Spending Summer Up on the Tundra – Beartooth Highway

THIS is what I have labored long and hard for – extended boondocking capability in a beautiful setting. We first discovered this pullout along the Beartooth Highway, the 1930s road constructed as the northeast entrance to Yellowstone back in 2013, and spent a week or so camping here.

I had a copy of the Custer National Forest Motor Vehicle Use Map, which shows you where dispersed camping is allowed, and observed the magical dots indicating camping was permitted along this road off the east end of the highway, only a couple of miles from the switchbacks climbing up onto the 10,000 foot plateau where we all got beauty shots of our rigs taken by Joe Morales during the 2016 Montana Roadtreking gathering near Red Lodge, Montana.

Forest Service Road 2124 is basically a short spur leading to a gravel parking lot overlooking snowfields and a glacial lake.  There are a few dozen people a day pulling off the highway. Most jump out, look around, take a few photos, and leave. A little busier than I'm used to with dispersed camping, but tolerable. There are also hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders who use it as a staging area for lengthier excursions out onto the plateau.  I watch their cars for them while they're gone and update them on the latest weather as they head out. Thunderstorms pop up swiftly here, and precipitation is a mix of VERY cold rain, sleet, and small hail. It can go from 60ish to 40 degrees and very wet in a few minutes, so people have to plan.There's no cellphone service up here, so my satellite internet is the only source of weather radar.

In our stay this year, we have seen a bunch of mountain bikers, who do the smart and easy thing and follow one of the creek bed drainages down to the bottom, rejoining the highway at the bottom of the switchbacks. They leave a car at the bottom to drive back up and retrieve the car at the top, and are gone a few hours.  So far, nobody has gotten lost and spent an unplanned night out with the moose, like a couple of guys did back in 2013 when I was here before.

New this year was a couple who showed up pulling their horse trailer with two horses and a pack mule, and packed off into the backcountry. They are locals and gave me some good information about the history of the area. Up until the early 1980s, the pack trail that starts near here was a jeep trail, and forty years later the jeep tracks are finally beginning to get vegetation growing over them. The tundra is very fragile, which is why the Forest Service designated the whole area no wheeled vehicles back then, so it's a good thing there's not much traffic up here.

When I walk around the area, I step on the bare ground, and give the plants more of a chance to survive. Fiona just naturally threads her way through the plants on the bare areas, and it's easy to follow her as she goes out exploring. She loves to drink from the rivulets coming out of the snowbanks, and was very disappointed when the one right behind our parking spot dried up. Now we hike off to the next one over, out past an area covered with lupine and other wildflowers. It smells wonderful, and there are so many bees there is a constant background buzzing. Summer is short up here, and everyone is very busy.

Big Sky country, indeed. Some of the sunrises have been spectacular.

Lecture al fresco.

Yesterday about 30 students from Wheaton College pulled up in four vans, hiked out for a couple of hours, and listened to a lecture about the ecology of the area. I gave the instructors current weather information before they led the hike (nothing in sight – it was clear all the way to Idaho), and let the students avail themselves of my WiFi connection, for which they were extremely grateful, having had no connectivity for the last few days.

And then they all piled back into the vans and were gone, leaving us alone with the sun and the wind. Life is good up here on the tundra. We went down to Red Lodge for water and groceries a couple of days ago, so we're good for at least another week.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.