June 2018 – The Beartooth Highway is a spectacular scenic drive in Montana and Wyoming that is so awe inspiring it has been given the well deserved designation of “All American Road.” Few roads in America have been singled out for this distinction, and the others we have driven knocked our socks off.
So, it was with great anticipation that we set out from Red Lodge, Montana, to drive the 69 miles of steep and arduous switchbacks into the heavens, passing endless sweeping vistas and stunning alpine lakes as we made our way towards the northeastern entrance of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.
The first snow capped mountain peaks crept into view between towering rock walls on either side of the highway shortly after we left Red Lodge, and then we drove straight into the sky until we had a fabulous view of it all at the Rock Creek Vista overlook.
This first formal lookout has a big parking area and a low rock wall to keep people and puppies from falling over the edge.
After the long grind going up the mountainside, our sweet pup Buddy loved seeing the view from the top! But he was most interested in the chipmunks that were scampering around on the ground!
Rock Creek Vista overlook is just the first big viewing area on the incredible Beartooth scenic drive, and from that point on we were on top of the world with jaw-dropping views out our windows in every direction.
My camera shutter was clicking as fast as my fingers could go. When I turned to look at Buddy, his eyes were glued to the view too!
There are pullouts and overlooks all along the Beartooth Highway, and we had lots of chances to get out and stretch our legs and soak in the view.
The Beartooth Highway is closed during the winter months, and it opens over Beartooth Pass only when the road is fully cleared and safe to drive. It had been open for a few weeks when we drove it in late June, but a cold snap had drenched us with rain for a few days down in the valleys, and that same rain had buried Beartooth Pass in snow once again and had even closed it for a day or two right before our drive.
This divine intervention meant that we were treated to lots of snowy vistas and the views were just magnificent.
Signs of spring were everywhere, though, and as we climbed through elevations between 7,000 and nearly 11,000 feet we saw a wide variety of wildflowers in bloom at each altitude.
Some of these wildflowers are extremely tiny and delicate and not more than a pencil eraser in size!
The flowers were blooming in every possible shade, and some meadows were filled with mixtures of yellow and blue and pink.
Familiar wild lavender colored lupine bloomed in thickets here and there as well.
One of the most dazzling images we found were the bright blue alpine lakes that shimmered in the sun between snowy banks.
And patterns appeared on the hillsides showing a special kind of asymmetry that only the finest artist could render.
The Beartooth Highway is beloved by motorcyclists because it is truly the Ideal Ride. Groups of motorcycles and individuals were riding in both directions and loving the scenery with fresh air and no windows.
At last we reached the actual Bear’s Tooth Pass.
Before we did this drive, back when we were down in Red Lodge, we had stopped into a cool metal works shop and started chatting with a gal who worked there. She had moved to Red Lodge so she could ski as much as her heart desired, and she spoke warmly of the spring skiing around the Beartooth Highway that begins on Memorial Day and continues through June.
We saw skiiers hitting the slopes, and gingerly walked out onto the thick snow ourselves. Much of the rest of America was experiencing a massive heatwave at that very moment, but up here on the Beartooth Highway life was cool.
Our cameras were going full speed ahead, and so were everyone else’s too. This is a place where digital photography is a true blessing. I can’t imagine how many dozens of rolls of film we would have both gone through if we’d been using film cameras!
In some places the snow banks along the highway were still 12′ high, and people were decorating the drifts with all kinds of graffiti. We had to add ourse too!
And then, after cresting the top, we came upon the most incredible view that stretched for miles and miles out to the horizon. Just glorious!
The Beartooth Highway deserves more than one cursory drive-through, and we ended up driving all of it or part of it on three separate occasions. This gave us a day with fabulous storm clouds and a day with perfect blue skies and lots of time to savor the various overlooks until we reached saturation and returned home, satisfied in our hearts that even if we “left early” we’d be back in a day or two to take in a little more.
It is best to hit the Beartooth Highway early in the day, and on our first trip we discovered that starting from Red Lodge at 7:00 a.m. wasn’t quite early enough! Lots of people have the same bright idea of starting early, so there was a surprising amount of traffic on the mountain.
We started out another day shortly after 6:00 a.m. and when we arrived at Beartooth Lake, which is easily seen from the road about 53 miles into the drive, the water was as still as glass and held reflections of the mountains like a mirror.
We stopped at the overlook and then wandered down to the boat launch to see these wondrous reflections a little closer.
A short stretch of rapids broke up the reflecting images in the most beautiful way.
Where the water was still, the air was even more still. It was a crystalline moment in a world apart. As we stared at the view we were alone in the universe save for a few chirping birds in the trees.
Like much of Montana and Wyoming, this area was deluged with snow and rain this year and the lakes and rivers were overflowing. As I looked into the water from the shore I was amazed to see a beautiful clump of yellow wildflowers happily blooming under a few inches of water!
A little further on we came across the Crazy Creek waterfall. Here we could see and feel the extraordinary power of the waters that had been elevated and swollen by unusual amounts of snow and rain.
The sound was deafening and the water was leaping and spraying across the path above the rapids.
The Beartooth Highway ranks among the most stunning scenic drives we have ever done. How wonderful it is to find that even after eleven years on the road we are still making fabulous discoveries, and what a thrill it is to witness such an astonishing place.
If you are taking an RV trip towards Montana or Wyoming, the Beartooth Highway is well worth a big detour to see.
Bigger RVs are not recommended on this road. There are signs suggesting that rigs longer than 40′ not drive it at all, and we saw less than a handful of Class C and smaller RVs. However, Mark felt fully confident that he could easily take our trailer on the drive if we wanted or needed to. We just wouldn’t have been able to stop so often or so easily, and it would have taken a lot of concentration on his part.
A little while after we drove the Beartooth Highway, we met a trucker who has been in the road construction and trucking business for many decades. He told us that he had been hired to help film an Ice Road Truckers commercial on the Beartooth Highway a few winters back. Rather than fly the film crew to Alaska where the TV series takes place, it was much cheaper to film the ad here in Montana and Wyoming. So, they did it on the first switchbacks of the Beartooth Highway on the Montana side.
His stories were fantastic as he described the week-long creation of this video which was, in many ways, quite similar to the three days of filming we participated in as part of an ad campaign for Camping World last winter.
The film crew needed four inches of snow on the Beartooth Highway, so it was plowed to leave four inches of snow behind, and when that melted more snow was piled on to bring it up to four inches. A frightening sequence where the truck skids backwards down the mountain was actually filmed on level ground while he and his fellow workers pulled the truck backwards with chains attached to another truck.
The film director wanted to stage a horrific rollover accident, and he had some fancy and expensive equipment made to help simulate the rollover. However, the equipment was designed and built on the California coast, and the difference in altitude between there and the Montana Rockies wasn’t taken into account in the design and the equipment failed.
In classic down home fashion, the Montana boys on the film set said, “Hold my beer,” and huddled together to come up with a solution. Using a truck with chains again, they put chains under the semi and jerked back on them with to flip the truck on its side (with no one in it, of course). The film director was delighted with the perfect shot and said, “I didn’t need anything from California. All I needed were some good Montana boys!”
I’m not 100% sure that the following video is the actual ad or is perhaps just a bit of footage from it, but it is definitely an ice road trucker on the first switchbacks of the Beartooth Highway in Montana, and the various sequences appear just as described. Enjoy!
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More info about the Beartooth Highway and camping in nearby Red Lodge, MT:
- Beartooth Highway Info from the Montana DOT
- Beartooth Highway Info
- RV camping in Red Lodge, Montana
- Beartooth Highway Map
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(Check out the Utah Byway 12 “All American Road” in this list!)
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- Colorado’s Stunning Scenic Drives…by Porsche! 07/23/17
- The Burr Trail – A Fabulous Side Trip on Utah’s Scenic Byway 12 11/15/16
- Utah Scenic Byway 12 RV Trip – Driving An All American Road! 11/03/16
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- Whitefish to Libby – Big Surprises on the Back Roads of Montana 08/28/16
- RVing Wyoming – Lakes, Mountains and Waterfalls 06/01/18
- Wyoming Back Roads by RV – Rugged, Remote and Wild! 05/18/18
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