Ride the Beartooth Highway: Motorcycle Trip Planning Guide
When a motorcyclist tells you Beartooth Highway is one of the best motorcycling roads in the country, I promise you, that is not an overstatement. Riding Beartooth Highway should be at the top of every motorcyclist’s bucket list. From its panoramic mountain views and high alpine lakes to thrilling switchbacks, it’s a ride you’ll never forget, and always yearn to return to. Here are a few tips to help plan your ride along the Beartooth Highway.
Where is the Beartooth Highway?
US Route 212, better known as the Beartooth Highway or Beartooth Pass, begins just outside of the Northeast Entrance of Yellowstone National Park, and winds 68 miles to Red Lodge, Montana. If you want to get technical, the portion that’s designated as a National Scenic Byway, is the 54-mile section that begins eight miles south of Red Lodge, and ends just East of Cooke City, MT.
Beartooth Highway traverses the Wyoming-Montana state line and Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, a region that boasts over 30 peaks sitting over 12,000 feet in elevation. The roadway itself will take you from 7,500 feet in elevation, to 10,947 feet at the summit of Beartooth Pass. It is one of the highest paved roadways in the Rocky Mountain region.
The Best Time of Year to Ride the Beartooth Highway
If you’re not familiar with riding motorcycles in the Rocky Mountains, you may not realize that Summer arrives pretty late, especially at higher elevations. Beartooth Highway is a seasonal roadway and is only open to travelers from May to October every year. Snowpack at higher elevations can greatly determine when the road will be opened to traffic for the season. At times, the road may be temporarily closed due to off-season snowstorms.
If you want the thrilling chance to ride through 15+ foot snowbanks, you’ll want to plan your ride for late May or early June when the road opens for the season, typically around Memorial Day.
June is the most unpredictable month for adverse weather along Beartooth Highway, sometimes producing enough snow to shut the pass down for a full 24 hours. Keep in mind that a snowstorm can happen on any day of the year in the Rockies, so keep your eye on the weather forecast.
If you’d prefer to see the Beartooth Highway with less snowpack and slightly warmer temperatures, enjoying the ride in July, August, or early September will be more ideal. Waiting until late September or October may result in colder temperatures or even a snowstorm.
Helpful Packing Tips For Your Beartooth Ride
As previously mentioned, you’ll be riding one of the highest paved roadways in the Rockies. Even in the late summer, temperatures above tree line will call for layers and cold weather riding gear.
Cooke City-Silver Gate, MT sits at 7,608’ in elevation and averages 71 degree highs / 36 degree lows in July, their hottest month of the year. Meanwhile, Red Lodge sits at 5,568’ and averages 80 degree highs and 50 degree lows at the same time. With a significant increase in elevation, you’ll want to plan for a 15-20 degree temperature difference as you make your way above the tree line, near the summit of Beartooth Pass.
Adverse and unpredictable weather is common in high-altitude areas. Rain Gear wouldn’t hurt to have on hand. Lastly, water. Especially if you are not used to the higher altitudes.
Should a New Motorcyclist Ride Beartooth Pass?
Beartooth Highway features numerous hairpin turns, and narrow roadways with extremely steep drop-offs. Luckily, most of the highway features guardrails in the “hairy” sections. While I wouldn’t count on a guardrail to save your life, it may be more comforting for newer riders as they scale these switchbacks.
While enjoying one of the scenic vistas along the route, a few people enjoying the drive in their cars told me that the road terrified them due to the drop-offs adjacent to their vehicles. Meanwhile, I felt that the roadway was pretty safe compared to a few high-altitude roads, such as Pikes Peak, Trail Ridge Road, and Mount Evans in Colorado.
Bottom Line: If you are comfortable riding through continuous hairpin turns and are capable of keeping your eyes on the switchbacks instead the scenery, you’ll be just fine riding the Beartooth Highway. There are plenty of pull offs and points of interest for motorcyclists to enjoy the views when not on their bikes.
Points of Interest Along the Beartooth Highway
You can easily ride the Beartooth Highway in its entirety without leaving the seat of your motorcycle, but if you enjoy stopping and checking out everything that Beartooth has to offer, you’ll want to make note of the following Points of Interest:
- Cooke City-Silver Gate, Montana: Small mountain towns that feature eats, lodging and gas stations. These gateway communities are just outside of the Yellowstone National Park North East Entrance Station
- Clay Butte Lookout: a three-mile, packed, dirt road will lead you to an old Fire lookout tower, now serving as a visitor center. The lookout offers panoramic views of surrounding mountains and Yellowstone National Park. This lookout was closed for construction in 2020.
- Top of the World Store: Sitting at 9,400 feet in elevation, the Top of the World store offers the only food, fuel, gifts, and lodging available between Cooke City and Red Lodge. If you don’t need any of these, it’s still worth a stop for a photo, or to read the info boards for Beartooth fun facts. It’s important to note that the food they offer is not a “sit down and eat” set up, it’s more of a general store with “grab and go” snacks.
- Summit of Beartooth Pass: The Summit sign lies just on the side of the highway. However, a short and rutted-out dirt road will lead you to a parking lot that overlooks the Wyoming switchbacks of the pass. Definitely worth hopping off the bike to enjoy the views.
- Bear’s Tooth Sign: You’ll be able to see the pointy peak that gives the highway its name from this viewpoint.
- Montana/Wyoming State Line: Because everyone needs their photo taken with a “Welcome to” sign!
- Rock Creek Vista: A short hike on a paved walkway will take you to the Rock Creek Canyon Overlook. This overlook sits at almost 9,200 feet in elevation, so you may feel out of breath pretty easily. Take it slow, and remember to drink plenty of water.
- Red Lodge, Montana: This mountain town is at the eastern terminus of the Beartooth Highway. There are plenty of options for food, fuel, and lodging. It is also home to the Beartooth Rally, Montana’s largest motorcycle rally.
Where to Eat along the Beartooth Highway
Food Options in Cooke City-Silver Gate
This Yellowstone gateway community is the smaller of the two towns that start and end this All American Road. Here, you’ll find less food options, but a few favorites nonetheless.
- Beartooth Cafe: Motorcyclist favorite.
- Montasia: “Half Montana. Half Malaysia.” The owners are also Motorcycle enthusiasts.
- Log Cabin Cafe: Rustic Cafe, known for their trout dishes
Food Options in Red Lodge, Montana
Red Lodge is a tiny, but booming mountain town. If you’re a foodie, this is a great town to visit. You’ll find a variety of food options at this end of the scenic byway compared to its western terminus, including five-star restaurant experiences for those who enjoy fine dining. Red Lodge is very motorcycle friendly, and you’ll likely see other riders in town during your visit.
- Red Lodge Ales: Great spot for craft beer nerds on the north end of town. Known for their sandwiches and cozy beer garden.
- Red Lodge Cafe & Lounge: Motorcyclist favorite in the heart of downtown Red Lodge
- Carbon County Steakhouse: High-end steakhouse, if you’re feeling fancy.
- Piccola Cucina at Ox Pasture: Hailed as one of the best Italian restaurants in the country (by locals).
Where to Stay along the Beartooth Highway
Motorcycle Camping Along the Beartooth Highway
Due to wildlife in the area, such as grizzly bears and wolves, camping along certain sections of the Beartooth Highway is not permitted to travelers without hard-sided camping equipment, such as a van or RV. In fact, there is an info board near the western terminus of the highway that features an illustration of a bear attacking an ADV rider camped next to their bike. It’s up to you if you want to make that illustration a reality. If you don’t have proper food storage or bear spray on hand, I wouldn’t suggest camping along certain sections of this route.
Due to the highway’s close proximity to Yellowstone National Park, many of the established Forest Service Campgrounds fill up quickly in the Summer Months. You can get a full list of those campgrounds, here, or make a reservation via recreation.gov.
There are a few privately owned campgrounds near Red Lodge that may have availability if you do not reserve a site in advance. Perry’s RV Park & Campground is my preferred campground in Red Lodge, complete with creekside campsites and hot showers.
Additional Lodging Options
A plethora of Hotel and Motel lodging options are available in Silver Gate, Cooke City, and Red Lodge. Other nearby towns that are not directly located along the highway include Billings and Gardiner, MT, and Cody, Wyoming. It’s important to note that the closer you get to Yellowstone National Park, the more expensive the lodging options will be. There may also be little to no vacancies due to the high tourism in the park.
Other Helpful Tips
- You’ll want to plan at least three hours to ride the Beartooth Highway in its entirety. If you enjoy stopping and enjoying the views, you may want to allow half a day to enjoy the route.
- So Nice, You Should Ride it Twice (Once in each direction): I favor the ride going west to east. However, riding it east to west does offer a completely different ride and view of the region.
- While in the area, don’t miss out on the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway
- Be aware of animals. Moose, grizzlies and black bears, wolves, mountain goats, buffalo, and even loose livestock have been seen along the Beartooth Highway. You may encounter the adorable and elusive yellow belly marmot sunbathing on a rock when you get above the tree line.
Ride to Food Videos that Feature the Beartooth Highway
Have any tips or recommendations for a ride along Beartooth Highway? Drop a comment down below!
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