The Beartooth Highway – RV Heaven

BeartoothMapThe Beartooth Highway is one of the more spectacular drives you can take when touring in your RV out west, comparable to the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. It's a 1930s WPA project that opened access to the Yellowstone region from the northeast, and an impressive engineering accomplishment. Fortunately for us,  it's still in good repair and easily traversable by all but the most anemic RVs – there are probably a few gas Class As that shouldn't attempt it, but the rest of us can drive it easily.

The eastern end of the Beartooth Highway is Red Lodge, MT, a 44 mile drive from I-90 coming down US 212 from Laurel, just west of Billings.  Red Lodge is a nice little town with all the RV amenities – water and a dump station at the Chamber of Commerce, groceries at the IGA, gas, diesel and propane from multiple stations. Provision yourself well because the next significant amenities are when you come back out on I-90 in Livingston, MT, 175 miles away.

This is the glacial valley you climb out of to get onto the Beartooth Plateau.  The road comes up the near side- this is taken at the rest stop near the top.

This is the glacial valley you climb out of to get onto the Beartooth Plateau. The road comes up the near side- this is taken at the rest area near the top.

OK, now that you're all stocked up, get ready to climb. We're going up onto the Beartooth Plateau, a 10,000 foot high tableland overlooking the Yellowstone caldera.  Trouble is, you're at 5500 feet in Red Lodge.  After a gently sloping approach up the valley, the switchbacks begin. Most of it is 25 or 30 miles an hour – feel free to take it slower. Turn off your air conditioner, and watch your coolant temperature and transmission temperature gauges.   Five miles of switchbacks later, you're rewarded with a view of the plateau.

Side of the road snow. The red color is an algae that grows directly on the snow surface as it melts.

Side of the road snow. The red color is an algae that grows directly on the snow surface as it melts.

First thing you'll notice is the snow. There's snow up here – side-of-the-road snow, not up-on-the-mountains snow.  I came up here in late June, and it's all over the place. Even in August, there's still snow you can easily walk to from the highway.  The snowmelt  feeds countless streams; most of the time you stop along the highway you can hear running water. The northern sides of the gentle hills on the plateau have  snowbanks, each with a stream emerging from its base.

The second thing you'll notice is the thin, cold air. Atmospheric pressure is 70% of sea level, and it's 20 degrees cooler up here in the summer than it is down in the Yellowstone River valley. Daytime highs are rarely above 70 degrees.  Pace yourself if you plan any hikes, and watch out for signs of altitude sickness if you zoomed up here without acclimating.

You have a front-row seat for viewing the valleys cut into the plateau- it's straight down on the other side of the guardrail.

Mirror Lake – you have a front-row seat for viewing the valleys cut into the plateau. It's straight down on the other side of the guardrail.

The first few miles of the plateau drive leading up to Beartooth Pass are still in Montana; I boondocked in a spur (Forest Service Road 2124)  just before the state line, which is designated for dispersed camping.  As you cross into Wyoming, you're climbing – you'll be rewarded with spectacular views of Gardner Lake and Mirror Lake. In addition to the main lakes, the complex landforms up here create smaller lakes seemingly cantilevered out of the steep slopes. Every dip in the terrain up here holds water.

bearstooth

The Bear's Tooth

The Bear's Tooth is a spire of granite viewable from the highway just before the pass.  Native Americans named this range because of this feature, which does indeed look like an incisor of something you wouldn't want to meet on the trail. The tooth and many of the other peaks are “horns” – glacially carved spires sharpened to impossibly steep points as glaciers slid around their sides during the numerous ice ages which shaped this region.

Fiona marmot-hunting at 10,916 feet.

Fiona marmot-hunting at 10,948 feet.

At the top, Beartooth Pass itself has a pullout to stretch your legs and look around in all directions. East you can see the Bighorns, over 80 miles away, and south of you is a plateau covered with lakes. Fiona the Fearless Kitty had less esthetic interests – she wanted to snag a marmot.  Marmots are chubby rodents who inhabit alpine regions and, as Fiona was soon to discover, always sit within feet of their burrow.  No marmot on the menu for Fiona this time.

west

West of the pass, the highway snakes downward into a relatively broad valley covered with lakes.

West of the pass, the road descends steadily and you come down off the tundra and back into pine forests. Spectacular waterfalls dot the roadside, many with pullouts and paths leading up to them so you can get a closer look. The state line also marks the boundary between the Custer National Forest and Shoshone National Forest, which you are in now, and there are several well-maintained campgrounds along this stretch of the highway. Island Lake, Beartooth Lake, Crazy Creek, and Fox Creek range in elevation from 9,000 to 6,000 feet.  Information on these is  available on the Shoshone National Forest website.  Fox Creek has electricity, for those of you not equipped for dry camping.

That dusting of white stuff isn't snow, it's hail. Much of the summer precipitation falls as hail at this altitude. Fortunately, it was all pea-sized up to a half inch or so.

Somewhat averse to organized camping and neighbors ourselves, right now we're doing dispersed camping maybe eight miles east of the town of Cooke City, on the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone River. Just pull off the road, pick a spot, and enjoy the wilderness.  The sound of rushing water, the smell of the pine trees, and the song of the mountain bluebirds make this place a memorable stay in our exploration of the Beartooth area.

There are

34 comments

  1. Lisa

    Campskunk, if that doesn’t get someone interested in getting out to see what’s out there, I don’t know what will! Love that Fiona.

  2. Campskunk
    Author

    the best thing about this whole stretch of highway is that it’s so isolated – you would never know it’s the 4th of july weekend up here. plenty of room to spread out in and find a nice private spot.

  3. Linda Hoefer

    My family has lived in the surrounding area since 1974! We have driven all over the area. You have written, what I believe is, the most descriptive commentary about this area that I have ever read. Your photos are gorgeous. In fact, my family will be up in that area next weekend. Too bad you will have traveled to points further on by then, I would love to meet you. Keep up the good writing.

  4. Richard and Veronica

    Campskunk, Did you have any issues with the 21′ length restrictions? I know you have the RT190P with the storage bin but I wasn’t sure if you still had the Continental spare when you posted this. I have an 07 210P with the Continental spare. We have been on this road many years ago in a 68 Chevy van and wanted to travel it again in our RT.

  5. Louis Goldman

    From Cooke City you can return on another beautiful road – Chief Joseph Scenic Byway

  6. First drove it in 1962 with my Dad. Then went over in 1980 with my family and had a snowball fight at the top. Drove it twice in 2012. It never gets old! To Kathy Marshbank, its in Montana near Yellowstone.

  7. We drove it while visiting Yelloustone about 12 or so years ago . Then turned around went to Cody WY to the Museum . Then returned to Yellowstone thru the east enterance . What a beautiful day.

  8. Kathy Marshbank, the mountains are in Eastern Montana outside the little town of Red Lodge. I grew up in this area because our family has a cabin in the canyon leading to the pass. It’s really worth the time to experience the beauty of this area. Highly recommend!!

  9. It was a must do every year when we lived in Billings, via car, pickup & camper and motorcycle. The very best time was backpacking the Bear toothed for a week!!! On top of the world!

  10. Was there last year! Pictures no matter how good do not do it justice. We are going back in September with our RV (we don’t take the RV on the bear tooth, we park at our friends ranch in Clark Wyoming; it’s more enjoyable to not have to worry about the 5th wheel on some of the turns). Last year we visited Yellowstone, Jackson, Grand Tetons, Cody and Red lodge Montana and so much more on our 6 week trip. We saw some amazing country. You can’t help but believe that a greater power created all the beauty that is the West. If you get a chance ride some of the BLM land via off road vehicle, you see things you can’t see by car.