Visitors to Yellowstone National Park can approach from the northeast via one of America’s most scenic routes, the Beartooth All American Road. This stretch of US 212 runs from Red Lodge, Montana, through forested mountains, Alpine tundra, and lush valleys to the park entrance in Wyoming, just past Cooke City. All American Roads are, in the judgement of the U.S. National Department of Transportation, the most scenic of the National Scenic Byways. The Beartooth is the final 70 miles of US 212, which originates in Edina, Minnesota, 950 miles to the East. Please remember that much of the Beartooth is closed during the winter.
Have your camera handy, as this drive features some of the most scenic country on the continent. Plateaus offer fantastic views of sharp peaks dramatically rising up to meet the wide western sky, and the hundreds of small lakes you will drive past can glint in the sun like diamonds or moodily reflect the beauty of the surrounding landscape, depending on the light and how you look at them. A trip along the Beartooth is officially estimated at 2-3 hours, but we’d suggest leaving plenty of extra time to soak up the views, and to enjoy at least one meal at one of the many places you’ll want to stop along the way.
You might want to keep the binoculars at the ready, too. Wildlife viewing opportunities are plentiful here, as the Beartooth highway provides access to one of the last complete ecosystems in North America. At any time during your trip, you might encounter grizzly bears, mountain goats, gray wolves which were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995 and are gaining a foothold, as well as countless species of birds.
The Beartooth begins in Red Lodge and consists of a 69 mile drive into the northeast Entrance of the park. The drive will climb into Alpine tundra at nearly 10,000 feet, and take you past three national forests (Custer, Shoshone, and Gallatin) and through the beautiful Beartooth pass. Winter conditions here are so harsh that only a few hardy mammals stay year round, and the pass is closed to all wheeled traffic. Summertime, however, allows the RV traveller exceptional views of the surrounding scenery. The switchbacks leading up from the head of the valley offer dramatic outlooks, and culminate at Vista point, which has a short walk out to overlook Rock Creek Canyon and Hellroaring Plateau. There are many turnouts along the route that provide breathtaking views of the unspoiled glacial lakes below. These are very narrow and require extra care, especially if you’re driving a rental motorhome that you’re not intimately familiar with.
Driving down from the pass, you will motor through scrubby softwood forests and wildflower meadows. Several large peaks in the Absaroka Range will be visible, including Pilot Peak which is slightly over 11,000 feet. Continuing to descend, you’ll travel through some denser pine forests before emerging at the highway’s namesake, Beartooth Lake. Watch for a great view of Beartooth falls. Just about a mile before going into Yellowstone via the northeast entrance, you’ll pass through the historic mining camp of Cooke City.
Be careful to reserve camping in advance, or to secure your site early in the day, because Yellowstone can be quite busy in mid-season. The National Park Service has information about camping sites available in or near Yellowstone. For camping in Red Lodge, Montana, we’d suggest the Red Lodge KOA.
Also be sure to check the weather, either with the Park Service or the Montana and Wyoming weather services before setting out. Summer snow isn’t unheard of along the Beartooth!