Montana Scenic Drive: Beartooth Highway

Beartooth Highway (U.S. 212) offers travelers the ultimate high country  experience. Beartooth Highway travels through the Custer, Shoshone, and Gallatin National Forests, and eventually ends in Yellowstone National Park.

Since its completion in 1936, the highway has provided millions of visitors with a rare opportunity to see the transition from a lush forest ecosystem to alpine tundra in the space of a few miles. The Beartooths are one of the highest and most rugged areas in the lower 48 states, with 20 peaks higher than 12,000 feet in elevation. Glaciers are found on the north flank of nearly every mountain peak higher than 11,500 feet in these mountains.

Archaeological Qualities of Beartooth Highway

Archaeologists have found numerous small, limited-use camps here that offer isolated finds and resource extraction sites. Because of the specimens found in the camps, the location of the camps, and even the frequency of the camps, archaeologists believe the area was used for spiritual purposes rather than primarily for food (which was previously thought).

Even though Native Americans dwelt in various places throughout present-day Montana and Wyoming, archaeological evidence from the Beartooth Mountains is somewhat limited. The high elevation most likely restricted living there on a permanent basis.

There is only a short time during the summer to hunt and gather plants specially adapted to high elevations before the cold returns. The rest of the year, deadly weather conditions contribute to making it a hostile environment. Coming here, rather than staying in the fertile plains in the low country, can mean only that the steep mountains held deep significance for Native Americans.

Qualities of Beartooth Highway

The Beartooth Highway's most important cultural value is the chance to appreciate some of the activities that flourish in natural environments. After understanding the people's occupations and interests in this part of Montana and Wyoming, visitors often leave with a longing to return to the simple yet strenuous life found here.

Some of the locals' occupations include ranchers, lumberjacks, sports enthusiasts, and anglers. These and other similar activities thrive today along the Beartooth Highway, continuing a long tradition of using the natural resources of these public lands.

Qualities of Beartooth Highway

The first recorded travel across the Beartooth Pass area occurred in 1882, when General Sheridan with a force of 129 soldiers and scouts (and 104 horses and 157 mules) pioneered and marked a route across the mountains from Cooke City to Billings. A year later, Van Dyke, a packer, modified the trail and located a route off the Beartooth Plateau into Rock Creek and Red Lodge. Van Dyke's trail was the only direct route between Red Lodge and Cooke City until the Beartooth Highway was constructed in 1934 and 1935. Remnants of Van Dyke's trail are visible from the Rock Creek Overlook parking lot, appearing as a Z on the mountain.

Doctor Siegfriet and other visionaries from the Bearcreek and Red Lodge communities foresaw, in the early 1900s, the value of a scenic route over the mountains to connect to

Yellowstone Park. These men spent many years promoting the construction of a road over the mountains and even began the construction of a road with hand tools and horse-drawn implements.

Other routes were surveyed from 1920 to 1925, and in 1931 President Herbert Hoover signed the Park Approach Act, which was the forerunner to the funding of the road now known as the Beartooth Highway.


A variety of theories exist on the formation of the Beartooth Mountains, but geologists generally agree that the mountains resulted from an uplifting of an archean block of metamorphic rocks that were eroded, flooded with volcanic lava on the southwest corner, and covered with glaciers. Seventy million years of formation went into making this section of the Rocky Mountains.

The Palisades that stretch along the Beartooth Front were first sedimentary rocks deposited as flat-lying beds in an ancient sea. Thrust skyward, they have become conspicuous spires. Pilot and Index Peaks are the remainders of an extensive volcanic field that came into existence 50 million years ago.

Yellowstone National Park has been an active volcanic center for more than 15 million years. Erosional forces are still at work. Glaciers have shaped the mountains into the range they comprise today. The glaciers edged their way down just 10,000 years ago. Younger rocks are the sources of coal exploited by the early settlers of Red Lodge.

The Stillwater Complex, a body of igneous magma formed along the northern edge of the mountain range 2.7 million years ago, is one of the rarest and least understood geologic occurrences in the world. It is the site of the only source of the platinum group of metals in the United States.

View Enlarged Image This map details highlights of Beartooth Highway.
View Enlarged Image This map details highlights of Beartooth Highway.


Recreational opportunities are abundant in the area traversed by the Beartooth Highway. You can cross-country ski on the snowfields in June and July or hike across the broad plateaus and on Forest Service trails (some of which are National Recreation Trails).

Camp, picnic, or fish for trout in the streams and lakes adjacent to the highway. View and photograph nature at its finest, including wildflowers and wildlife (moose, Rocky Mountain goats, mule deer, black bears, grizzly bears, marmots, and pikas).You can even visit a guest ranch, take a guided horseback trip from Cooke City, bicycle, and downhill ski on the headwalls

If you enjoy skiing, each summer in June and July, the Red Lodge International Ski Race Camp is conducted on the north side of the East Summit on the Twin Lakes Headwall. This camp is for aspiring Olympic-caliber skiers and provides a viewing opportunity for highway travelers.

Each summer, the Red Lodge Chamber of Commerce sponsors a one-day, unannounced "Top of the World Bar" in a snowbank at or near the West Summit and provides complimentary nonalcoholic beverages, horse rides, photos at the bar, and on occasion even a look at a live pink elephant.

Find more useful information related to Montana's Beartooth Highway:

  • Cooke City: Find out what there is to do in this city along Beartooth Highway.
  • Scenic Drives: Are you interested in scenic drives beyond Montana? Here are more than 100 scenic drives throughout the United States.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.

More to Explore