The 68-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 212 feels like another world as it tops out at 10,947 feet on a stunning plateau east of Yellowstone National Park.
Winter storms dump here, and when the highway opens on Memorial Day, a summer ski season opens with it. Skiers drop off the highway for steep backcountry runs along the road’s many switchbacks, then do car shuttles or hitchhike back to the top.
For those who don’t want to bother with climbing or hitchhiking, the retro-cool Beartooth Basin ski area has two platter lifts for surprisingly steep laps near the top of Beartooth Pass.
And for cyclists, the highway presents another challenge. From Red Lodge, Montana, the road climbs more than a vertical mile, making it one of the most scenic and difficult road rides in the country.
For the few months that it is open every year, the Beartooth Highway is a ribbon of pavement that leads into a very wild and special place.
Cycling the highway
It’s late afternoon on my first day in the Beartooths and I’m itching to get into the mountains. I stop at the Spoke Wrench bicycle shop in Red Lodge, where owner Andy Baranovic is servicing some mountain bikes.
I learn that a late-spring snowstorm has closed the highway at the Wyoming border, which Baranovic says is a good thing for road cycling because it will reduce the vehicle traffic.
“You should do it today,” he says. “It might get a little crazy when they open the road.”
I drive about 11 miles up the highway to my campground, set up my tent, and quickly hop on the bike for what will be a 20-mile, 2,000-vertical-foot climb.
It’s nothing short of amazing.
By the time I reach the top, the sun is low, the temps are 20 degrees colder and the snowy Beartooth Plateau stretches out tantalizingly in the distance. I want to keep going, but the sun is setting, it’s windy and I need to get back to camp, where fire and food await.
The next day, more snow falls on the plateau and the road is closed on the Wyoming side again. It’s cold, but another good opportunity to ride the road without traffic.
It’s wild, windy, and beautiful – and all mine, a road-rider’s dream.
Skiing the highway
It’s early morning as I pull up to a viewpoint on the plateau. Among the parked cars, people dressed in ski clothing are milling around.
Before I can even get out of my car, a complete stranger walks over and taps on the window.
“You want to ski the Rock Creek Headwall?” he asks.
Keith Miatke from central Wisconsin has come to experience the adventure of the Beartooth Highway and he’s looking for a partner.
The Rock Creek Headwall drops off the plateau to a roadway switchback 1,800 vertical feet below. It’s a steep run – in places, up to 50 degrees – and it requires a half-mile hike to a daunting, rock-strewn chute entrance.
I hem and haw, a little intimidated. Then Steve Blote, a commercial pilot from Rapid City, South Dakota, drives up with his 14-year-old daughter, Grace, and offers to join us. Suddenly, the four of us are off on a Rock Creek Headwall adventure.
We hike on the plateau past lounging mountain goats to find the chutes. It’s more than a little scary.
“That’s what makes it fun,” Steve insists.
First Keith drops in, then Steve, then Grace and finally me. It’s a thrill carving turns in the soft, skiable corn snow stretching out among the rocky chutes of the headwall.
At the bottom, we reassemble, completely exhilarated.
“This is the way skiing used to be before there were resorts,” Keith says with a big grin.
Steve’s other daughter has driven down the highway and picks us up at the switchback, then drops us off at the top where we bid farewell.Later, I continue up the highway to the Gardner Headwall near Beartooth Pass. Hundreds of skiers hit the Gardner Headwall during a typical day – it offers easy access just off the highway – and drops about 500 vertical feet into a wide basin, where you must climb back up to the highway.
I meet people from North Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, California. Everyone has come here to be part of the summer skiing experience.
Skiing the wildness of the Beartooth Highway doesn’t come without risks. Two weeks after my visit, a 19-year-old skier from Bozeman died after falling 1,100 feet down a chute near Beartooth Pass.
Skiing the resort
On another day, I pull up in a whiteout to the first annual Shredfest at Beartooth Basin. It’s mid-June, but this feels like mid-winter. That’s what 10,000 feet of elevation can do at any time of the year.
Shredfest is a Freeride Qualifier event held on the cliffy Twin Lakes Headwall at Beartooth Basin, just across the Wyoming border. Young male and female competitors are hoping to win a spot on the Freeride Tour for next season.
Conditions are firm, but will eventually soften on the surprisingly steep ski hill.
In the ticket office – an unassuming travel trailer – I sign my release, pay for a half-day, and head out for some laps on the 1,000 vertical foot terrain.
For a tiny ski area, it’s challenging. I ski hard for a couple of hours, watching the competitors work on their tricks, jumping off cornices and rocks near the top of the headwall.
It’s nice to get in some resort runs, but I’m looking for more adventures, and leave, ready to continue the exploring.
Back in the saddle
I decide to ride back into the Old West. I drive 1 1/2 hours south to Cody, Wyoming, via the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, another gorgeous road that is almost as beautiful as the Beartooth Highway.
Once there, I saddle up on the bike to get a look at the town named for Buffalo Bill Cody.
I ride to the Joyvagen bike shop, where owner Chris Guyer offers tips on some good rides in the area. Then I spin around town and end up at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, a Smithsonian Affiliate museum that is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. I see artifacts from Buffalo Bill’s many stage shows, paintings by Frederic Remington and Albert Bierstadt and check out Annie Oakley’s shotgun.
Then I ride over to the Irma Hotel, named for Buffalo Bill’s daughter, hitch my bike to the rail and saunter in for some good old American meat.
Not a bad finish to my Beartooths adventure.
John Nelson is a freelance writer based in Seattle. Read his blog at SkiZer.org.
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