The section of Greater Yellowstone lying east of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks is lined with wilderness areas. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness straddles the Montana-Wyoming Border. The North Absaroka Wilderness picks up just south, abutting the eastern boundary of Yellowstone National Park. The Teton and Washakie Wildernesses form a huge complex that wraps around the southeastern corner of the park. Next comes the Gros Ventre that touches the southeast corner of Grand Teton National Park, and the contiguous Bridger and Fitzpatrick Wildernesses to the south.
Oddly, despite all this wilderness protected from cars and other mechanical devices, the eastern half of Greater Yellowstone offers an amazing concentration of some of the finest scenic drives in America. Between each of the major wilderness complexes run paved corridors, each designated a National Scenic Byway.
Charles Kuralt rightfully designated the Beartooth Highway, the"most beautiful road in America." Squeezed in between the Absaroka-Beartooth and North Absaroka Wildernesses, this National Scenic Byway crosses a 10,000 foot plateau of alpine lakes, glacial cirques and fragile tundra.
My favorite drive combines the Beartooth Highway with the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway for an all-day outing. The Beartooth climbs quickly out of Red Lodge Montana for a 64-mile run to Cooke City, the northeastern gateway to Yellowstone National Park. Just before Cooke City, the Chief Joseph Highway turns off to the southeast. This road follows the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River, offering panoramic views of the Reef, a horizontal band of sandstone. In the distance, you can see the granite walls of the Box, a 1,200 foot gorge carved by the Clarks Fork. At Sunlight Basin, a bridge spans Sunlight Creek, itself running through a vertical-walled gorge several hundred feet below.
The Chief Joseph Highway ends at Highway 120, where drivers can head north back to Red Lodge or south to Cody, Wyoming.
The Buffalo Bill National Scenic Byway weaves along the North Fork of the Shoshone River between the North Absaroka and the Teton & Washakie Wildernesses. Theodore Roosevelt pronounced it the 50 most beautiful miles in the United States. Scenic it is, though to my eye Charles Kuralt made a better call. The route from Cody passes the huge Buffalo Bill Reservoir, then enters the narrow Shoshone River canyon. The byway ends at the eastern entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
The Wyoming Centennial National Scenic Byway lies in the next strip to the south, between the Teton-Washakie complex and the Gros Ventre Wilderness. Its northern leg runs 57 miles from Dubois over the Continental Divide to Grand Teton National Park. Heading up the Wind River valley, the road tops out at Togwotee Pass, 9,658 feet. I found Brooks Lake near the top of the pass a nice diversion for a short hike. Angling in the lake is also good and this recreation area is a starting point for backpacking into the Teton and Washakie Wildernesses.
The south leg of the Wyoming Centennial skirts around the west and south of the Gros Ventre Wilderness. From Hoback Junction, where the Hoback River meets the Snake, it runs up the canyon to the divide separating the Hoback and Green Rivers. That divide represents the split between huge watersheds. On the Hoback side, waters eventually reach the Columbia River. The Green's flow heads for the southwest and the mighty Colorado River.
All this talk about Scenic Byways bisecting the wilderness is not to diminish the attractions of cruising in the parks. Yellowstone's Grand Loop Road ranks high on my list of scenic drives. This 140-mile figure eight passes the major sites of Yellowstone: Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Yellowstone Lake, the Norris Geyser Basin, Mammoth Hot Springs. And nowhere will you find a more magnificent vista of mountains than along the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway through Grand Teton National Park.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication