This post is one I’ve been looking forward to writing for a long time, because I get to talk about one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been: The Beartooth Plateau.
The Beartooth Plateau is located high in the Beartooth Mountains, reaching a maximum elevation of nearly 11,000 feet (3350 m). The Beartooth Mountains – named for a pointy, canine-shaped mountain called the Bear’s Tooth – are located in south-central Montana and north-central Wyoming.
Numerous jagged, rocky peaks tower above the expanse of the plateau, giving rise to an incredibly beautiful and fragile ecosystem. Here in the Beartooth Mountains, snow persists year round. Between the wind and the altitude, even a summertime visit requires a sweatshirt. Wintertime visits are rare, as the plateau is buried under many feet of snow from mid-October to Memorial Day Weekend.
Fortunately, for those of us who want to venture up to 11,000 feet, there is a way to do so. The Beartooth Highway (US Highway 212) climbs up and over the plateau and provides miles of beautiful scenery and incredible views. From the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park, Highway 212 travels through Cooke City, MT before beginning its ascent to the top of the plateau. It’s a long and steep – but absolutely beautiful – drive to the top, and there are plenty of pullouts at which to stop and enjoy the views.
From Cooke City, the road climbs 2800 feet (850 m) in 12 miles (19 km) as it crosses from Montana into Wyoming. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart, nor those not comfortable driving steep, curvy mountain roads. This is a pretty drastic rise in elevation, so be mindful of the fact that the sun is more intense and the air is thinner up on top. I’ve been to the plateau three or four times and I still tend to underestimate the intensity of the weather up there.
As the road begins to climb, it initially passes by two waterfalls – Crazy Creek Falls and Lake Creek Falls. Crazy Creek Falls can be seen with a short hike upstream from the parking area, while Lake Creek Falls actually goes underneath the road.
There are many overlooks as the road continues its ascent, including a turn off that leads up to the Clay Butte Fire Lookout Tower. Today it’s a visitor center, and views from the tower are expansive.
Next comes the lakes for which the Beartooth Plateau is so well known. Hundreds of lakes dot the landscape, many of which are visible from the roadway. Some can also be reached on foot with just a short walk. The most visited are some of the largest – Beartooth Lake and Island Lake. However, we’ve walked down to some of the smaller ones too and each lake is beautiful in its own right.
Don’t forget to stick your feet in and experience the water of a high elevation lake.
(Also, to avoid contaminating the lakes it’s good practice to clean any lotions, bug sprays, etc. off your skin before touching or entering the water.)
It’s funny – we were standing at the edge above the lakes in the previous photo, using binoculars to try to make out the three mountain goats way down by the lake… and then turned around to realize there were a whole bunch of them standing no more than 50 feet (15 m) from us
Because of the altitude, wildflowers don’t reach their peak till mid-July to mid-August up here. But when that peak arrives, thousands of flowers color the landscape, including brilliant blue forget-me-nots.
The west summit of Beartooth Pass is the highest point along the highway, at 10,947 feet (3337 m). Up here, wind is a guarantee. Assuming the weather is behaving, incredible views are a guarantee as well. I don’t even have the words to describe the beauty. I’ll just let my photos explain it to you.
Heading down from the pass to the east, the road loses elevation much more quickly than it gained it. There are a lot of switchbacks as the road descends and crosses back into Montana. At one of these switchbacks is Rock Creek Vista Point, which provides yet another dose of amazing scenery.
This is the last major overlook along the Beartooth Highway. From here, the road continues to descend through the Custer National Forest, eventually reaching the town of Red Lodge.
A couple summers back, we actually took a detour just shy of Red Lodge and headed up West Fork Road to Rock Creek Campground. And on the way home the next morning, we took a second detour down East Rosebud Canyon.
Hopefully my photos have convinced you that the Beartooth Plateau is worth a visit. It’s conveniently located just east of Yellowstone National Park, so the two can quite easily be combined into the same road trip.
Of course, the Beartooths could be a destination of their own. There are hundreds of miles of trails – this area is a backpacker’s paradise! It’s just so rugged and unspoiled and beautiful; this is a road trip that I highly recommend.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: US Highway 212 between Cooke City, MT and Red Lodge, MT; I’ve driven the road in both directions and I can’t recommend one over the other
- Fees and passes: none
- Where to stay: There are quite a few Forest Service campgrounds along the highway – most are primitive and cost about $15 per night; some accept reservations. For hotels or other lodging, the towns on either end of the highway – Cooke City and Red Lodge – are the best options.
- Hiking: There are 100+ miles (160+ km) of trails on the plateau; bring a good map, this area is rugged and doesn’t see a lot of foot traffic so trails aren’t always well-marked. Remember that you are in grizzly country… hike in groups, make noise, and carry bear spray (and know how to use it)
- Other: Be prepared for the effects of altitude – thinner air, cooler temperatures, intense sun, and unpredictable weather. Have plenty of food, water, sunscreen, and warm clothing. And don’t forget to gas up before you set off… there are no gas stations along this stretch of road