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