When we left Billings, Montana in the morning, we had decided to take the ‘scenic’ route into Yellowstone National Park. I had never heard of the Beartooth Highway before, but after looking at a map it sounded like a great introduction to the park – entering through its Northeast Entrance instead of the long way around through Gardiner at the North Entrance. This view was taken in mid-morning, 2-hours after we left Billings as we readied for the steep climb out of the valley via numerous switchbacks.
The highway opened in 1936 and according to Wikipedia “It traces a series of steep zigzags and switchbacks, along the Montana-Wyoming border to the 10,947 ft (3,337 m) high Beartooth Pass. The approximate elevation rise is from 5,200 ft (1,600 m) to 8,000 ft (2,400 m) in 12 mi (19 km) in the most daring landscapes. When driving from the east to the west, the highest parts of the Beartooth Highway level off into a wide plateau near the top of the pass, and then descend to where the Beartooth Highway connects to the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway near Cooke City. En route, one passes numerous lakes typical of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area which borders the highway along much of its route. Because of the high altitudes, snowstorms can occur even in the middle of the summer and the pass is also known for strong winds and severe thunderstorms, which can result in road closure.“ The road is offically closed for 7-months between mid-October to mid-May.
In our case, all went well and the sun was shining on a beautiful summer day. The 2nd photo is a view looking back down into the deep valley we had left behind as we made our way upward. There are quite a few roadside pull-outs where you can stop to admire the views, including the very nice one at Rock Creek Vista Point as we reached the 9,190-ft level (3rd photo).
Less than twenty minutes after leaving Rock Creek Vista Point, the road leveled off in a beautiful upland plateau area with grass, lakes, flowers and animals to keep us looking in all directions. It was there that we entered Wyoming for the first time in any of our travels. This was a very relaxing part of our trip, with beautifully coloured flowers (2nd photo) and views across the landscape of distant mountains and depressions that held high elevation lakes (3rd photo). Even though our progress to Yellowstone NP was being slowed down by our many stops for photo opportunities, the Beartooth Highway was worth every minute of our time. We had been to Glacier National Park in northern Montana in 2005 and thought that its “Going to the Sun Highway” was about as good as it could get – now it is a toss-up as far I am concerned!
Speaking of those mountain lakes, when we came to this one we just had to stop one more time. Here, we have driven past our first view of it and I am standing on the cliff above the lake with its snow ledge running across behind me. This was quite a popular spot, with a number of cars pulled over to get some photo opportunities in the warm sunshine. The 2nd photo provides a glimpse from above of a distant small lake and snow fields, as well as part of the snow ledge above ‘our’ lake. Walking a bit further around the edge of the cliff for a look back, the 3rd photo shows why it is not a good idea to walk out onto snow in the summer. The shadow near the top of the middle snowpack shows that its upper part is just a ‘shelf’ of snow that could very well collapse beneath you, because it is much weaker in summer – it could be quite a ride down hundreds of feet to the lake below. On the horizon at top-left are a few tiny specks of people that will give you some idea of the size of the snow ledge. While I was wandering around up there, I did notice a certain shortage of breath from the high altitude!
It was only 15-minutes later and almost high noon when we came across this huge herd of Mountain Goats – I’d never before seen that many in one place, and apparently none of the many other spectators had either! The 2nd photo shows one that appears to be the leader of the pack, as he was soon to demonstrate when some avid photographers moved a bit too close (my ‘Warnings & Dangers’ tips). The 3rd photo shows the goats happily munching away on some of those flowers of the type Sue had photographed a few minutes earlier.
In fact, mountain goats are usually found on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The presence of these ones is probably the result of a group of them being introduced to Montana, near the Yellowstone area, in the 1940s to provide more thrills for hunters. Mountain goats (which weigh up to 300-lb and can stand 3-ft at the shoulder) are more aggressive to each other than are the Big Horn Sheep native to this part of the Rockies. Because of fears that the goats may eventually displace the sheep in their competition for grazing areas, the management of Yellowstone NP is considering their removal from the park if the situation does come to that. Nevertheless, it was a real thrill to see this herd calmly going about its business despite the crowd of spectators.
Yellowstone is on the border with Montana. We went out of the park to do some shopping in Gardiner. Isn't that a good excuse to go to Montana....another state I can say I have been to :-)
I really would have liked to explore Montana further, it looked beautiful for the few miles we travelled through it. So now it's on my travel wishlist...one day I'll go back and see it all.
The town of JACKSON is probably the nearest civilization around Yellowstone National Park. It's a little touristy in my opinion.