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Beartooth Highway

Author Charles Kurault described the Beartooth Scenic Highway as “the most beautiful drive in America.” In 1989, the highway received national recognition when it was designated a National Scenic Byway. Only 52 other drives in the country share this distinction. This spectacular 65-mile drive reaches the highest drivable points in both Wyoming and Montana. Leaving Red Lodge, U.S. Hwy. 212 climbs 11,000 feet to Beartooth Pass and drops down to the northeast entrance to Yellowstone Park.

After mine closings wrecked the economy of Red Lodge, J.C.F. Siegriedt, a Red Lodge physician, lobbied the U.S. Government to rebuild the old “Black and White Trail” which ran along Rock Creek south of Red Lodge. He and O.H.P. Shelby, the local newspaper publisher persuaded the congress to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to build “approach highways” to the national parks. Herbert Hoover signed the bill, and construction began in 1931. The highway, at a cost of $2.5 million, opened on June 14, 1936.

The 64-mile corridor provides a panoramic view at the 10,942 ft. summit of peaks, varied topography, glaciers, plateaus, alpine lakes, cascading streams, wildflowers, and wildlife. The Beartooth Plateau is unique. After endless climbing you come to what appears to be an expansive plains rather than the top of a mountain range. Had you just been dropped here, you would think you were on a vast prairie filled with deep gorges. Glaciation missed this area leaving it relatively flat and smooth, unlike the jagged sculpted peaks in the distance. There are 25 features here labeled “Beartooth” all taken from the name of the conspicuous spire the Crow Indians called Na Pet Say—the “bears tooth.” At its highest points, you can play in snow fields along the highway.

Allow yourself at least three hours to cross the highway. The limitless views demand that you stop every few minutes. The winding switchbacks do not allow speed. Check your film supply before heading up. You’ll take many photos. And anticipate cool, if not cold weather at the top along with almost constant wind. Take your time and savor this trip, it’s only open a few short months of the year.

Historical Marker

Although these mountains were criss-crossed by trails used by Native Americans since prehistory, it was not until the early 20th century that many sought a permanent route over the mountains to Cooke City and Yellowstone National Park.

Beginning in 1924, a group of Red Lodge businessmen, led by Dr. J. C. E. Siegfriedt and newspaper publisher 0. H. P. Shelley, lobbied Montana’s congressional delegation to construct a road between their community and Cooke City. Because of their efforts, President Herbert Hoover signed the Park Approach Act into law in 1931. The Act funded the construction of scenic routes to the country’s national parks through federally-owned land. The Beartooth Highway was the only road constructed under the Act. Construction on the $2.5 million project began in 1932.

The Beartooth Highway is an excellent example of “Seat-of-Your-Pants” construction with many of the engineering decisions made in the field. Some 100 workers employed by five companies blasted their way up the side of the 11,000-foot plateau. The workmen gave names to many features of the road that are still used today, including Lunch Meadow, Mae West Curve and High Lonesome Ridge. The road officially opened on June 14, 1936. The spectacular Beartooth Highway is a testimonial to the vision of those who fought for its construction and a tribute to those who carved it over the mountains.

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