Sean Jansen

The Beartooth Highway: American's Great Ride


by Sean Jansen


The Absaroka-Beartooth Mountain range in the Custer Gallatin National Forest is a massive stretch of forest and glaciated granite peaks screaming to the sky. Boasting alpine settings of lakes, creeks, and snow capped peaks. Creating an almost literal roof over the greater Yellowstone Complex in South Central Montana, the range hosts Montana’s highest peak along with 20 of its following contestants. The Beartooth Plateau averages around 10,500 feet and is almost inhabitable for nine months of the year from its altitude and weather. And believe it or not, a 68-mile road was built going over said range all for easy access to the Northeast Section of Yellowstone National Park. 


Highway 212 runs from Red Lodge in Montana on the eastern side of the Beartooth range, going up and over the Beartooth Pass, sitting at 10,947 feet. Then continuing on down the pass into Northern Wyoming and back into Montana to Cooke City and the Northeastern Gate of Yellowstone National Park.


The road offers the general public an incredible experience in being able to see pristine high alpine habitat that boasts wildlife ranging from grizzly bear to the ever unique mountain goats. Birds of prey cruise the sky looking for marmots and the cute little pika. Jagged peaks shoot up everywhere with lakes sparkling blue from snow smelt from as early as last fall. Bright and vibrantly colored wildflowers litter the landscape virtually undisturbed by the footsteps of man.


The history of the road can be traced back to 1872 when Civil War general Phillip Sheridan decided to cross the pass by foot after an inspection tour of Yellowstone National Park. With help from a local hunter, he mentioned it was a much faster route than taking the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River. Fast forward to 1936, the road was opened to the public essentially following the literal footsteps of the General 64 years later.


Now the road has been coined by many as the trip of a lifetime. It holds the title of the, “All-American Road,” meaning it is unique and one of a kind. Also holding designation in the National Scenic Byways Program.


The road gives access to numerous outdoor activities for the adventurous souls. One can ski up on the plateau at the Beartooth Basin in the summer. Closing in and around the summer solstice depending of course on weather. But for those who enjoy the summer activities; kayaking on the numerous lakes, along with fishing those same lakes for numerous species of fish. Trails open up after the thaw of winter and mountains bikers, trail runners, hikers, and backpackers rejoice at access to untouched wilderness. The road also gives access to many campgrounds where one can spend the night and see the pass at sunrise and sunset and enjoy easy access to all the splendors the pass offers.


The road typically opens around Memorial Day in late May and depending on weather, can remain open up until Columbus Day. So for those interested, put it on your list with the few weeks left to access the road until next year.