One of the most scenic drives in America runs for over 60 miles and starts and ends in Montana. These highlights of Beartooth Highway, from our trip in late September, will inspire you to put the Beartooth Pass (as it’s also known) on your bucketlist.
Vacationing in Montana to Drive the Scenic Highway
We drove Beartooth Highway during a greater adventure in Montana with Austin Adventures. It was paired with a few days experiencing Yellowstone National Park.
The scenic highway is definitely worth going to the state to drive, even if it’s the only thing you do (assuming you love scenic drives). But it’s great to pair it with more journeys in Montana and Wyoming since there’s such great landscapes and parks throughout the area.
We drove the highway with a destination of Silver Gate and Cooke City, Montana, to stay overnight.
History of the Beartooth Highway
Beartooth Pass was created shortly after the gold rush, when Red Lodge, Montana was largely a gold mining city in the 1880s. Back then, there was a need to create a road to connect Red Lodge, Montana with Yellowstone National Park, for tourism reasons.
The invention of the automobile in the 20th century brought Ford’s Model T to a quick rise in popularity. Thus, it became necessary to build a formal road long the Beartooth Pass in the 1930s.
Impressively, the highway was created on time and on budget during this time, during the Great Depression. Beartooth Highway opened in June 1936, after about 5 years of construction.
1989 brought its designation as a National Forest Scenic Byway. In 2002, the honor of “All-American Road” was bestowed upon it by National Scenic Byway.
How Long is the Beartooth Scenic Highway?
Beartooth Pass is 68 miles. (Some websites say it’s 69 miles, though, because it’s technically more than 68 miles, just shy of 69.) You don’t have to drive it all though if you don’t have time or don’t want to.
There’s not really access in the middle of Beartooth Highway, so you have to enter it from its western end in Cooke City, or its eastern end, at Red Lodge. Both are in Montana.
(There’s access to Beartooth Pass from Chief Joseph Byway in Wyoming, but it’s not exactly the middle nor is it a shortcut. Chief Joseph Byway is 17-miles from Cooke City. The road leads to Cody, Wyoming.)
But there are spots to turn around on Beartooth Highway you wish to.
How Long Does it Take to Drive Beartooth Pass?
It takes hours from end to end. It would take less time if you were driving without stopping. (Though more time than you would think with switchbacks, twists and turns). But if you don’t ever stop or get out of the car you’re missing the chance to explore and gush over the highlights of Beartooth Highway!
You need at least 1 hour if you plan on exploring, at all. You won’t get very far with less time.
Ideally, I would say either plan on 3 hours to hit sunset or leave yourself 6 hours (the better part of a day) to explore.
Enjoy the ride – why stress yourself out with having to rush? (It’s also a drive you need to be alert for to be able to proceed with caution!)
Highlights of Beartooth Pass, a Seasonal Experience
This scenic drive isn’t open year round due to extreme weather conditions during winter.
It’s traditionally open from Memorial Day (the last weekend in May), through mid-October, weather permitting.
We’ve read information indicating an earlier May opening date, as soon as after the first week of the month when snow plows can clear the highway.
We visited the third week of September. And I loved the time of year we were there. We were treated to breathtaking views with fall colors on the Aspen trees in some spots.
There is increased risk it will be closed because of inclement weather (like snow) past September. Sam, our Austin Adventures guide, kept checking its status everyday for us. But if you get lucky and it’s open during fall, another benefit is you’ll practically have the entire highway to yourself! We only passed a couple cars the entire time we were on the highway.
I’ve seen photos of Beartooth Pass during peak times, like summer, and you have to wait for your turn to look out at scenic overlooks, for instance, because of the amount of people there. You have the advantage of slightly more daylight during summer, however, with some more sunshine on your side.
We didn’t experience crowds during our late September experience, when the sun sets just past 7:00pm.
Quick Resources to Find Out if Beartooth Pass is Open or Closed
Montana’s Official State Website is a good place to check if it’s open or closed. (Their alerts page is helpful too.) And, as their site indicates on the right hand column of the same hyperlink, when you’re in the area you can dial 511 for road conditions.
If it’s winter through early spring in the area (which is late October through mid-May) it’s probably closed.
Beartooth Highway Terrain and Geography
It’s no surprise that Beartooth Highway is mountainous, as it’s park of the Rocky Mountains. It’s meandering slopes and winding roads are part of the fun of the journey.
The good news is, all of Beartooth Highway is paved.
It’s a one lane highway in either direction. (Two lanes total: One east to west beginning in Cooke City and ending in Red Lodge, Montana. And the other lane running vice versa, in the other direction.)
The road goes through Wyoming, as it dips under Montana’s southern border into its neighboring state.
It also goes through three forests:
- Custer National Forest
- Gallatin National Forest (a sign that says, “Entering Gallatin National Forest Beartooth Scenic Byway” can be found at Silver Gate, past the Northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park, which is near Cooke City.)
- Shoshone National Forest
Beartooth Highway Elevations
- The elevation at one end of the highway, in Red Lodge, Montana is just over 5,500 feet.
- The highway’s summit is over 10,000 feet elevation.
- Beartooth Mountain’s peak is over 12,000 feet.
- The end of Beartooth Highway at Cooke City is at an elevation of about 7,600 feet.
Maps of Beartooth Pass
If you are looking for maps of the scenic byway here are a few links:
- A really cool way to view it is on Google Maps, in a 3D satellite view.
- It’s helpful to understand the key points of interest along this All-American road too.
- And this map is useful to different perspective and point of view of the bends the highway travels.
Tips for Driving Beartooth Highway
After having been on one of the most famous American Scenic Byways, we have some helpful tips that will assist in your journey:
- It’s a winding highway – stay alert and drive the speed limit.
- You don’t have to drive the entire length of the Beartooth Highway. You can turn around at various points. So if you only have two hours, for instance, start at one entrance, then turn around an hour into the drive to go back.
- It’s likely you need to go back to where you started because you’ll want to reach your hotel again or wherever you’re staying. (Unless Beartooth Pass is the road you’re taking to move on to your next destination, like if you’re traveling from Cooke City, Montana to Cody, Wyoming.) Keep this in mind when you’re allotting driving time.
- Take a jacket! Even if you think it’s warm outside when you start the drive, it changes elevations and can get cold (and windy) quickly. You can see snow there in June, which is considered “spring” in this alpine climate.
- Wear good shoes. You may be in a car but there are plenty of opportunities to get out and walk around. You’re going to be thankful you wore good travel shoes.
- Plan extra time to stop along the way – we stopped several times to take photos and enjoy scenic views.
- Get gas ahead of time! Don’t rely on a stop for fuel on the highway, just at the start and end. (Though you can go to Top of the World for fuel in a pinch, which is somewhat halfway along Beartooth Pass, though slightly closer to Cooke City by a few miles.)
- Be prepared for extreme weather, including blizzards.
- Leave enough time to reach your destination during daylight if you don’t like driving in the dark.
- Remember that it’s not a straight drive like highways near your home may be. If I’m home and I have to travel 60 miles it could take me less than an hour. But on Beartooth Highway it can take HOURS for the reasons we’ve listed here, including weather, curves of the road, if it’s peak tourist season, and scenic stops along the way.
- Take snacks and water if you may get hungry or thirsty. (But remember there aren’t too many bathrooms along the road either.)
A Highlight of Beartooth Pass and the Best Restroom on the Drive: Rock Creek Vista Point
We didn’t drive the entire length of the highway because we didn’t have enough time in our schedule. However, our Austin Adventures guide, Sam, had driven it several times and could attest to Rock Creek Vista Point’s restroom being the best along the length of 68 (almost 69) miles.
If you need to use a restroom this is where you’ll want to do it! And again, just a reminder there aren’t many along the highway, regardless. (Though there is another one at Top of the World resort, which is somewhat halfway along the highway.)
The photo below is of the walkway that went from the area where the “Rock Creek Vista Point” sign by the restrooms is, out to the scenery overlooking the gorgeous nature that surrounded us.
Reaching the Summit of Beartooth Pass at 10,947 Feet
We didn’t drive the entire pass but our guide was sure to get us to the best scenery and markers. Including one of the best highlights of Beartooth Highway, the summit sign at 10,947 feet. Was it cold? Yes. Was it windy? Yes.
Unfortunately it’s not very scenic, right? But hey, we made it! And have photos to prove it.
If you’re curious what the orange sticks are, they are for snow plows. The snow gets so high sometimes (above twenty feet, even) and buries everything around it. The orange sticks help plows find their way, including where the sides of the road and signs are.
We saw poles like this all over Yellowstone National Park too.
Top of the World General Store, Gas Station and Motel
There is a tiny resort along Beartooth Highway, called Top of the World. It sits at an elevation of 9,400 fee. And, though it has changed ownership a few times, it’s been family owned and operated since it opened in 1934, two years before the highway was finished.
They carry groceries, alcohol, souvenirs like pins, patches, hats and stickers. You can buy a fishing license here or refuel your vehicle. They have a bathroom as well.
You can also rent the following sporting equipment: canoes, paddle boats, fishing rods and reels.
If you’re at Top of the World, you are in Wyoming. You’re also 38 miles from Red Lodge, Montana, 25 miles from Cooke City and 30 miles to the Northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
Picture-Perfect Scenery: Highlights of Beartooth Highway with the Sun Setting
It was breathtaking to see the sunset reflected on the lake and we neared the end of our drive. It was something spectacular to behold as we stood in awe of the Earth’s beauty. (Which is why we must all work to save the planet! It’s the only one we’ve got.)
We got back to where we started, at Cooke City, just after the sun completely set. It was perfect.