What to do in Beartooth Highway

The Beartooth Highway isn't just visually stunning. It's an athletically challenging juggernaut through the rugged peaks and furrowed gorges of the Beartooth Mountains, named Na Piet Say (the bear's tooth) by Crow Indians. The 60-mile stretch of the Beartooth Highway begins in the former coal-mining town of Red Lodge, Montana, which almost became a ghost town during the Great Depression as mines closed and mining families were forced to pack up and move. Now it's the kind of town where western hospitality and waves from friendly neighbors are the norm and a cowboy way of life perseveres even as horses have been replaced by pickup trucks and snowmobiles. Still maintaining its charm, Red Lodge's main street is chock-full of buildings that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Remarkably preserved storefronts home to modern-day businesses line the postcard-perfect mountain town. Red Lodge needs no excuse to party—it's known for its Oktoberfest and Halloween celebrations, as well as its residents frequently gathering for parades through the quaint streets.

On the way out of Red Lodge, roads head up mountain switchbacks through high alpine tundra, car windows bordered by the forested slopes of the Custer, Shoshone, and Gallatin national forests. Combined, they comprise more than 1,000 lakes, vast fields of mountain wildflowers, and extensive coniferous forests. The ascent carries you into the Beartooth Plateau, a metamorphic rock that formed inside the earth more than three billion years ago, making it one of the oldest rocks in the West. Fifty million years ago, the fault lines began colliding, forcing the rock upward and creating a plateau that has since been shaped and weathered by glacial runoff.

Bring binoculars, or at least a good set of eyes, and make stops along this two-hour drive looking for wildlife. Grizzly and black bears roam free, as do moose, elk, mountain goats, deer, and big-horn sheep. Wide-open vistas will remind you why Montana is called Big Sky Country as you descend into Cooke City, the end of Beartooth Highway and the beginning of the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Though not as artfully done as the north entrance to Yellowstone in Gardiner, Montana, the northeast entrance provides fewer crowds and a more rural approach into the world's oldest national park. It is close to the mountainous Lamar Valley (nicknamed America's Serengeti for the vast array of wildlife), the Canyon Area (home to 4,000-foot-wide, 1,200-foot-deep Grand Canyon of Yellowstone), and the Upper and Lower Falls. The northeast entrance is a less commercial corridor to Yellowstone's grandeur.

  • Beartooth Highway Travel Q&A