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Beartooth Highway – Northwest Corner of Yellowstone National Park, Montana/Wyoming
The Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness protects some 940,000 acres in southern Montana and northern Wyoming. At the heart of the wilderness lies the Beartooth Plateau, it is dotted with waterfalls, alpine lakes, granite peaks, tundra fields, and mountain views. It is considered as one of the most beautiful drive in America, and possibly no where else in America, you can get this close to true wilderness so close to your car.
Beartooth Highway is a 60-mile drive between the Montana towns of Cooke City and Red Lodge. There are numerous campgrounds and mountain trails help make the byway a wonderful place to spend a day or two. We took numerous short hikes and stops along the highway – below are just a few I can remember during day 1 of our visit…
We started the day from Cooke City, our 1st stop was the Lake Creek falls next to the highway; this is one of those stop and go place; we snapped a few pictures and continued East. Our second stop was the Clay Butte fire lookout tower, the last portion of the road was closed due to heavy snow. We found a trailhead not far from the gate and took a short 30 min hike from the trailhead and headed toward the meadows. The view was sublime; we were surrounded by snow capped mountains and steep alpine meadows.
Our 3rd stop was the Bear Tooth Lake, this area was fairly developed and drew more people than we had expected. The view of Beartooth Butte reflected form the lake was beautiful. We didn’t hike due to the thick woods and the swarming mosquitoes. A local told us someone got nailed by a bear nearby not long ago…true or not, we were not about to find out ourselves. There is a 3 mile trail leading to the summit of Beartooth Butte, it is accessible from the Clay Butte Lookout.
We continued East, passing the summit and stopped along numerous overlooks and soak in the views. Normally, these are views only attainable by doing some serious trekking or climbing but to be able to see so much with so little effort almost made us feel guilty.
On our drive back to Cooke City from Gardner Lake Overlook, we stopped at the West Summit Overlook and took a hike headed toward the jagged rocks about 500 feet North of the parking lot. We were careful not to step on colored rocks since these rocks contain living algae. As we gingerly trudged uphill, we found a trail leading to Northwest following the ridgeline. After about an hour of tracing the 'trail' along the ridgeline, we found the 'trail' continues as far as we the horizon and we have started to descent. We opted to trace our steps back to the parking lot and called it a day.
Tips: the mosquitoes are really big and stung me right through my shirts (2 layers); a layer of raincoat stopped the assaults. It takes very little effort to find solitude since most people do not stray far from their cars, a short hike off a trail from the parking lot and you’ll have the entire mountain to yourself. Please try to follow established trails and avoid stepping on anything that appears alive. Call park office to ensure the road is open; we visited in late June and some overlooks were still closed due to heavy snow.
Elevation: +10000 ft
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (depending how far you intent to take the side hikes)
Rating: 9 out of 10
Side Trips: A majority of ‘serious’ hikes in Yellowstone (& Grand Teton) are long, rugged and require overnight camping in the wilderness. However, there are many developed day hikes/tour bus stops worth noting, and worth a visit despite the parade of tour guide’s flags. Here are few examples to match the photos:
1) Southern – Old Faithful & nearby Fountain Paint Pot, West Thumb’s Geyser Basin & Indian Pond hike (fewer crowds) near Fishing Bridge.
2) Central – Chittenden Road, hike to Mount Washburn summit (semi-developed, fewer crowds).
3) Northwest – Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces
4) Northeast – Trout Lake hike near Pebble Creek campground (fewer crowds); this section of hwy offers many pull offs to allow the viewing of Lamar “wildlife” valley.
5) I also snuck in a photo of 3 sister peaks at Grand Teton taken by the Jenny Lake. Grand Teton offers much lesser option in terms of day hikes and is truly a hiker’s park – i.e., require overnight back country camping.