Classic Roads: Beartooth Country Ride

Sep 19, 2017 View Comments by

Every summer in Montana, for a few months, a window opens. The snow melts (mostly), the sun comes out, and wildflowers push up through the dirt. It’s the perfect time to ride.

Starting from the small town of Columbus, MT, perched on the banks of the Yellowstone River, this route takes you on lesser-known scenic highways south, passing delightful Old West hamlets before hooking up with the Beartooth All-American Road (also known as the Beartooth Highway, or simply Route 212). While the route only covers 120 miles, we recommend setting aside a few days to enjoy a leisurely pace. This is one of the most beautiful pass roads in America, in our opinion, and Montana and Wyoming are steeped in mining, gold, trapping, and Native American history. Beartooth Highway itself, built mostly between 1932 and 1936, was a feat of engineering that continues to offer access to Yellowstone National Park through some of the most remote wilderness in the country.

While the highway is generally open from Memorial Day to mid-October, severe weather is always possible. Pack warm layers, avoid strenuous exercise at high altitudes, and stay vigilant about weather. Montana DOT travel info maps and apps are available at

Points of Interest:

1. Montana Highway 78. This beautiful stretch skirts the northern edge of the Beartooth Range and parallels the Stillwater River. You’ll pass waterways, ancient cliffs, dramatic canyons, woodlands, and quaint side-of-the-road barns and buildings.

2. Red Lodge, MT. Nestled between glaciers and plains, this charming community of less than 2,200 was settled in the 1800s. Blanketed in snow in the winter, it’s a beautiful getaway in the summer, with a historic downtown perfect for strolling.

3. Rock Creek Vista Point. At an elevation of approximately 9,000 feet, this overlook is tucked into some of the most serious switchbacks on the Beartooth Highway. From here, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of Rock Creek Canyon.

4. Gardner Lake. Stretch your legs on the Beartooth Loop National Recreation Trail. The 10-mile path traverses a peaceful alpine landscape. It’s also a great location for viewing Bears Tooth, the towering pyramidal spire that is the mountains’ namesake. In mid-July, wildflowers bloom on the shores of the lake.

5. Beartooth Pass. The pass, at nearly 11,000 feet, is one of the world’s highest. Turnouts let you breathe in crisp mountain air while viewing snowcapped peaks and flowering meadows. Remember though: severe weather is always possible. Plan accordingly.

6. Beartooth Lake. This sparkling high-mountain lake lies in the shadow of Beartooth Butte, once part of an ancient seabed. It’s an excellent spot for hiking, fishing, and camping—though campgrounds fill up quickly in the summer.

7. Clay Butte Lookout. Built in 1942 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Clay Butte Lookout gives visitors a glimpse into how a fire lookout functioned 60 years ago. The refurbished lookout has a museum and observation deck and is staffed by knowledgeable volunteers.

8. Chief Joseph Scenic Byway. The Chief Joseph Scenic Highway (Route 296) connects to Route 212 and is your chance to take a stunning side trip. The ride will take you along the Clarks Fork Yellowstone River, accompanied by an array of wildlife.

9. Colter Pass. Back on 212, you’ll ride along the Clarks Fork River toward Colter Pass, with rugged Pilot and Index Peaks to the south, before rejoining civilization in the mining towns of Cooke City and Silver Gate, your ticket to Yellowstone.

Text: Lynn Crothers
Photography: Florian Neuhauser


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