THE BEARTOOTH HIGHWAY

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Sign at the top of the pass that marks the summit of the Beartooth Highway
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This is how the sign looks in August after all the snow melts (I snagged this photo from the Internet)

Monday, June 4, 2018

After ten days in Gardiner, we said our goodbyes yesterday and started our long trek back to Georgia. It was the first time during our entire trip that I did not want to leave the place we stayed. Maybe it was because I knew we were leaving to go back home, or maybe it was simply because I fell in love with Gardiner. It is not the prettiest town I’ve ever visited, but there is something about the tiny hamlet that draws you in and makes you want to be a part of the community.

Since we missed the Beartooth Highway while we were in Gardiner, we decided to spend a couple of days in Billings, MT. We are staying at the Billings Village RV Park close to I-90, so we’ll be making the scenic drive from the eastern terminus in Red Lodge, instead of the western terminus in Cooke City. The highway begins and ends in Montana, but a large portion lies within the northwest corner of Wyoming.

Clearing the highway is a monumental task that takes about eight weeks to complete. Crews install snow poles along the edges of the road each fall as a guide for the following spring, when the road is blanketed in up to 30 feet of snow. When the poles become buried or knocked down during the Beartooths’ harsh winters, determining the location of the roadbed is often a matter of experience. The dozen or so members of the plowing crew use Snowcats equipped with plows to shave the top layers of snow until the heavier blades can begin punching through the denser, compacted layers underneath. Behind those massive snowplows, equally massive snow blowers churn through the ridges of snow to push them off the road.

This morning we drove to Red Lodge to begin our trek on what has been heralded as one of the most scenic drives in America The 68-mile stretch of road affords stunning views of the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains, climbing to an astounding 10,947 feet above sea level.

In June 13, 2002, the Beartooth Highway earned the prestigious designation of All-American Road. To receive this designation, a road must possess characteristics of national significance in at least two of the following intrinsic qualities:

  1. Scenic
  2. Archaeological
  3. Cultural
  4. Historic
  5. Natural
  6. Recreational

According to the Federal Highway Administration, “The road or highway must also be considered a ‘destination unto itself.’ That is, the road must provide an exceptional traveling experience so recognized by travelers that they would make a drive along the highway a primary reason for their trip.”

I guess they’re right. We did spend two nights in Billings for the sole purpose of driving the Beartooth Highway, after all.

As you leave the valley floor, the road snakes up the mountainside in a series of tight turns and switchbacks, passing snowbanks 15 to 20 feet high in some places. There is a ski area on top of the Beartooth Plateau near the summit. Two Poma lifts deliver skiers to the top of a steep headwall. It’s strange to see people snow skiing in June.

At the top of the pass, the temperature was in the thirties. The wind was so strong it kept whipping the hood of my jacket off my head. I finally gave up and pulled on my knit cap. The snow was so deep the picture I took of the sign that marks the top of the pass did not capture the elevation from my vantage point. However, there was a very nice man standing in the bed of his truck snapping pictures who offered to take a photo for me. He had no idea how much that meant to me, since I had just carved my late son and late grandson’s initials into the snowbank near the sign. I know they will be gone in a month or two, when the temperatures warm up enough to melt the snow off the summit, but that memory is etched in my brain in inedible ink.

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Welcome sign near Red Lodge, MT
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A scene from the valley floor
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One of those tight turns I mentioned
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The name “Beartooth” comes from a Crow name, Na Piet Say, meaning “the bear’s tooth” and refers to the pyramid-like granite spire that juts from the Beartooth plateau.
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One of the many switchbacks as you wind your way up the pass
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A marmot in the Alpine Tundra above the tree line
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One of the numerous Alpine lakes

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