Is Beartooth Highway Dangerous?
Situated in the northwest region of the United States, running between Montana and Wyoming, the Beartooth Highway is one of the most beautiful drives in the country. The road twists and turns at high altitudes through the majestic Beartooth Mountains and boasts incredible views from start to finish.
Driving the Beartooth Highway takes around 2 hours and covers 70 miles. The route meanders through the stunning Absaroka and Beartooth wilderness, it also has sharp hairpin bends and steep drop-offs that some drivers may find challenging.
The Beartooth Highway is renowned as one of the most incredible and thrilling mountain drives in the whole country, but it is not without its dangers and care and consideration making the trip. Continue reading to find out what makes the route so challenging, the potential perils, and things to do to make the drive as safe and enjoyable as possible.
Where is Beartooth Highway located, and why might this drive be challenging?
The route begins on the outskirts of the mountain town of Red Lodge, Montana, and heads east through dramatic mountain scenery for 68 miles to Cooke City, close to the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
The Beartooth Highway is the highest in the Northern Rockies, surrounded by 20 mountain peaks over 12,000 feet, 10,000 mountain lakes, and 12 national forest campgrounds.
The original road was completed in 1936 and was initially a gravel track at only 14 feet wide and without guardrails, which caused many an accident as drivers often strayed into the oncoming traffic to avoid the sheer drop-offs.
While the road has improved over time, there are steep ascents and descents, with many sharp cutbacks as it twists and turns through the mountains.
The road can be daunting for nervous drivers, with much of the route at high altitudes. With ever-changing weather conditions, it is essential to be prepared for any eventuality when undertaking this route as the road can encounter winter conditions even during the summer.
There are sections of the route that are narrow, windy, and particularly steep, so it's not for the faint-hearted, and whilst the scenery and spectacular views can be distracting, it is important to remain focused and concentrate on the road ahead.
The Beartooth Mountains are home to many species, and it's possible to see Elk, deer, grizzly and black bears, mountain goats, and lions along the way. With so many blind bends and turns, be wary of animals straying into the road.
Driving on the Beartooth Highway from Red Lodge to Cooke City
The Beartooth Highway itself is a section of US Route 212 running between Montana and Wyoming and takes its name from Beartooth Peak, which has the appearance of a bear's tooth, as named by the Crow Indians, and is part of the range that lines the route.
The route itself from Red Lodge to Cooke City covers 68 miles and can be completed in around 2 hours, but you'll want to stop and savor the views so the trip can easily take much longer.
Departing Red Lodge, the route takes you past Rock Creek Resort and Wapiti Mountain before ascending to Rock Creek Vista. The Observation Site is a great place to pull over and take in the views across the stunning wilderness and surrounding mountains.
The route continues to wind its way up to Quad Creek's scenic overlook before crossing the border into Wyoming and heading through Shoshone National Forest.
After encountering more sharp cutbacks, the route reaches Beartooth Basin Summer Ski Area, before arriving at the Beartooth Pass. The Beartooth Pass Summit is the highest point on the Beartooth Highway at an elevation of 10,947 feet. Have your camera ready when you reach the summit as the views are simply breathtaking.
The route passes a number of alpine lakes before reaching the Top of the World Store close to Beartooth Lake, another excellent stop-off and a good place to buy souvenirs and additional snacks for the journey. The views are incredible in every direction.
You'll then continue past the Yellowstone Overlook and Crazy Creek Falls before passing the impressive Pilot, and Index Peak as you make your way towards Cooke City.
Things to know that can impact the drive on Beartooth Highway
Part of the Highway on the Montana side is subject to flooding, so extra care must be taken when heading through the Gallatin National Forest. Only recently the road was closed three times within a month as the flooding caused extensive road damage.
The weather will always play a factor when undertaking a trip in the mountains. Snowstorms and ice can cause problems at such altitudes, and cloud and fog can also make the journey particularly hazardous so always look at the forecast in advance and plan ahead.
Tips to drive on the Beartooth Highway in the safest way
It is a good idea to check how much fuel you have prior to your journey, and that your vehicle is in good condition. There is little opportunity to refuel along the route, so filling the tank at Red Lodge is a sensible option.
If traveling during the colder months, check that your vehicle is fitted with winter tires and, if necessary, chains. Otherwise, make sure to have them in the vehicle as it is not a place to get caught out unprepared. Given the altitude, the weather is very changeable.
You should always put safety first so do not drive in extreme winter weather conditions. Stay at the Beartooth Hideaway Inn in Red Lodge instead until it is possible to make the journey safely.
Check ahead for the local weather and traffic conditions before setting off to account for any issues or route changes.
Consider using Google Street View for a "virtual drive" to familiarize yourself with the route ahead of time. This way, you'll be well-prepared and have the opportunity to visualize your journey in advance.
If feasible, it's also beneficial to have two drivers on hand, so you can alternate and remain alert. This arrangement also allows both of you to appreciate the scenery along your trip.
If you are a nervous driver, make the journey as a passenger, or with a confident driver who is happy to take the wheel if the going gets particularly difficult.
Do take regular breaks and drive slowly to accommodate passengers who are uncomfortable driving at altitude.
As a lot of the route is at high altitude it is essential to bring along water and snacks for the journey, and it is important to keep hydrated.
Alternatives to driving yourself on the Beartooth Highway
A road trip along the Beartooth Highway is an exhilarating experience and will last long in the memory, but if you fancy enjoying the fantastic scenery without having to concentrate on the road ahead, then there are other ways to enjoy the journey.
Taking a taxi along the Beartooth Highway will allow you to sit back and savor the fantastic scenery on offer.
Red Lodge Tour & Taxi Services operates within a 150-mile radius of Red Lodge so why not let someone else tackle the hairpin bends and undulating mountain roads while you marvel at the views, and look out for the best photo opportunities?
It is also possible to travel the Beartooth Highway by bus, but not just any bus. Enjoy a truly unique journey in an open-top 1937 Model 706 that serves Yellowstone National Park.
This exclusive bus tour only accommodates 10 passengers at a time, traveling from Red Lodge to the West Summit of Beartooth Pass. You'll have plenty of time to enjoy the views as the bus only travels at 15-18 mph.
Best time to drive on the Beartooth Highway
Making the trip in summer is the best time to travel the Beartooth Highway. The road is only open from May to October, but this is no guarantee of good weather, and you can encounter winter conditions even in the height of summer given the altitude.
Make the trip early in the morning, catching a glorious sunrise over the mountains, or late in the afternoon as the road is busiest around midday. If you are a keen photographer, making the journey between 10 am-5 pm will give the best light and avoid shadows
Avoid traveling at the weekend if you want to avoid crowds, as visitor numbers and traffic are much less during the week. The route is closed during the winter months, as heavy snowfall blocks the road, sometimes reaching 26 feet deep.
This does make the route even more popular over the summer months so traffic can be heavy, and making the trip in May or October may be preferable.