Sunday, July 27, 2014

Beartooth Highway and Chief Joseph Scenic Byway

Saturday was a day of adventure and exploring high above the normal--along the famous Bearthooth Highway and the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway.  We had heard a lot about the Beartooth before we got here--from Jim and Sue Ann, Wendell and Jennifer and others.  And when we were strolling through the Tshirt shop in Red Lodge Thursday evening we had seen shirts with things like "I Survived the Beartooth Highway," and "Real Men Don't Need Guardrails--the Bearthooth!"  So we were eagerly looking forward to this adventure.

So we headed off to Red Lodge for a stop at the visitor center for maps and brochures.  There was a classic car show in Red Lodge, with at least 40 old cars on display along both sides of the main drag through town.  We didn't get out to inspect all of the cars, but it was fun to see them--from classically restored vintage Yellowstone National Park tour cars to custom hot rods, and lots in between.  There were a couple of beautiful '57 Chevys--my all time favorite!  But we were eager to get on up to the Beartooth, so we didn't tarry in town.

The road begins just south of Red Lodge and ends 68 miles later near the northeast entrance to Yellowstone, the road running partly in Montana and partly in Wyoming.  The beginning elevation is 6400 ft. and the highest point is 10,917 at the pass.  Tons and tons of switchbacks, many with warning signs of 20 mph--and they're serious about this speed!!  It was built in 1936, and after driving it we just marveled at the construction of this road, given the level of engineering technology at that point in time--pretty amazing.  Anyway it was just an absolutely perfect day, brilliant blue sky, bright sunshine, warm at lower elevations, but of course much cooler when we got near the pass.  There is a bicycle tour guide outfit in Red Lodge that takes riders and bikes up to the pass and lets you ride back down to Red Lodge, and we saw a couple of cyclists pedaling up to the pass along the way.  That's one heck of a climb, but even more daunting to us was the idea of just rolling headlong down the mountain--I don't think my heart could take that, with all the hairpin turns and narrow switchbacks.  I think I would wear out several sets of brakes before reaching bottom!

Anyway, we stopped at a few of the overlooks for some gorgeous views before we decided to go for a hike down to Gardner Lake.  There's a pullout there with a big parking area, so as we pulled in we saw some hikers heading out and decided it would be a good hike.  The elevation at the pullout is 10,536, and there are a series of lakes you can hike to, Gardner being the first, "only" 3/4 mile down, with two more at 3 and 5 miles, respectively.  The wind was blowing pretty stiffly when we got out, and, not surprisingly, it was much chillier than when we left Red Lodge.  Since we had Sophie with us, we figured we'd just go down to Gardner Lake and back, since we knew we wanted to see more of the highway and the Chief Joseph as well.  The wildflowers were just unbelievably spectacular as we hiked down--lots of brilliant blue and purple lupine, many yellows and subtly different shadings of dusty blue and green of flowers I don't know the names for, but all arrayed in thick blankets of gorgeous color--reminded me of the passage: "consider the lilies of the field, Solomon in all his glory is not arrayed like one of these."  It was just stunning!  I know some readers may say (as indeed some of my dear friends in fact have said!) that I sometimes tend toward hyperbole in the blog, but I just can't help it--with beauty like we saw in these lush wildflowers, the views of the mountains--well, it just is!!

Since it was quite cold, we just bundled Sophie up in a blanket and put her in the front carrier for the hike--in the 3/4 mile down to Gardner Lake you drop 1000 ft--pretty steep!  But it was just a wonderful hike--breathtakingly so--especially breathtaking on the way back up!!  We stopped at a rock outcropping down by the lake to eat an apple and let Sophie out of the carrier to walk around some before heading back up.  As we started back up we met a couple with a yellow lab--all with backpacks, even the dog, as they were going out for the weekend.  Hope they had warm sleeping bags, 'cause I can only imagine how cold it got overnight.  Anyway, 3/4 mile is not much in distance, but at this altitude and the steep ascent, it definitely got our hearts pumping by the time we got back to the car!

We could see the actual Beartooth Mountain, rising like a spire among the other peaks, that first gave rise to the naming of the range by Native Americans, as it does indeed resemble a bear's tooth.  Then drove over the pass and down to Cooke City for lunch.  We sat outside in the warm sun for lunch, which was nice after the chill up top!  Cook City was full of motorcycles, as this is such prime country for riders.  There was a group of 20 at this little restaurant where we ate, and we overheard them talking about riding in Blue Ridge in the past.  So we talked to some of them as they were leaving and learned that they are from Ohio, and all go on a big bike trip each summer.  This is their third summer in Montana/Wyoming; the first year they rode their bikes all the way, but since then they trailer them out and then ride once they get here.  Looked like they were having fun!

We left Cooke City and then took the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, another wonderful drive, though not as high as the Beartooth.  This road is named for Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce tribe, as it follows the route he took in 1877 as he led his tribe in an unsuccessful attempt to flee the US Cavalry and escape to Canada.  The Army wanted to take the Native Americans' land for ranchers, so this was but one of numerous campaigns by the Army to force the Native Americans onto reservations.  Even though the Nez Pierce successfully outmaneuvered the Army several times along this route, they were ultimately forced to surrender just a few miles before reaching Canada.  They were forced onto reservations in Oklahoma and Washington, despite promises that they would be allowed back on their lands.

We came back through Bear Creek and Red Lodge, and then did another circuit through some more of the small towns of the area--though hoping we might still get to see some big horn sheep as the day drew to a close, no such luck.  We did see several deer, some wild turkeys, and a huge marmot running across the road, but the sheep still elude us!  Stopped near Columbus when Trisha saw a sign for huckleberry shakes--she had first seen such a sign when we were in Jackson and had been wanting to try one ever since--she was not disappointed--yum, yum!  Just a great way to end another wonderful day here in this gorgeous country!

Some shots on Friday evening's sunset, sitting on Wendell and Jennifer's porch

 Emmy out playing fetch with the chukka ball

 At the visitor center, this is the cabin built in 1869 by "Liver Eating Johnson," a settler who, legend has it, either actually ate, or pretended to eat the liver of an Indian warrior he killed in a battle--thus creating a legend that stayed with him for the rest of his life

 Classic cars along the street in Red Lodge

 Going up the Beartooth!

 When they say 20, they mean it!!

 Looking down on a campsite from one of the overlooks

 This dude is heading up the highway--kudos to him!  At this point he'd probably already gained 1000 ft. of elevation and he didn't appear to be sweating yet!

 Can you believe these beautiful flowers??!!

 Snowcat/plow at the summer snowboard and ski area; Wendell said they were still skiing July 4!
 The generator that powers the ski lift
 The lift
 At the Gardner Lake pullout and trailhead, getting ready to hike

 Here we go, me with the backpack on, and Sophie in the front carrier--woohoo!
 Hiking down to Gardner Lake

 Looking back up a bit--we've already dropped quite a ways

The wind was severe enough that I had to turn my cap around to keep it from blowing off--in these next few shots, I had the camera set on too dark, so they're not the clearest
 Attempt at a selfie when we stopped for a snack, but Sophie was a squirmin'!!

 As we started back up, we had gone a ways when I realized I had left the camera on the rocks where we stopped for a snack, so Trisha waited here for me while I went back for it--thank goodness I realized my mistake early into our trip back up!!

 Back at the top--whew!!
 Beartooth itself!
 Up at the Pass
 Looking down on one of many hairpin switchbacks

 Sophie trying to get a better look over the masonry work at one of the bridges
 Kayaker out on Beartooth Lake
 By one of the snow poles!
 Views of Pilot and Index Point

 Cooke City for lunch

 Uh, I couldn't find a crosswalk, so could you guys slow down??
 At an overlook, looking out over the site of one of the battles between the Army and Chief Joseph and the Nez Pierce

 These chipmunks are all around the overlook, as many people feed them

 Love these red rocks and the beautiful contrasting greens

 Another view of Heart Mountain, as the Chief Joseph nears Cody


  1. Jack continue to enjoy your post.

    Be safe.


    1. Thanks, Rod; hope you had a good trip to Colorado, and that you have a good trip to Minnesota to see your wife's family. Just drove through Minnesota the last couple of days--saw quite a lot of their 10,000 lakes!