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Beartooth Scenic Byway

Hit the road on one of America’s most spectacular drives

Called America’s most beautiful road by no less a traveller than the late Charles Kuralt, the Beartooth Highway has viewpoints every bit as spectacular as those in neighbouring Yellowstone National Park.

With 20 peaks reaching over 12,000 feet in elevation—including Montana’s greatest, Granite Peak, at 12,799 feet—the Beartooth Mountains offer some of the highest and most rugged landscapes in the country. The road also passes through a series of ecosystems, from lush pine forests to alpine tundra, in the space of just a few miles. The mostly two-lane highway climbs in looping switchbacks from the handsome small-town tourist mecca of Red Lodge over the massive uplift of the Beartooth Plateau to tiny Cooke City, at Montana’s northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Plan to spend most of the day making this 68-mile drive; you’ll want to pull off at every scenic viewpoint to study the rugged peaks with glacier-carved cirques spilling down into U-shaped valleys.

The road crests at 10,974 feet at the aptly named  ‘Top of the World’, a photo opportunity with few rivals. From here to Cooke City are wonderful alpine meadows that, once the snow has melted (this can be as late as July), are filled with wildflowers, icy trickles of water, glistening lakes and a number of inviting trails. Be sure to take the short spur road up to the Clay Butte Lookout for magnificent views.

This uber-scenic highway is bracketed by two appealing towns. At 7,651 feet, Cooke City is remote, retaining a bit of a wild edge from its mining-camp roots, while at the base of the road, Red Lodge, a former coal-mining centre, offers lovely mountain surroundings, excellent restaurants and spring skiing at nearby Red Lodge Mountain. Both the city’s history and its newfound status as a centre for Rocky Mountain chic are represented by the Pollard Hotel. Built in 1893, it was the only brick building in the city, and it quickly became Red Lodge’s hub. Restored in the 1990s, today it offers old-fashioned Western atmosphere—the pine-panelled lobby and dining room fairly breathe turn-of-the-20th-century elegance, fused with modern comfort and convenience.

Get a feel for this country, and for how people live here today, at the 12,000-acre Lazy E-L Ranch, a working livestock operation 25 miles west of Red Lodge. The Mackays, who have owned and operated the ranch for four generations, open it up to small groups only; a family or group of eight can reserve the ranch to themselves for a week. Guests have the option of joining the ranch crew on horseback as they move cattle and perform ranch chores; exploring the glorious landscapes by fishing trout-rich creeks, hiking or mountain biking; or simply kicking back and enjoying the comforts of their historic log cabin and the dramatic mountain scenery of this mighty beautiful corner of Montana.

This trip idea can be found in:

1,000 Places to See in the United States & Canada Before You Die®

Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.

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