Riding along U.S. Highway 212 through Montana, it is easy to see why it has been called "the most beautiful road in America." Better known as the Beartooth All-American Highway, the route runs for 69 miles through some of the most remote and picturesque scenery in the entire country before eventually culminating at the Northeast entrance to Yellowstone, one of the crown jewels of the national park system.
The Beartooth Highway first opened on June 14, 1936 after four years of construction that used mostly manpower to carve the road out of the mountainside. Unlike other ambitious projects of that era however, the Beartooth was not built under the WPA and was instead financed by a special Presidential Executive Order authorizing new access roads to be built into national parks across the country. Interestingly enough, it was the only road ever built under that order.
The route officially begins in the town of Red Lodge, a small, but very active community located about 60 miles southwest of Billings. Once a thriving mining town on the edge of the Beartooth/Absaroke Mountain Range, Red Lodge now serves as the launching point for the Beartooth Highway. The town exudes western charm and hospitality, offering visitors surprisingly great dining and lodging options, while serving as the perfect base camp for outdoor adventures, including hiking, biking, and paddling excursions into the beautiful wilderness that dominates the region.
From Red Lodge, the road ascends an impressive series of switchbacks into the mountains, briefly crossing out of Montana, and into Wyoming, before winding its way back into Big Sky Country, and descending into Cooke City on the other side of the pass. Along the way drivers are treated to an array of amazing sights, including snow capped peaks, clear mountain lakes, rushing waterfalls, and gorgeous valleys carved over thousands of years of glacial activity.
At its highest point, the Beartooth reaches 10,947 feet above sea level, which means it won't just be the scenery that can take your breath away. The route also crosses through the Custer, Gallatin, and Shoshone National Wilderness Areas, which ensures that travelers will be surrounded by some of the most pristine backcountry in all of North America for their entire drive.
Not that there isn't anything else to see along the way. For instance, be sure to pull off the road at Rock Creek Vista Point, 21 miles into the ride, for spectacular views of the picture-perfect Rock Creek Canyon and Hell Roaring Plateau. Later, catch a glimpse of the Bear Tooth rock formation from which the highway, and the surrounding wilderness, are named, and don't forget to pull into the Top of the World store for snacks and drinks for the road. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife too, as there are plenty of deer and mountain goats to see along the way, and if you're lucky, you just might spot a bear or even a wolf.
After cresting the Beartooth Pass, the highway descends into Cooke City, another sleepy little Montana town with a rich history. This tiny community was also once a mining town, and the remnants of that past can still be found in the surrounding hills. Cooke City serves as the gateway to Yellowstone National Park, but even if you're just passing through, I recommend stopping into the Cooke City Store, which has been open since 1886, and continues to be well stocked with rustic charm all these years later.
They say that eventually, all good things come to an end, and such is the case with the Beartooth Highway as well. But when the road does end, it runs straight into the Northeast entrance of Yellowstone, which means that the amazing scenery and spectacular outdoor adventures are only just beginning. Yellowstone boasts the largest concentrated collection of wildlife in the lower 48 states, and while you'll be sad to see America's best drive come to a conclusion, your consolation prize will be the fantastic outdoor playground that is Yellowstone.
Next year marks the 75th anniversary of the Beartooth Highway, and I can't think of a better way to celebrate than to drive that iconic roadway and witness its wonders first hand. If you do go however, plan your trip for the spring. The Beartooth closes for the winter in October, and doesn't reopen again until Memorial Day of the following year. When it does open it offers an array of sights to dazzle the eyes. From late spring snows to summer wildflowers and the bright colors of autumn, the spectacular scenery is in a constant state of flux, and no matter how many times you make the drive, you're likely to discover something new and unique each time. Such is the allure of the Beartooth All-American Highway.