High Rewards on the Beartooth Highway

The pressure builds in your head, your ears feel tight, the air gets thinner; these are the signs that you are gaining elevation quickly. Increasing, the only relief is a hard swallow or blowing your nose, “popping” your ears and releasing the pressure. This feeling is one of my first memories. I was four years years old, flying back from California and I was crying. The elevation gain was too much for my tiny head to deal with and was incredibly uncomfortable. I had my favorite stuffed animal clutched to me tightly as my parents and the flight attendant tried to reassure me that it would be alright. I was given a drink and some peanuts and the pressure was released.  For years, I loathed this experience. Now, it is a sign that great adventures will soon be had. 

When flying or driving, it is difficult to adjust the the elevation gains we experience. On foot, at a slower pace, this sensation in our ears while gaining elevation is less common. I experience this most when driving to the mountains, which means something incredible will soon be happening. When I go to the higher elevations, I expect scenic beauty and the potential for exploration high above sea level will soon occur.

Slicing through the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, one of the great drives in America is waiting for your adventurous spirit. In north central Wyoming and South Central Montana, straddling the border, the Beartooth Highway can be found. Open only a few months each year, this wild 69 mile long road weaves through a stunning landscape, reaching nearly 11,000 feet in elevation. 

Snowstorms occur throughout the year, and even when it looks nice out, strong winds and severe thunderstorms can appear out of nowhere. In the best of weather, driving this road takes at least two hours, thanks to numerous pull-outs, incredible stops and mountain goat encounters. I know I should be preaching wilderness and trails, but the Beartooth Highway is a journey in itself, worthy of exploration by the most rugged of adventurers. 

Starting in Red Lodge, Montana at 5,568 feet above sea level and running to Cooke City, Montana (the seventh-highest US city by altitude) at 7,608 feet above sea level, few roads in the country offer such a stunning view for so long. Towering peaks rise from the valley below as the road switchbacks up, while glacier-ground hillsides provide the backdrop the the route. Lakes and boulders dot the barren landscape for as far as the eye can see, granting access to some of the most inhospitable wilderness in the contiguous United States. 

The Beartooth Highway serves as backdoor into Yellowstone National Park. The road, while popular with some, is mostly overlooked by the millions who enter the park each year. Few amenities are available, making this a rugged and rough road, despite the paved path. Opened in 1936, the Beartooth Highway follows the same basic path that Civil War General Philip Sheridan and 120 men took in 1972 as they were returning from an inspection tour of Yellowstone National Park.

My first trip here took far too long. I had been to Yellowstone for decades before I finally took a trip across the Beartooth Highway. On a whim, I decided to leave the park from Cooke City, drive the pass to Red Lodge and head back to Bozeman, Montana. It would be a three or four hour detour at the fastest, but I was in the area. Why not go?

The drive started out amazing. Passing Cooke City, the road gently rose, passing scenic views of mountains and rivers, wildflowers and forests leaning sideways from constant wind. The sun was shining bright and everything was perfect. After stopping at a fire lookout and enjoying the incredible views, the road started to rise more quickly and the weather began to change. At the top of the pass, the wind was raging and storm clouds surrounded the car. Views disappeared and soon, the scenic road was “nothing more” than driving through the heart of a thunderstorm. Dropping down toward Red Lodge, the daylight hours faded and my adventure on the highway was over. I was anything, but a fan of the road. 

It wouldn’t be until the fall on 2018 when I would once again return to the Beartooth Highway. On this trip, I was showing my mom around my stomping grounds and saw a break in the weather. We loaded up the adventure mobile early in the morning and set out on what I hoped would be a scenic and amazing day. We would drive to Red Lodge, hit the pass and drop into Cooke City, before driving through Yellowstone to get back to Livingston. It would be a long day and I was nervous. My stress over the trip was not needed. It was an amazing day. 

As we climbed up the switchbacks from Red Lodge to Beartooth Pass, the few clouds in the sky were diminishing and stunning views, which had been hidden from me on my previous drive, came into view. Excited, my mom and I stopped at every pull off, snapping pictures and taking in the grandeur seen along the road. It was windy and a little cold, but as we crested the pass, none of that mattered. All around us, we saw remarkable landscapes that I still struggle to describe. Even the pictures don’t do it justice. 

Along the Beartooth Highway
Along the Beartooth Highway
Along the Beartooth Highway
Along the Beartooth Highway
Along the Beartooth Highway

After exploring around at 11,000ft, it was time to drop down toward Cooke City. I had driven this section of the road in decent weather before and I assumed I wouldn’t be surprised. I was dead wrong. Driving to Cooke City along the Beartooth Highway is one of the single greatest drives I have taken in my life, and I have driven to and around 44 states. Maybe it was the fall colors, maybe it was being able to share the road with my mom, maybe it was that this road is ridiculously beautiful, but I was in awe. 

We stopped at lakes and took pictures and walked around. We enjoyed the views of Pilot Peak and Index Peak from above a picturesque cascading creek. We found ourselves eager to round the next corner to see what was next. For 69 miles, the Beartooth Highway left us transfixed, forever sold on the majesty that this wild highway holds.   

There is no excuse to skip this road, especially on a sunny, summer day. The views are incredible and the road is scenic and the potential for hiking and backpacking is seemingly endless. The Beartooth Highway is just a small taste of what Custer-Gallatin National Forest has to offer and after driving the road, I can’t wait to see more. 

This post was written in one hour for my #NatureWritingChallenge, where this week’s topic was “What elevation gain on Public Lands inspires adventure?”

Want to join in on the fun? Read more about this challenge here. 

Made in the great Pacific Northwest

By Douglas and Mathias in Olympia, Washington and Livingston, Montana.

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