It had been a long August during the summer of 1882. General Phillip Sheridan, famed Civil War veteran, had led his group of over 120 men out of Fort Washakie in western Wyoming at the beginning of the month. By the last week of August, the inspection tour had crossed the Gros Vente mountains and followed the Snake River into Yellowstone. The area had recently been designated a national park and already tourists had flocked to the area.
The General moved his men up the Lamar River on the east side of Yellowstone to a mining camp near Cooke City. Now he faced a three-day march down the Clarks Fork River before turning back north for Billings, Montana, where he would meet the Northern Pacific Railroad to take him to Chicago.
An old hunter by the name of Geer approached the General. Geer claimed that he had an intimate knowledge of the Beartooth Mountains which blocked the direct route to Billings, necessitating the circuitous detour down the Clarks Fork. Much against the advice of his comrades, and maybe partly to satisfy a hankering for going where no party had gone before, Sheridan listened and resolved to follow the hunter. Two days later, despite forest fire and snow drifts 40 feet deep in craters, the group completed the first crossing of the Beartooth Mountains, landing near present-day Red Lodge, Montana.
Fifty years later, in 1936, the Beartooth Highway opened along Sheridan's route. Designated a National Scenic Byway in 1989, the Beartooth has been blessed as"America's most beautiful road" by no less an expert than Charles Kuralt.
The Beartooth originates in Red Lodge, Montana, which got its start as a coal-mining town shortly after Sheridan's visit. The town boomed during the late 19th century. But the mines began closing in the Depression. Tragedy struck during World War II when an explosion at the Smith Mine killed 74 people, and the mining era was over. Today the town retains much of its character from those early years, with its main street lined with buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. And with skiing on Red Lodge Mountain and summer attractions like the Byway and the nearby Beartooth Wilderness, the town has become a tourist mecca.
South of Red Lodge, the road quickly begins ascending the Beartooth Plateau. Between 50 and 60 million years ago, a massive uplift created the Beartooths. At roughly 3,000 square miles, the Beartooths are one of North America's largest land masses rising above 10,000 feet, reaching its highest point at 12,799' Granite Peak. This is a land of glacier-carved cirques, high alpine lakes and fragile tundra.
A pull out 20 miles from Red Lodge, up a steep series of switchbacks, is a great place to get a broad view of the Plateau. To the north lie the Hell Roaring and Silver Run plateaus, broad expanses rising between the several forks of Rock Creek. Jewels like Glacier Lake glisten in hanging valleys off the walls of Hell Roaring. Line Creek plateau runs to the south, an area where sharp eyes may spot moutain goats or bighorn sheep.
The road continues climbing as it crosses into Wyoming. By now the land is well above timberline. The views are expansive, south across the canyons carved by the Clarks Fork, north into the Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness. In the wilderness, a narrow pyramidal spire is profiled against blue sky. This is the Bear's Tooth - Na Pet Say in the language of the local Crow Indians - from which the mountains take their name.
Thirty miles from Red Lodge, the Beartooth reaches is highest point at 10,974 feet. Here you feel like you are truly at the"Top of the World." And shortly after the summit, you pass the Top of the World settlement, a combination store, motel and gas station.
Descending, the Beartooths reveal themselves as lake country. Almost a thousand lakes fill the wilderness. Along the road lie Long, Little Bear, Island and Beartooth Lakes. Two of several national forest campgrounds along the highway are beside these last two lakes.
While the Beartooth is one of America's greatest drives, it also offer plenty of opportunities for getting out of the car. Trailheads line the entire route. Just out of Red Lodge, roads lead up the various forks of Rock Creek, where trails head for Timberline Lake, Sundance Pass, Silver Run Plateau and other backcountry destinations. Other good jumping off points for short dayhikes or extended backpacks include Island Lake and Beartooth Lake. Most trails head north of the road toward the official Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness. But don't miss the Beartooth Loop National Recreation Trail south of the road. This trail allows a 15 to 20 mile circuit by the original site of Camp Sawtooth, an exclusive retreat built during the 1920s.
Clay Butte rises on the right 42 miles from Red Lodge. A dirt road leads a couple of miles to a now-dormant fire tower on top of the Butte. The views here are most spectacular to the west, where the pyramid of Pilot Peak stands stark and the jagged edge of Index Peak cuts the sky.
Heading for Cooke City, the Beartooth passes a turnoff for the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway (Wyoming 296). The Chief Joseph road is part of the Nez Perce trail, named after the chief that led his people on an Oregon to Montana flight from the U.S. Army in 1877. The Chief Joseph leads to Cody, Wyoming. Or it can be combined with the Beartooth Highway for a full day loop out of Red Lodge.
Sixty-four miles from Red Lodge, after crossing back into Montana, the Beartooth enters Cooke City. Originally a gold-mining camp, Cooke City is now the northeastern gateway to Yellowstone National Park. The entrance is four miles east of town.
That's the end of the line for "America's most beautiful road."
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication