Travel

Exploring Yellowstone Country: The Scenic Beartooth Highway

Nestled in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, Beartooth Highway is often hailed as the most beautiful drive in America. Stretching 68 miles across Wyoming and Montana, this scenic byway offers a breathtaking journey through some of the country's most stunning landscapes, making it a must-visit for any road trip enthusiast.

Location and Proximity to Yellowstone National Park

Beartooth Highway, officially designated as U.S. Route 212, begins near the charming town of Red Lodge, Montana, and winds its way to the Northeast Entrance of Yellowstone National Park near Cooke City, Montana. This proximity to Yellowstone adds to its allure, providing travelers with an unparalleled opportunity to experience the transition from the rugged wilderness of the Beartooth Mountains to the geothermal wonders of Yellowstone. The highway acts as a scenic gateway, making it an essential part of any Yellowstone itinerary.

Beartooth Peek in the distance of the Beartooth Mountain Range in Yellowstone Country.

Seasonal Access

One of the key aspects that make Beartooth Highway unique is its seasonal accessibility. The highway typically opens from late May to mid-October, though exact dates can vary depending on weather conditions. This limited window adds an element of anticipation and exclusivity, as travelers eagerly await the opportunity to embark on this iconic drive. The short season also means that the highway remains largely unspoiled, with nature reclaiming its space for most of the year.

Lakes seen along the Beartooth Highway in Yellowstone Country.

A Journey Through Nature’s Masterpiece

Driving the Beartooth Highway in the summer is like stepping into a postcard. The route climbs to an elevation of 10,947 feet at Beartooth Pass, offering panoramic views that stretch across miles of untouched wilderness. The landscape is dotted with alpine meadows, glacial lakes, and dense forests, creating a picturesque setting that changes with each twist and turn of the road.

Alpine Splendor: As you ascend, the air becomes crisp, and the surroundings transform into a high-altitude wonderland. Wildflowers blanket the meadows in vibrant colors, and the occasional sighting of mountain goats or bighorn sheep adds a touch of wilderness charm. The drive takes you above the treeline, where you are greeted with sweeping vistas of jagged peaks and vast plateaus.

Glacial Lakes and Rivers: The numerous glacial lakes, such as Beartooth Lake and Island Lake, are perfect spots to pause and soak in the tranquility. Their clear, reflective waters mirror the surrounding peaks, creating picture-perfect moments that are a photographer’s dream. The Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River, which meanders through the valleys, adds a dynamic element to the scenery with its cascading waterfalls and rushing streams.

Diverse Ecosystems: The highway traverses multiple ecosystems, from lush forests at lower elevations to tundra-like conditions at its highest points. This diversity supports a wide range of flora and fauna, offering nature enthusiasts ample opportunities for wildlife spotting and botanical explorations.

Glacial lake formed in the Beartooth Mountain Range.

Historical and Cultural Significance

The Beartooth Highway is not just a marvel of natural beauty but also a testament to human ingenuity. Constructed in the 1930s as part of the New Deal projects, the highway was engineered to provide access to remote areas while preserving the natural landscape. Its construction was a significant achievement, given the challenging terrain and harsh weather conditions.

The highway also holds cultural significance for the indigenous Crow Nation, known as the Apsáalooke in their native language, who have lived in the Yellowstone region for generations. The Beartooth Mountains derive their name from a Crow legend about a jagged peak resembling a bear's tooth. This peak, and the surrounding landscape, holds spiritual significance for the Crow people, symbolizing strength and endurance. The area is rich in Native American history, and traveling through it offers a chance to reflect on the region's cultural heritage.

Beartooth Peak seen from outside of Cooke City in Montana.
Beartooth Peak pictured here.

Historically, the Crow Nation played a pivotal role in the fur trade during the 19th century, establishing alliances with European traders and other Native American tribes. The region around the Beartooth Mountains served as a significant crossroads for trade and cultural exchange. Key treaties, such as the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, were instrumental in defining the boundaries of Crow territory, as the tribe negotiated to protect their lands and way of life amidst increasing pressures from settlers. This historical context highlights the resilience and strategic acumen of the Crow Nation, underscoring their deep-rooted connection to the land.

A Drive Like No Other

Beartooth Highway stands out as America's most beautiful summer drive due to its unparalleled scenic beauty, diverse landscapes, and the thrilling sense of adventure it offers. Its proximity to Yellowstone National Park makes it a natural extension for visitors seeking to explore one of the nation's most iconic natural treasures. With its seasonal charm and the sheer majesty of its surroundings, Beartooth Highway is more than just a road—it's a journey through some of the most breathtaking scenery America has to offer. So, pack your bags, plan your trip for the summer months, and get ready to experience the drive of a lifetime.

*Beartooth Highway opens for the season on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend.

Beartooth Highway is said to be the most beautiful drive in America. Highway shown going through the Beartooth Mountain Range.

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