Spring comes late to this high country. If it’s early June, bring your long underwear. Likely the snow has just been plowed from the Beartooth Highway, the road newly opened from Cooke City, Wyoming, at the Northeast Gate of Yellowstone National Park, to Red Lodge, a small town in southern Montana, a bit west of the Custer National Forest and the Little Big Horn Battlefield memorial.
The Beartooth Highway twists and turns some sixty-eight miles through the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains, a mile or two above sea level and a billion miles from hustle of city traffic and job deliverables. Thirty-plus years ago, CBS newsman Charles Kuralt, one of America’s most beloved travel journalists, dubbed the Beartooth Highway, “the most beautiful drive in America.” His accolade has been reaffirmed by Beartooth travelers ever since.
It is still early for resplendent alpine meadows, but a few brave flowers are breaking through.
We can hear the falls before we can locate the pathway carved into a peak on the south horizon
We came to Red Lodge for the wedding of craft brewmaster Sam Hoffmann, the son of one of my lifelong best friends. After the celebration, and a couple of tasty Red Lodge Ales at Sam’s Taproom, we packed it in for the night. The next day, we were off at dawn, and we were awed at what we found: Rushing mountain streams and early wildflowers just peeking out, snowcapped peaks above the tree line as we breasted the pass, and finally mirror lakes, the pilot peak and an alpine meadow with a massive buffalo, looking irritated that we were invading his space.
The Beartooth is home to at least 20 peaks towering over 12,000 feet, sparkling, primeval alpine lakes reflecting cumulus cloudscapes that stretch towards the heavens, countless alpine wildflowers, chilly streams and waterfalls swollen with runoff from the first snowmelt. Not surprisingly, there were also a few dozen hearty souls braving early spring conditions to ski, to bike, or just to venture out and be awed by, and one of a half-dozen vistas along one of the most stunningly beautiful four-hour road-trips in North America.
The top of the world meets the skirt of the sky
Alpine’s Lake still locked in winter’s grip
We stopped to talk with bicyclists clunking around the rest area in their studded shoes. The bikers climbed up the slopes in knots of five or eight, stopping at turnouts, partly for a bite or drink of water, but like us, to marvel at the sweep of majesty looking into the Beartooth mountain range stretching out north into the Gallatin national forest. Nice people. With time to talk. Locals mostly, but people still drawing succor from a raw beauty where mankind’s heavy hand has not marked the land. ;
Later, we stopped to chat with a couple of guys who were loving Beartooth skiing. They said conditions were ‘’perfect,” and the& “rockin” downhill was worth the rigorous climb up. There was no lodge, no parking lot, no lift. Just the waking mountains, and the exhilarating free descent in an envelope of white light. Here, where the Great Spirit inspired Shoshone, Crow and Blackfeet for hundreds of years, it is impossible not to feel the Grace of the Creator as your feet hit the ground, a cool breath of air nips your ears, and your eyes feast looking out across the top of the world.
By the end of day, we had traveled about forty miles as the crow files (crows were not flying at this altitude), almost seventy miles with the switchbacks, and nearly a mile vertically, though multiple climate zones. Each turn seemed to present different views, many breathtaking, each a treat for the senses. I wasn’t driving, so I had the best of the trip. It was a high-country meditation—at once relaxing and deeply satisfying, and at the same time, an energizing experience in the present tense. At the end, there was Yellowstone, but that is a different story. What we learned on this day was that the Beartooth Highway is a joy unto itself, in its beauty, its intensity and its serenity.