Scenic Drive: Chief Joseph Highway
Montana and Wyoming are not only known for their beautiful national parks, they also share one of the most spectacular scenic drives in America: the Beartooth Highway. We drove this incredible stretch of U.S. Route 212 several times last year while we were staying at the northern end of the route in Red Lodge, Montana, and each time we climbed the switchbacks and descended into the valleys, we were blown away by the breathtaking views in every direction.
Spring comes late in these towering mountains, and the craggy peaks were covered with snow during our late June to early July visit last year. The 10,947-foot Beartooth Pass had been open for a few weeks before we got there, but a late blizzard had blown in and closed the pass for a few days right before our arrival. When it reopened, the pinnacles were covered with a fresh layer of snow. After climbing some steep switchbacks from Red Lodge to the first overlook at Rock Creek Pass, we joined the throngs of excited tourists along the pretty stone walls of the overlook to get photos.
Just a little farther along on the drive, the snow became thick on the ground. It had been warm down in Red Lodge, so I was wearing shorts, but we were now surrounded by a winter wonderland of snow. A lift was running, and skiers coursed down the mountains. Because this highway is closed all winter, Beartooth Basin Summer Ski Area doesn’t open until Memorial Day, but the thrill of warm-weather skiing in this dazzling setting is something skiers look forward to all year.
Leave from Red Lodge onto the Beartooth Highway
The Beartooth Highway extends 68 miles south and west from Red Lodge to the northeastern entrance of Yellowstone National Park, but there is so much to see with every passing mile that we drove portions of it out and back several times, reaching a further destination with each trip. Not only is there jaw-dropping mountain scenery, but the vivid blue alpine lakes are spectacular on this National Scenic Byways All-American Road.
We found the best time to leave Red Lodge was around 6 in the morning, in part to beat the tourist traffic on the highway but also to catch the crystal-clear lakes before the wind stirred the surface. Mirror images of the surrounding mountains shimmered in the depths of Long Lake, Little Bear Lake and Beartooth Lake as we passed early in the morning. When we returned again in the afternoon, the reflections had vanished into a million ripples as zephyrs ruffled the water.
Standing atop the Rock Creek Vista Point, we had 360-degree views across the majestic landscape of white snow dotted with dark pines and royal blue lakes. At Lake Creek Falls, we were surprised by the thunderous sound of the wildly frothing water as it roared over the rocks. Yet Clarks Fork Picnic Area was as serene and tranquil a riverside setting in the mountains as we could imagine.
Between outings on the Beartooth Highway, we strolled the charming town of Red Lodge. Classic Western storefronts lined the main street. We savored delicious Mexican food at Bogart’s and stopped in at Coffee Factory Roasters for a cuppa joe on the mornings we didn’t do an early drive. Back Alley Metals displayed beautifully crafted metalwork for sale, and cleverly named Lewis and Bark’s Outpost was a fun place for pet lovers.
Nearby, we enjoyed a leisurely walk around Wild Bill Lake, created by William Kurtzer back in 1902 by building a dam and water-diversion system to fill a glacial depression. He stocked the lake with fish, built an outdoor dance platform and heated a swimming hole, all with a commercial intent for tourists. The lake has been restored and restocked now, although the dance platform and heated swimming area are gone. It is a peaceful place to reflect while walking on a dirt path under a canopy of trees.
Celebrating the Spirit of Cody
About 50 miles into the Beartooth Highway drive, we saw a turnoff for the Chief Joseph Highway, Wyoming Highway 296, and decided to explore that scenic road as well. It follows a southeasterly course through the mountains from the Beartooth Highway. Since we had been enjoying our repeat drives on the Beartooth Highway, we decided to continue down to Cody and use the historic town as a home base for our fifth-wheel trailer to take multiple drives on the Chief Joseph Highway in our pickup. However, before we had a chance to get back on that magnificent road, we found ourselves swept up in Cody’s spirited Fourth of July celebration.
Cody Stampede Centennial
The Cody Stampede celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, July 1 through 4, bringing high-stepping horses, rodeo queens, marching bands and parade floats to the streets of this lively Western-frontier town. The main events are the nightly PRCA-sanctioned rodeos with hundreds of steer wrestlers, barrel racers, and bull and bronco riders vying for a piece of the $400,000 purse. Rounding out the festivities are live music, arts and crafts, and Fourth of July fireworks, along with three parades down Sheridan Avenue.
Unlike most towns that have a single Independence Day parade, Cody had three, one each day of the long weekend. On July 4, we found a place on the sidewalk to watch the biggest of the parades, and we weren’t disappointed. From the traditional honoring of local dignitaries and military veterans to noisy fire engines, an array of lively high school marching bands and little kids scrambling for candy thrown onto the pavement, the town was full of patriotic festivity and excitement.
Local rodeo royalty from the Cody Stampede joined Miss Rodeo Mississippi (later crowned Miss Rodeo America) to stride by in full regalia on their horses, while a local favorite, the 82-years-young Pink Lady with the Pink Poodle, walked past, waving to her fans and flashing a radiant smile.
Cody brands itself the Rodeo Capital of the World and has a long tradition in ranching. Many residents have roots that go back to the earliest homesteaders. Several parade floats featured descendants of families that settled the area ages ago, including the Fales who were celebrating a century since their ancestors arrived in Wyoming in 1918. A string of colorful antique cars were a fun reminder of what was on the road in Yellowstone National Park 100 years ago. Then a stagecoach rolled by with modern-day descendants of the Wells and Fargo families riding in it.
One of the town’s more unusual tourist attractions is the Cody Firearms Experience, an indoor shooting range where visitors can try out all kinds of antique guns, from flintlocks to muskets to black-powder revolvers. Perhaps the most tantalizing experience is firing a few shots from the 1862 Gatling gun. We had seen this predecessor of the machine gun at the shooting range but were surprised and delighted when it appeared on a float in the parade.
A man in period costume stood behind it, firing blanks. Thick smoke rose with every ear-splitting blast.
Leave from Cody on the Chief Joseph Highway
Cody is much bigger than Red Lodge, and there is enough going on to keep visitors busy all summer. But our priority was to get out on the Chief Joseph Highway and see the scenery. Beginning about 17 miles northwest of Cody at the junction of Wyoming highways 120 and 296, the Chief Joseph Highway starts its 46 miles of dramatic switchbacks and ever-changing views.
As we rounded a bend, we were shocked to see a huge outcropping of red rocks, as if a piece of southern Utah had been planted in the mountains of Wyoming. Frequent deluges of rain throughout the spring had turned the vegetation on the hillsides near the red rocks a vibrant green so that from a distance it looked like the flanks of the sheer red-rock walls were covered with moss.
At Dead Indian Summit Overlook, we were treated to picturesque mountain views that seemed to go on forever into the distance. We returned to this overlook a few days later just before dawn to watch the sunrise as the sky turned soft shades of pink and orange.
The sun rose behind us, slowly lighting the mountaintops. Steep switchbacks took us down into the valleys below the soaring peaks and onto Sunlight Creek Bridge, the highest bridge in Wyoming. On both sides of the span were lovely spots to walk around and soak in the views, followed by a picnic lunch on the wide flat rocks.
We were exploring the Chief Joseph Highway at the peak of wildflower season, and on several outings we pointed our truck down some of the dirt roads that head off the highway into the flower-filled fields and forests. The abundant rain in the previous months resulted in a veritable eruption of colorful blossoms everywhere. Flowers of every imaginable hue were blooming, from red Indian paintbrush to violet lupine to tiny magenta wildflowers and big yellow daisies.
We were in heaven as we crouched down to capture the floral display with our cameras. The only downside was that we weren’t the only ones loving the flowers. Flying and biting bugs of all kinds not only swarmed the plants but swarmed us as well.
Back on the Beartooth Highway
After the Chief Joseph Highway met up with the Beartooth Highway, we continued west to Cooke City and Silver Gate, Montana, on the Beartooth. These tiny villages lie within a few miles of each other, just east of Yellowstone’s northeastern gate. A handful of small motels and restaurants make this a favorite destination. Unfortunately, the popularity of the national park and the diminutive size of the towns can make it difficult to find a table for a meal.
We were discouraged on three occasions when we went in search of lunch and weren’t served after sitting at a table on an outdoor patio for an hour or were advised at the door that the wait to be seated would be more than an hour. If you go, be sure to time your restaurant meals for off-peak hours. Fortunately, both the Chief Joseph Highway and Beartooth Highway have exquisite pullouts where you can spread out a picnic and dine with a multimillion-dollar view.
We were so bewitched by this part of the country that we already have plans to return. If your RV travels take you toward Yellowstone, be sure to explore these two scenic highways and spend some time in the charming towns of Red Lodge, Cody, Cooke City and Silver Gate.
Where to Stay and Play
Most RV parks and public campgrounds along the Beartooth and Chief Joseph highways are open seasonally, with opening and closing dates dependent on the weather. This is grizzly country, so not all campgrounds are open to trailers with canvas sides. U.S. Forest Service campgrounds generally do not offer hookups, and many sites are first-come, first-served. Commercial RV parks offering RV hookups and more amenities take reservations.
RED LODGE, MONTANA
FOREST SERVICE CAMPGROUNDS
CUSTER GALLATIN NATIONAL FOREST
Colter Campground, 2 miles east of Cooke City. Hard-side trailers only.
Parkside Campground, 12 miles south of Red Lodge. Maximum trailer length: 40 feet. Reservations: six months in advance.
Soda Butte Campground, 1 mile east of Cooke City. Hard-side trailers only.
SHOSHONE NATIONAL FOREST
Beartooth Lake Campground, 23 miles east of Cooke City, 40 miles west of Red Lodge. Maximum trailer length: 32 feet.