After a few days in the Gardiner camp it was finally time to drive the Beartooth Scenic Byway. As far as I know, I’ve never driven it before, at least I can’t remember driving it. However, one picture from my 1979 motorcycle trip looks like I may have driven it then. Unfortunately, that was so long ago I can’t remember for sure.
Either way, I’ve been tremendously looking forward to driving it because of the extreme amount of praise that I continually hear about it; everyone says it’s just fantastic! It turns out they were right! Words actually fail to describe not only how beautiful it is, but the amazing job they did of building it. Many times these extreme mountain roads have very steep grades that overly tax many big, heavy, overloaded rigs. Although the elevation gain on the Beartooth is extreme, somehow they made it easy to go up and down. At no time going up it did I have to slow down because my van just couldn’t go any faster, and at no time going down it did I worry about how hard the brakes were working. If you have an RV, are overloaded or bigger rig, you are still going to go up it slowly, but you can make it and you shouldn’t do any damage along the way.
They did that by the use of many switchbacks—they seem endless! At several overlooks you can look almost straight down and see the road going back and forth constantly on the steep mountain-side below you. I think part of that was sheer luck because the shape of the mountains allowed it, but part of it is brilliant engineering to take advantage of every possible chance to make it easier.
One of the reasons it is so stunning is that you have such a variety of terrain in a very short period of time. Coming from Red Lodge MT in the north you are in a beautiful, heavily forested valley following Rock Creek. Then you start climbing up this seemingly straight-up-and-down mountain-side and keep making continual switchbacks until you come out on top. At the top you are in a plateau with rolling hills and mountains that has almost no trees because it is tundra. All the vegetation is very low and small to the ground because it is continually cold, windswept and covered with snow much of the year. It’s almost Arctic-like in its appearance. I was there at just the right time in the middle of June for the wildflowers to be in full bloom, so you will see quite a few photos of them. In this extreme environment they don’t grow very big or showy, summer is too short and cool for that. Instead they are mostly small, bright and low to the ground
In some places on top the landscape is very smooth, round, rolling and green, and in some places it is tortured, rocky and rough. The variety makes it incredibly amazing! The absence of trees and the relative flatness of the area gives you very broad views. On top of some of the hills you can see for a long ways all around you. The one constant everywhere is lakes. Where ever you look in a 360 degree circle you are likely to see lakes from the massive amount of snow that falls every year. It’s so much snow that it’s impossible to keep the road open in the winter so it’s closed most of the year.
I was very lucky on this trip and found a herd of wild Mountain Goats grazing just a short distance from the road. I pulled over and parked and hiked over close–but not too close–to them. I was careful to stay far enough way that I did not disturb them. I just stood there for a long time and photographed them and after a few glances at first they just ignored me. As usually happens in these instances, they moved as they grazed and instead of moving away from me, they moved toward me. I’ve seen this happen so often I expect it to happen, but I don’t know why. You’d think they would move further away as they graze, but they rarely do.
I’m not complaining though, I had a wonderful time standing there watching them with their spring lambs and the big males bossing the others around and warning any others that grazed too close. They are a very aggressive, dominate animal with a very distinct pecking order. Unfortunately their coats weren’t very pretty, they were in the process of shedding their massive winter coats for their smaller summer coats and some of them had fur hanging and shredding off. Oh well, it makes for interesting shots.
As you drive further west you drop elevation and the forest slowly takes over until finally you are fully into the forest just like any other forest. But it is still pretty with lots of mountains and rivers to stop and see. Finally you come to Cooke City, which is nothing but a tourist trap and then back into Yellowstone NP.
I gotta tell you that I think the Beartooth Scenic Drive is probably the single most spectacular highway in all of America and seeing it should be a top priority for anyone visiting the Rocky Mountain States. I think it’s more worth seeing than Yellowstone NP. Fortunately it’s not an either-or choice, since they are right beside each other you can easily see both. But I’d make the Beartooth a greater priority.