America’s best drive: the Beartooth All American Road

When you think of America’s best scenic drives, a few popular stretches of road always come to mind. For instance, the Pacific Coast Highway is a popular option, as is the Overseas Highway in Florida. North Carolina is home to the Outer Banks Highway and of course the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana is incredibly scenic too. But amazing as that last road is, it turns out that it isn’t even the best drive in its own state. That honor goes to the Beartooth All American Road, a highway so beautiful, the late Charles Kuralt once called it “the most beautiful drive in America.”

Known locally as U.S. Highway 212, the Beartooth officially begins about an hours drive southwest of Billings in the small town of Red Lodge. From there, it winds up into the Absaroke Mountain Range, passing crystal clear lakes and over breathtaking vistas, while briefly drifting into, and out of, Wyoming, before descending into Cooke City, 69 miles farther down the road. At its highest point, the highway reaches 10,947 feet above sea level, well above the treeline and into the rarefied Montana air, where the views can take your breath away just as easily as the lack of oxygen.

To get the most out of the drive, you’ll want to start in Red Lodge, a small town with a lot to offer visitors. While there, you’ll want to drop by the Montana Candy Emporium to grab lots of tasty treats for the road and stop to stroll the same streets as such legendary old west figures as Calamity Jane, Butch and Sundance, and Buffalo Bill Cody. If you plan to stay in town, drop by the Pollard Hotel, which has been open since 1893 and offers incredibly comfortable and modern rooms.The more adventurous visitors will want to check out Beartooth Bike Tours, which offers a 14-mile ride, all down hill, along a winding stretch of the Beartooth Highway. It is a fun and exhilarating way to take in the scenery.After setting out from Red Lodge, you’ll begin a slow, but steady rise up into the mountains, before hitting the infamous Beartooth switchbacks that will see you gaining altitude at a much more accelerated rate. At the 21-mile mark the road climbs up to 9190 feet before arriving at Rock Creek Vista Point, a spectacular spot to stop and take photos. From that location, you will find magnificent views of the surrounding valleys that quickly plummet away from where you stand on the scenic overlook. Bring a very good camera though, as words can’t do the place justice and you’ll want to capture the sight for posterity. The views that stretch out in all directions are amongst the most picturesque you’ll find anywhere on the planet.

Continuing up the road you’ll pass a host of other places where you’ll want to stop for photo opportunities as well, including an amazing view of Hell Roaring Plateau, as well as a pair of mountain lakes surrounded by rocky rocky outcroppings. You’ll also swing past the famous Beartooth rock formation, from which the highway draws its name, and the Top of the World store, the local equivalent of the Kwiki-Mart.

After cresting the Beartooth Pass, the road begins a slow, but steady descent into Cooke City, a tiny mountain town that traces its origins back to the late 1800’s when gold miners flocked to the area seeking their fortune. This sleepy little village is home to just 90 people and is best accessed by snowmobile during the long winter months. This end of the Beartooth Highway is definitely more remote and rustic, offering up some great hiking, backpacking, and mountain biking trails during the summer and snowshoeing and cross-country skiing routes when the snow starts to fly. Outdoors enthusiasts will enjoy the fishing, hunting, and climbing as well, but be sure to turn off your cell phone when you arrive. You won’t have any kind of service anyway.

While in passing through Cooke City you’ll want to stop into the Cooke City Store, an old fashioned market that first opened in 1886. The building still uses a number of the original fixtures from the 1800’s, and the two old fashioned cash registers are a sight to see. Walking through the front door is a bit like stepping back in time, and while the merchandise may be modern, the service and hospitality is a throwback to a bygone era. Definitely a treat!

Once through Cooke City, there are only a few more miles left on the Beartooth Highway, but perhaps it saves its best secret for last. The road comes to an end at the little known, and seldom used, Northeast Entrance to Yellowstone National Park, one of the crown jewels in the National Park System. So while you’re likely to be sad to leave the beautiful Beartooth Highway behind, you’ll have a host of new adventures awaiting you in the park, including even more beautiful landscapes and spectacular opportunities to spot wildlife too.

2011 marks the 75th anniversary of the Beartooth All American Higheway. It was first opened back in 1936 and has been wowing drivers ever since. If you plan to make the drive for yourself, you had better hurry though. It will only remain open for about another month or so before winter conditions force its closure until spring. Traditionally, the road reopens on Memorial Day weekend however, offering full access to all of its natural wonders once again.