You Don’t Mess with a Mountain

Thursday, August 27

If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.

Today is take two at driving the Beartooth, located between Cooke City just outside the NE entrance of Yellowstone and Red Lodge, Montana. Early morning fog makes it hard to tell if visibility is any better this week than it was last Thursday, but as Bertha chugs over Dunraven Pass by Mt. Washburn, the fog dissipates and mountain peaks come into view. The smoke is still present but it’s much less, operation “Drive the Beartooth” is a go!

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After a brief stop in Cooke City to fill up on gas and use the, errr, porta-potties provided for paying customers only (as evidenced by the little white stickers on the doors), I leave the small tourist town behind and am officially on the Beartooth Pass Highway (Highway 212). For those who aren’t familiar with it, this is considered one of the most scenic mountain drives in the country. I’ve heard high praise of it from many-a-RVer, and I’m hoping it lives up to it’s reputation because this is going to be a 318 mile round trip for me today from Old Faithful to Red Lodge and back. Without even thinking hard I do some math in my head: 318 miles divided by 15 miles per gallon equals about 21 gallons of gas used today. At $3.30 a gallon, this drive is going to cost me about $70.

The road starts alongside Lake Creek in a picturesque little valley filled with fir and spruce and spotted with grassy meadows, so far so good. This is all part of the Shoshone National Forest, and there are several campgrounds in the valley as well as dispersed camping. The first good views are of the Absaroka range as the road climbs up the opposite side of the valley into the Beartooth.

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The higher I go, the better it gets! Just past a bridge as the road goes around a curve, a scenic pullout offers a spectacular view and some helpful information. There are three distinct rocky mountain ecosystems on this drive. The first is called Montane at the 6,000 to 8,000 elevation level, and that’s what you’re seeing in the foreground of this panorama of the Absaroka range.

Click for larger view

Click for larger view

Up, up, and more up. The road leaves the valley behind and hugs the side of a little gorge that empties out on the top of a plateau. The pictures from here and up are all Beartooth. A clear lake dominates the foreground while a stately red bluff looks on from behind – Beartooth Lake.

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427-5Even better, just in front of the lake a marmot is surprised by my arrival at the pullout. He turns to dart away and looks back over his shoulder to see what I’m going to do and I’m able to get a pretty clear picture. What a beautiful spot. There’s a Forest Service campground here by the same name, and I bet it would be a neat place to stay.

Have you noticed yet how the higher I get, the more reddish the pictures get? It’s the smoke, not thick enough to obscure the mountains but enough to tint the lighting. It’s more apparent in some photos than others, in person it lends a surreal quality to the place. Like I’ve left Wyoming and Montana far behind and am now traveling through some completely unrelated landscape.

Not far past the lake a sign proclaims “Top of the World, ¼ mile ahead”. My curiosity gets the better of me and I slow down as the group of buildings come into view. It’s a small store and RV park, they seem to be doing a pretty brisk business right now.

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Really hoping the motorcyclists didn’t linger… you’ll find out why later.

I pass a named lake before I realize it and have a chance to slow down, but there are more ahead. Two fly fisherman are casting into this sub-alpine beauty. The trees are getting more stunted and less frequent the higher the road goes and the soil is getting thinner and rockier. Those signs at the pullout farther back say that sub-alpine regions get a lot of wildflowers in early summer. It’s well past the season for wildflowers now, but the place is very different from what you find at lower elevations and therefor quite interesting.

This one didn't have a visible sign with the name on it

This one didn’t have a visible sign with the name on it

And then over 10,000 ft, alpine terrain. Here there are no trees or bushes, just grass and short plants that are low to the ground by necessity due to the harsh conditions. Winds can gust up to 100 mph, temperatures can drop to 70 degrees below zero in winter, and the growing season at this elevation is only 2-3 months long.

These pretty purple flowers were on the treeline boarder

These pretty purple flowers were on the treeline boarder

So as you can imagine, the pass isn’t open all year round. Signs at both ends will let a person know if Beartooth is open, and if chains are required or not. The park service and forest service offices in the area will also have this information as, I imagine, will a lot of the businesses in Cooke City and Red Lodge.

Almost 11,000 feet, woah.

Almost 11,000 feet, woah.

Even now in late summer, patches of dirty snow still cling to some of the peaks. The land is rugged and unforgiving and truly awe inspiring. Yes, this is worth $70. Looking out over this tundra the sense that humans don’t belong here is strong. The fact that we can get up here in relative comfort is a testament to human engineering.

Nameless alpine lake

Nameless alpine lake

I mean really, this road is something else. How it doesn’t fall off the side of the mountain is beyond me and as for quality, it’s in better shape than a lot of the roads in Yellowstone actually. RVs can drive on it, although signs recommend nothing longer than 40 feet – the RVs I saw were mostly smaller ones with the exception of one brave 5th wheel driver.

Don't look down...

Don’t look down…

There are a lot of hair-pin turns. I tried counting them and lost my place, but I’d say about 20 or so. On the way down I couldn’t help but wonder what the road looks like from an aerial view: a child’s scribble drawing perhaps, full of twists and curves. You definitely want to be careful going around the curves because if you made it through the guard rail, it would be a long, long way down.

Sights like this made me think "Gee, I sure hope there's a road after that curve..."

Sights like this made me think “Gee, I sure hope there’s a road after that curve…”

One good thing about having all the switchbacks, the grade really isn’t bad. Bertha handles both ups and downs like a champ.

Total car commercial shot

Total car commercial shot

Before long, shrubs are popping up through the short grass, and then hardy junipers. At a pullout just at the treeline, I look down into a canyon far below and spy a road winding through the valley. I wonder what road it is and where it goes, only later will I discover that it’s this road, and there are a lot more switchbacks to go to get down there.

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Gray clouds are starting to roll in as Bertha winds her way down the mountain, adding an air of menace to the landscape. The juniper have been joined by other pines that grow taller the farther down into the sheltering valley one gets.

A class C just completing a hairpin turn, if you look you can see the road looping back towards me below

A class C hugging the center line around a hairpin turn, if you look you can see the road looping back towards me below

At the bottom I do a little happy dance behind the wheel, what fun! In a surprisingly short amount of time the mountains end and give way to the rolling plains common in much of Montana. Red Lodge consists of a bustling little main street lined with tourist shops and restaurants, and not a heck of a lot else. I stop in Subway for lunch as the clouds thicken over the mountains. It might be an interesting drive back.

Downtown Red Lodge

Downtown Red Lodge

427-17It does rain a little as I climb, but I seem to have missed the worst of it. Around a bend a flash of black catches my eye, what is that?

It’s a black bear cub in the curve of a switchback! Mom is nowhere in sight, I drive very slowly around the curve in case the cub decides to cross but he/she stays put.

Farther up, I stop at Rock Creek Vista Point, a larger pullout with pit toilets and a small trail leading to a scenic overlook. My sandaled feet quickly get wet in the puddles and the rumble of thunder in the distance promises more rain.

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A bucket of seed is sitting on the railing with the words “Donations neither expected nor refused”, a crowd of chipmunks is eating out of the hands of visitors. That makes me really twitchy for two reasons. 1: These chipmunks aren’t tame and could bite, and rodent bites can be nasty. 2: Once the seed runs out there won’t be enough natural resources here for this many chipmunks to live on and some will likely starve. Feeding wildlife is bad for both people and the wildlife. Just don’t do it.

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Bad people, no cookie.

I take the short paved walk out to the viewpoint as the thunder gets louder. Better make this quick. The lighting is so poor that my pictures of the viewpoint don’t turn out well although the dark clouds mixed with the red light from the smoke make for some wild skies.

Click for larger image

Click for larger image

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On the way back a pika darts out of a crack in the rocks to see what I’m up to. I’m guessing he gets fed sometimes too because usually they’re quite shy, but I’m happy to get a recognizable picture of a pika.

What a lucky shot!

What a lucky shot!

Back inside Bertha, the rain starts in earnest and I’m unable to take pictures from inside the truck as my full attention is on the road. Near the top of the pass in the tundra again I realize the rain drops have gotten rather solid. It’s snowing! My windshield starts to fog up and I turn my air directly from A/C to heat, the temperature has dropped dramatically.

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Bertha’s thermometer is reading 42 outside, so while it’s gotten quite chilly, it’s still too warm for the snow to stick on the ground. Once the cell passes I find another alpine lake to photograph, while continuing thunder lets me know I’m not out of the proverbial woods yet.

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Just on the other side of the pass, I do see a little white on the ground and am surprised. Maybe it snowed harder here? There’s a lot less traffic on the road now. No one else wants to be driving through this weather, but I’m getting a big kick out of it.

See it on the ground?

See it on the ground? If you look at the background you’ll also see just how twisty the road is here

In fact, as the next little thunderstorm approaches I pull off the road and watch it come in. I’m hoping it’ll snow enough to stick so that I can get some fun photos to share with you all. When I’m reasonably sure it’s heading my way, I get back on the road, camera ready. Stupid me, I should have looked closer at what the white stuff was…

I start taking video as the sky takes on that crazy dark red hue again. The thunder is loud enough to hear even with the truck running, and I catch the first splot of wet snow on the windshield.

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It’s the only snow I get.

The video cuts out due to full memory on my phone as the first ping of hail hits the roof. Before long the hail is coming down so hard the cacophony forces me to plug my ears, but I still need to keep one hand on the wheel. Outside the ground is obtaining a layer of white, and you might think it snow if you didn’t know better.

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I pull into a turnout first chance I get, it’s that lake I saw the fishermen at earlier in the day. The wind is throwing the hail at my driver-side window and the sharp crack! it makes on impact has me more than a little worried it’s going to break. The sound is incredible, by far the worst hail I’ve ever driven through. I lift up the divider between the two front seats and unbuckle to scoot to the center of the truck, that way if a window breaks I’m less exposed.

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Luckily, the hail doesn’t get bigger. Slowly it lets up, a few last rattling peals of thunder driving home the point: humans don’t really belong up here, and you don’t mess with a mountain.

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I put Bertha back in gear and creep over the layer of hail on the road, behind two other vehicles who also got caught in it. Less than a mile and the road is completely clear, it’s like the storm never happened.

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The rest of the drive home is uneventful, punctuated by brief spells of rain and nothing more, for which I’m thankful.

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Conclusion:  The drive is awesome, but watch the weather!

Conclusion: The drive is awesome, but watch the weather!

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Becky

At IO I teach people how to ditch the status quo and travel full-time before retirement, and share stories of my adventures (and misadventures) to inspire future nomads and armchair travelers alike. Included at no additional charge: seizing your dreams, living boldly, and making a difference.

43 Comments

  1. Michael@Gadgetonic on February 10, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    Wow, amazing post! My partner and always love to do a long drive and this article inspire’s us to take a route into this area and see the scenic view and inviting ambiance. It’s quite nice to think of dropping by feeling the cold near the alpine take. Really inspiring and I can’t wait to set day and time to drive, and I won’t forget your tip. to watch the weather first. Thanks

    Marie
    Michael@Gadgetonic recently posted..Best GoPro Cameras 2017 – Buyer’s GuideMy Profile



    • Becky on February 13, 2017 at 8:37 pm

      You’re welcome Marie and I’m glad you enjoyed this blog post. Beartooth Highway is definitely worth the trip!



  2. Bruce & Aloma on September 5, 2015 at 9:05 pm

    We were in YNP in ’87 on motorcycle and went up Beartooth Pass in late Aug. and one of the workers at Canyon Village CG said at the same time the year before they were snowed in.



    • Becky on September 5, 2015 at 10:30 pm

      Yeah, within the next week or two it’ll probably be closed the locals are saying. Glad I did it when I did. 🙂



  3. Angela on September 4, 2015 at 2:27 pm

    Wish I could’ve gone w/ you and split the gas. That’s crazy how inflated prices are in National Parks, I guess I never paid much attention. Gas here in Dallas is $1.99. Looks like I need to add more fuel money in my full time rving budget spreadsheet.

    Glad you and Bertha made it through those curves. Talk about nerve wracking!

    I think your readers might want to chip in and get you a drone camera. Can you imagine the areal shots?! =)



    • Becky on September 4, 2015 at 9:06 pm

      Yeah Angela, it’s been that way at every park I’ve worked at. TX has some of the cheapest gas prices in the country actually, hopefully it’ll still be that price when I come down for Amazon because my commute is going to be pretty long.

      When it comes to budgeting, I always like to guess on the pricier side for everything, then I can be pleasantly surprised when I come in under budget. 😉



  4. pamelab on September 3, 2015 at 12:35 am

    Hi, Becky –
    Driving in that kind of severe weather sure can wear you out. I sat in my car off the side of the road once, with hands over my ears from the loud hail, in Oklahoma. There was rain after and lightning. The top of my suv was dented, but not the hook. Beautiful part of the country you are in and love your photos and blog. Happy travels.



    • Becky on September 4, 2015 at 9:03 pm

      No dents that I can see from this hail pamelab, it came down really thick but was small luckily. My summer working in South Dakota it hailed frequently, and I have a couple cracks on the top of the Casita roof that I suspect are from hail. One of them started leaking earlier this year and I had to fix it. Glad I wasn’t in the trailer at the time it happened or I would have been freaking out I’m sure. Glad you made it through that storm in OK alright.



  5. jim in alabama on September 2, 2015 at 12:39 pm

    You are such a good writer. This may sound crazy but while reading some of your stories I have to remind myself that you must be ok or you would not be able to write about them later. You really do have away with words. Thanks for entertaining us.



    • Becky on September 2, 2015 at 5:55 pm

      Thanks Jim, and glad you’re finding my blog so enjoyable.



  6. Jodee Gravel on September 2, 2015 at 10:33 am

    Wonderful pics, especially the little lakes and the hail storm. I’ve been in hail like that only once and can still remember how loud it was on the glass, also sure it was going to break through. Always incredible when Mother Nature reminds us who’s boss :-))))) I agree I hope those bikers were already off the mountain !
    Jodee Gravel recently posted..Along the Lazy River and Go Hawks!My Profile



    • Becky on September 2, 2015 at 5:54 pm

      Yeah Jodee those alpine lakes were really something else! I’ve discovered that I love alpine tundra and I hope I get the chance to hike in terrain like that someday… hopefully on a day with no hail, haha!



  7. Sherry in MT on September 2, 2015 at 9:18 am

    A favorite drive of mine when I’m in Red Lodge doing dog stuff. Aren’t those chippies a hoot and a half? So jealous you got such a great shot of the pika – shy little buggers that they are. The storm may not have been the luckiest for you but honestly at this point – all wetness is a godsend! Glad you made it up out of the smoke for a trip up there before you leave though!
    Sherry in MT recently posted..Ahhh the TundraMy Profile



    • Becky on September 2, 2015 at 5:49 pm

      Nice pics Sherry, looked like the sky was a bit clearer on your visit. The exuberance of your dogs makes me smile, it looked like they really enjoyed their time on the Beartooth. 🙂



  8. Dwayne on September 1, 2015 at 10:24 pm

    Notice the picture right after your “car commercial” shot. Wondering if that shot is from a long ago “hit” from space. Notice the round circle area. Something with that shape normally does not happen. Once saw a picture of the earth with dozens of places which had been hit.



    • Becky on September 2, 2015 at 5:44 pm

      I’m not sure Dwayne, not much of a geologist. It didn’t stand out to me as unnatural looking, but then I was paying more attention to the road. 😉



  9. Reed Martin on September 1, 2015 at 9:44 pm

    Neat you got such a kick out of the drive. As Least Heat-Moon says at these times ‘It’s this, for which I came’. Thanks for a great post!



    • Becky on September 2, 2015 at 5:41 pm

      You’re welcome Reed, it was a fantastic drive.



  10. Micky on September 1, 2015 at 8:00 pm

    Hi Becky, I’ve been following you forever but don’t know that I’ve ever commented. About 40 years ago…yeah 40!… My ex and I drove the Beartooth Pass. Had no idea what we were getting into, just looking at the map and saying ‘here this looks like a good route’! 😊

    Wow, that has held its place in my mind over the years as one of the most beautiful and heart-in-mouth drives I’ve ever been on. I hope to do it again in the not too distant future. These days I also live full time in my Casita, but like you, I wouldn’t want to tow it over that pass!

    Micky
    Micky recently posted..Missing GeneMy Profile



    • Becky on September 1, 2015 at 9:47 pm

      There was a Casita going over it when I was there Micky! Just before the hail hit, luckily it was going the other way. I hope they missed it, that would have been a nightmare.

      Always nice to hear from other Casita full-timers, safe travels and happy trails!



  11. Bill on September 1, 2015 at 7:12 pm

    Great post ! I really liked the pika pic ! Going to put the Beartooth on my to do list. Hope to get a chance to meet up in Quartzite I will be there this winter. Going to RTR and the mineral show. Keep the great posts coming.

    Bill



    • Becky on September 1, 2015 at 9:45 pm

      I should be stopping by the RTR for at least part of the time Bill, see you there hopefully. 🙂

      And yes, visit the Beartooth when you get the chance!



  12. Gary on September 1, 2015 at 6:54 pm

    Great pictures. Enjoy the weather, last year I was coming through Yellowstone September 9th, I held off in Island Park for a couple of days as they were reporting 6″ snow at the Fishing Bridge Campground.

    When I drove through several days later most had melted. I drove on through to Cody, Wyoming and skipped Yellowstone. I did stop a few times to snap a picture, although it’s hard to find a pull out to park with a 32′ Fifth Wheel. Enjoy the travel. Gary
    Gary recently posted..Mighty MissMy Profile



    • Becky on September 1, 2015 at 9:44 pm

      I think the biggest problem when I’m towing Gary is by the time I’ve spotted the pullout and analyzed whether I’ll fit or not, there’s not enough time to slow down and pull over, haha. Especially as curvy as the roads around here can be. Glad you had the opportunity to get a few photos at least.

      I’m really hoping the snow holds off this year until after I’ve left, although I know Yellowstone needs the precipitation.



  13. Frank on September 1, 2015 at 5:13 pm

    I would love to drive that road in our Miata! Maybe one day.



    • Becky on September 1, 2015 at 9:41 pm

      When you do Frank look for that pullout with the peaks behind, such a great shot for a car picture. 😉



  14. Jim Schmechel on September 1, 2015 at 11:01 am

    What an adventure! I was just telling someone yesterday about you and your blog, I hope she remembers your blog name.

    I think you need to have a Pika as a pet 🙂 Wouldn’t that be just too cute in your RV?!!!

    This post makes me want to hurry as fast as possible to Yellowstone before the blizzards come. I gave away most of my winter clothes, so I am not ready for those conditions.

    Thank you as always for taking us on your adventures!
    Jim Schmechel recently posted..BaptismMy Profile



    • Becky on September 1, 2015 at 9:40 pm

      Hehe, I like pikas better from a distance than I would as a housemate I think but they sure are cute to look at!

      Wishing you good vibes for your trip over Jim. If you miss it this time at least you can always try again later – great thing about a house with wheels. 😉



  15. Ed@Chasing Sunrises and Sunsets on September 1, 2015 at 10:10 am

    This particular drive has been mentioned recently on several blogs, including that of your recent visitor Bob, of Cheap RV Living. Although I have been to Yellowstone a few times, I have not been on the Bear Tooth Highway or to Red Lodge. It’s now on our list. And although we are days away from heading out on our first extended “test” trip, to Colorado and beyond, I suspect it’s a bit late in the season for the Bear Tooth. Thanks for sharing. I think yours is the first photo of a Pika that I have ever seen. Great shot.
    Ed@Chasing Sunrises and Sunsets recently posted..T Minus 5 Days…Maybe 6My Profile



    • Becky on September 1, 2015 at 9:38 pm

      Congrats on your impending trip Ed! You must be so excited, I don’t even know how you’re finding the time to keep up on reading my blog, I remember how scarce free time was when I was preparing to hit the road.

      And yes, Beartooth and Red Lodge should be on your itinerary for a future visit. 🙂



  16. Hans Kohls on September 1, 2015 at 8:14 am

    You drove right past us in Red Lodge at Perry’s RV Park right on Rock Creek! We have been enjoying the hiking in the mtns. Heading up the Beartooth highway today for further exploring. Will be in Fishing Bridge on 9/9 for 5 days.
    Hans Kohls recently posted..Hiking from the Scenic Beartooth HighwayMy Profile



    • Becky on September 1, 2015 at 9:36 pm

      What fun Hans! Sorry I missed you, but glad to hear you’re having a good time.

      I saw pullouts every now and then with hiking information on them, but with how long the drive was there was no time for hiking on this visit.

      If your travels take you past Old Faithful, do stop in the visitor center to say hi. 🙂



  17. Marsha on September 1, 2015 at 7:44 am

    We had hail that same day at Mammoth campground. Crazy mountain weather. ..be prepared for anything.

    We traveled the Beartooth a couple years ago. It is an amazing road. Check it out on Google Earth or maps. You can see all the twists and turns.



    • Becky on September 1, 2015 at 9:31 pm

      Yikes! Hope everyone was okay in the campground Marsha.

      I did peek at it on Google maps after posting and yeah, it is quite impressive.



  18. RGupnorth on September 1, 2015 at 6:19 am

    That is one of the best drives to take in that area. Too bad you didn’t have a nicer day, although storm fronts moving through can be quite scenic.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Bob



    • Becky on September 1, 2015 at 9:30 pm

      Not sure I’ll have a chance to take the other road that forks from Cooke City down to Cody, that’s suppose to be quite pretty too. But this way I’ll have something to look forward to when I visit the area next time. 🙂



      • RGupnorth on September 2, 2015 at 5:56 am

        The drive to Cody is nice also, but does not compare with the Beartooth.

        So you didn’t stop at the Bear Claw in Cooke City? Always enjoyed spending a few nights in Cooke.



        • Becky on September 2, 2015 at 5:40 pm

          Nah I brought snacks with me to tide me over until lunch RG, although my coworkers also say that’s a good place to stop!



  19. JimS on September 1, 2015 at 6:00 am

    Wow! What a great day trip with a good story to tell. Looks like you got your money’s worth.

    I’m with you on feeding wildlife. Just say no!



    • Becky on September 1, 2015 at 9:29 pm

      Got a little more adventure than I bargained for Jim. 😉

      Glad to hear I’m not the only one who’s against feeding wildlife.



  20. frugalrvgals on September 1, 2015 at 5:42 am

    As always, I love the pictures and following your journey!
    frugalrvgals recently posted..My Hiking Stick Medallion CollectionMy Profile



    • Becky on September 1, 2015 at 9:28 pm

      Thanks for reading frugal. 🙂



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