed for a couple nights.

The Pollard is a beautiful Victorian brick hotel that opened in 1893. It’s has a reputation for fine cuisine which I can attest to. The menu at Marli’s Restaurant in the hotel includes  original local delicacies such as Bison Stuffed Mushrooms with Huckleberry Sauce, Elk Burgers, Cattle Ranchers Pie, and fresh, locally caught Walleye and Salmon.

Back in the mid 1800s this territory was part of the Crow Nation. After gold was discovered in 1870 a treaty with the Crow was soon drawn up and white settlers began arriving. By the mid 1880s there were more migrant settlers from European countries including the British Isles, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Germany, and Austria-Hungary, than there were Crow Indians.

The Beartooth Highway linking Red Lodge, MT to Yellowstone National Park was started in 1931 during the great depression. The road officially opened in 1936.

It’s a totally unspoiled part of the country. Natural beauty surrounds you. Breathtaking views are impossible to capture with a basic camera or phone, but the panoramas are exactly why Montana is known as Big Sky Country.

Wildlife outnumber people. The air is fresh and clean. Waters are unpolluted and crystal clear. Mountains tower over the valleys, towns, and lakes. And for a while life is quiet.

For those of us who live a hectic lifestyle, are used to urban surroundings, sidewalks filled with people and streets packed with cars, or spend our summers sitting on crowded beaches with thousands of others, its a spectacular reminder that there are vast parts of America where life slows down.

And slowing down, which you have to do to drive the Beartooth Highway, can sometimes be exactly what you need.

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.”

T.S. Eliot

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  1. I first exposure to Beartooth Pass was Robert Pirsig’s fabulous book, “Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” His description was spellbinding to the point that making that drive from Yellowstone to Red Lodge was an immediate bucket list entry. It proved to be all that and more. What an exhilarating and heart stopping experience! In my book, it’s right up there – maybe even a cut slightly above – Glacier’s Going to the Sun Road. Those roads jolt you into becoming fully alive!

  2. Have not yet done Glacier’s Going to the Sun Road but it is on our bucket list! One of the other sort of harrowing roads we’ve done is the drive from Durango to Silverton in Colorado along the Animas River and through the San Juan National Forest and then continuing from Silverton to Telluride. Spectacular! But sure wish there were more guard rails!

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