Had I known last September 2019, when I drove the Bear Tooth Mountain Highway from Billings Montana, on my way to Yellowstone National Park days before it would close for the season due to snow at high elevations, that America would be ravaged by a pandemic when it reopened in May 2020, I’m not sure I would have done anything differently. Except perhaps savor a little longer the engineering that made such a road possible, the glorious lookouts, and baron beauty of the plateau the Bear Tooth conquers, before diving towards the valley and entrance to Yellowstone. The fact that as a Canadian this experience would be denied just 6 months later by a closed border would have been unthinkable, and yet here we are. Welcome to 2020.
Revisiting the Bear Tooth and Yellowstone for this post is somewhat poignant, in that it’s as much a guide of what to see and how to do it, as it is a reframed appreciation for freedom and serendipity behind the wheel, grasping opportunities and wrestling them into memorable experiences. I had been at a conference in Billings, and was determined to make the most of a two day visit to the park via this legendary highway, seeing sites, hiking, and racking up some serious miles on the rental car.
The Bear Tooth Highway, constructed in 1932, is a 68-mile engineering feat that rivals the Grossglockner in the Austria Alps for an epic drive of twists, turns and switchbacks that climb to a 10,000-foot alpine plateau host to over 1000 little lakes. The road itself goes through Montana and Wyoming and crosses Custer Gallatin and Shoshone National Forests. The Bear tooth is only open in the summer season, with closure mid-October to May. While there are several look outs, the Beartooth Pass Summit, at 10,947ft is not to be missed, if for no other reason to snap a photo that you made it, and didn’t get blown away capturing it. Yes, the plateau is VERY windy. Red Lodge, a short strip of small-town amenities, is the last stop before the Bear Tooth begins, when heading west from Billings. Cooke City is the one-street town on the west side, just short of the North East entrance to Yellowstone. It’s a magnificent drive in either direction, having driven both, with the views hardly a repeat, just magic from a different angle.
While I’m sure I appeared to the locals like an Australian who just saw their first squirrel in Stanley Park, my bison radar was shouting “stop the car” at the first site of these mammoth creatures’ roadside, not more than two miles after having entered the park.
But I was soon to learn they love hanging out by the road, and frequently cause traffic jams with people either taking photos, or genuinely being blocked. Not much you can do to move a bison, except wait.
I took the Yellowstone Scenic Drive through the Lamar Valley, where there were many more bison and elk sightings too. At Tower-Roosevelt intersection by Tower Falls, I headed south along the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, towards Canyon Village. The canyon itself is stunning with numerous day hike options and scenic pull offs in the offering.
From Canyon Village I headed south towards Lake Village and West Thumb, which has the highway skirting Yellowstone Lake. The lake itself is vast, again with completely different scenery and recreation options with a boat kayaks or SUP to enjoy it. I could easily have spent a day hiking the canyon or out on the water if time had allowed.
Towards West Thumb cars were backing up along the road and a conservation officer with a radio was minding those that were stopped for a grizzly bear siting. Indeed, as I drove by, there was a grizzly just grazing a grassy field about 50ft from the road! Never was I so thankful for the barrier of a safe vehicle, but thrilled to be that close with the window down. Let’s just say I hope to never encounter one in the wild at that range. They are formidable. So along with bison, elk roaming fields, and a brown bear at a distance, I had added a grizzly to the wildlife spotting. It was barely after noon.
From West Thumb, I was into geyser country with lots of boiling mud pools and thermal activity. It’s remarkable to witness just how active the earths bowls are in this region, serving a reminder of how not only the area was formed, but how it could be reclaimed in the future, should mother nature become angry.
Since I had only planned to spend two days in the park, I made a few stops to hike around the thermal activity areas deemed safe, and then hit “Old Faithful” at 6pm, with it due to blow at 6:20.
Old Faithful is one of many geysers in the area, but she has earned her name, regularly erupting every 1.5 hours. Another 1.2-mile hike in the area, and it was off to Madison, then Norris and north the Mammoth Hot Springs, all still within Yellowstone park, and then down into Gardiner, a small valley town, outside the north entrance. I had reserved a night at the Victorian Inn & Carriage House, a decently priced 15 room property just 10 minutes from the North Entrance to Yellowstone, which was lovely. I gassed up the car in town for the next days adventures, then grabbed dinner and a beer at the Iron Horse Bar and Grill across the street, before retiring for the night. It was a huge day of driving and touring, and I was keen to be rested for a big hike the following day up Mt Washburn.
The next morning I was on the road by 7am, heading back to the parks North Entrance. It was a glorious morning with the sun just starting to rise, coloring the mountainside red, with the setting full moon still in the sky over town.
I headed up to Mammoth Hot Springs, casually dodging deer and moose wandering through town, then to Tower-Roosevelt and then down to Canyon Village to rent ‘bear spray” which had been recommended by guide books. From her hut in the parking lot, the “bear spray lady” makes you watch a video and then demonstrate the “holster grab and spray test”. I passed, but was left hoping to never actually need my new-found skill.
Mt Washburn was a 15-minute drive up from Canyon Village. It had been recommended as “the hike not to miss” if you’re only going to do one, and promised to take 4hrs return. I did it in 2 3/4hrs easily with photo stops and 10 minutes at the top, so it’s evident that guide estimates vary by fitness level. I hit the trail at 9:30am, securing parking but noted a full lot upon return, so it would seem important to do this hike earlier in the day. I had the hike up largely to myself, except for a few other parties, but it definitely was more crowded coming down. The trail is wide at most points, rocky and well used. It winds through switchbacks all the way to the Tower Summit at 10,243ft. Much of Yellowstone Park and all bordering states – Montana, Wyoming and Idaho are visible from the summit. Mt Washburn is all that remains of a volcano that erupted around 640,000 years ago forming the vast Yellowstone caldera. Grizzlies flock to the Mt Washburn eastern slopes in large numbers during August and September in search of ripening white bark pine nuts. Fortunately I didn’t have any encounters as a single hiker, but I was glad to have bear spray on my hip and a bear bell making noise on my backpack. You can pick up bear bells at the grocery in Canyon Village, along with bear spray.
I was off the mountain by 12:30 and on the road to Tower-Roosevelt again, this time to drop the rented bear spray at the gas station, a welcome option, so as to not need to circle back to Canyon Village again.
From there it was back towards the North East entrance, Cooke City and the Beartooth Highway round 2.0. Driving the Beartooth in the eastern direction was equally beautiful, and a completely different experience. I stopped in Red Lodge and checked out Bone Daddies Bike Shop to get a couple souvenir t-shirts from their annual motorbike rally that takes place the third week of July. Each year the event draws over 3,500 bikers to ride the Beartooth. I got my husband a shirt with “Get your ass over the pass” which seemed a suitable keepsake for a guy who would have loved to make the drive on 2 wheels.
Montana and Wyoming were amazing states – open, wild and free, all attributes appreciated at the time, but even more so now, with many restrictions placed on us during this 2020 pandemic year. Taking in the Beartooth and Yellowstone National Park could easily be a multiple week endeavor if you were camping, as many do in the park, but it was possible to cover a lot of ground and take much of it in, just in two, admittedly long and full, days.
Yellowstone is a national gem, and the Beartooth is a must do driving experience. With closed borders this year, I hope Americans are enjoying the magic of their country close to home. It has so much to offer. For the rest of us, this road trip is worth putting on your list, once travel becomes less restricted.
Know before you go:
The Bear Tooth Mountain Highway (Hwy 212) conditions: https://wyoroad.info/pls/Browse/WRR.RoutesResults?SelectedRoute=US212
Current road conditions and notices for Yellowstone National Park: https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/parkroads.htm
Covid-19 updates for Yellowstone National Park: https://destinationyellowstone.com/covid-19-updates/
Check out available accommodations in Gardiner and Cooke City, two small towns at the entrances of Yellowstone National Park through this search link.
Or link here for camping information in US national parks, and how to obtain a reservation. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/camping/campground.htm
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