Today we drove the Beartooth Highway and the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, stopping in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, Cooke City, MT, and Red Lodge, MT. We also did our first hike in Yellowstone on the Trout Lake Trail, and visited the Roosevelt Arch.
Bears, Oh My!
A pre-dawn start (04:30) put us back on the road up to Mammoth, where we turned onto the Grand Loop Road towards Tower-Roosevelt. Alongside the road, we spotted a mama black bear and her two cubs playing in a meadow shaded by trees. The bears seemed to be undisturbed by the growing crowd of early-rising observers, so we watched for a while from the car as the cubs wrestled and attempted to climb the closest tree.
Another hour-long drive brought us to the Lamar Valley shortly after sunrise. The Lamar Valley is home to vast herds of bison, though nothing compared to before their near extinction and subsequent rebound. Click the boxes below to learn more about bison; they’re fascinating, stately creatures!
There are approximately 4,680 bison in Yellowstone, with about 3/4 residing in the Lamar Valley in the north, and the remainder in the Hayden Valley to the south (where we visited our first evening in the park). Males (bulls) weight up to 2,000lb, and females (cows) weigh up to 1,100lb. Even at that weight, they can run up to 30mph and jump over objects 5ft high. Bison have excellent hearing, vision, and sense of smell.
Most bison live 12-15 years, although it’s been documented that a few will live 20+ years. Bison will travel ~1,000mi throughout the year. In the winter, they travel in groups of ~20, while during the summer breeding season, group sizes rise to ~1,000. The groups are directed by the older females.
We also spotted an antelope on a distant hillside. Several people said they’d spotted a wolf, but it had run back into the woods. Dad and I both thought we spotted one through binoculars, but we couldn’t be sure…could’ve just been another antelope. On our way out of the valley, we saw even more antelope closer to the roadside.
Continuing on US-212 toward Cooke City (our breakfast destination), we passed a clearing in the road where I spotted a moose. After giving everyone a heart attack from my excited shouting, we threw the car in reverse and backed up to get a clear view. Turns out, it was both a mother and calf, sitting a short distance apart, partially concealed by the tall grass. We stayed to watch for a while, and our patience was rewarded when both moose finally stood up to stare down two deer that entered the clearing. After defending their shaded, grassy breakfast spot with nought but a glare and a 9′ tall height advantage, they continued with their grazing.
Cooke City-Silver Gate // Breakfast
Wildlife watching had once again thoroughly exhausted us, so we journeyed on to breakfast at the Bearclaw Bakery in Cooke City, MT, briefly delayed by a herd of bison using the main road to cross a narrow pass.
We were able to get a table at the restaurant, but had to wait a little while. Cooke City-Silver Gate is the union of two old mining towns that sit on the northwestern end of Yellowstone National Park. It’s a neat little place, but like most small towns in WY/MT, it has limited amenities and most businesses operate seasonally or at will, and it’s not exactly built to serve crowds.
The Bearclaw Bakery has quite the ambiance. To date, it’s the only place I’ve been in that has a tanning bed in the restroom. It’s also the only breakfast place I’ve ever visited that sells snowmobile parts out of the dining room and has a mechanic shop in the back. Despite the incredulous atmosphere, the food was really good. Mom ordered a country scramble with bacon, cheese, and onions; Faith and I split another country scramble plus ham, brie, and fig preserve-topped sourdough toast; Dad got biscuits and sausage gravy.
Clarks Fork Picnic ARea
Opting not to stay and use the tanning bed, we continued on US-212 towards the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness. Our first stop was the Clarks Fork Picnic Area, the site of a couple waterfalls and an old wooden mining flume.
From Clarks Fork, we continued on the Beartooth Highway.
The Beartooth Highway runs E-W through the Absaroka Mountains along the MT/WY border. It’s a 68mi stretch of of US-212 that connects Cooke City-Silver Gate, MT and Red Lodge, MT, passing southward through WY. It goes through the Custer, Gallatin, and Shoshone National Forests, and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. The road climbs over 5,000′ to a peak elevation of 10,970′ at the Beartooth Plateau. Unsurprisingly, it sometimes takes a month of plowing to get the road cleared for summer traffic (see videos below).
The highway is considered a National Scenic Byway, which is recognized by the USDOT for having 1+ of the following “intrinsic qualities”: archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, or scenic. Roads that meet 2+ of the qualities are considered All-American Roads; the Beartooth Highway has received this designation as well. The only All-American Road in NC is the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The Beartooth Highway originally opened in 1936.
Crazy Creek // Yellowstone Overlook
We passed Crazy Creek Falls and Lake Creek Falls, but opted not to get out, instead taking pictures from the car. If we’d had time, I would’ve loved to stop at Crazy Creek. It was a immensely wide, aptly named waterfall, stretching across half the mountainside. Then, after climbing for a while, we stopped at the Yellowstone Overlook and a couple overlooks to take some pictures looking back towards the park.
Beartooth Lake // Top of the World
Significant road construction was underway on the next stretch of the highway, so we had to wait about 30 minutes for a guide car to take us past the construction. Unfortunately, that meant missing the Clay Butte Lookout Tower, and pullout for the Beartooth Falls. I did manage to snap a slightly blurry picture of the falls from our moving car.
Now clear of the construction, we stopped at Beartooth Lake Camground for a view of the lake and the brightly colored Beartooth Butte.
Island Lakes // Beartooth Summit
Just a short distance from Top of the World Store, we pulled into Island Lake Campground. Now high above the most of the treeline (but apparently not high enough to avoid the biting bugs), alpline lakes dotted the landscape, as did lingering snow banks.
It wasn’t long before we arrived at the Beartooth Pass Summit. We stopped for a while to enjoy the view, and Faith and I scrambled up the nearby boulders at the summit (just to say we’d reached the true peak), fighting strong wind gusts and mild dehydration from the altitude.
Beartooth Pass Vista Point
We’d now been driving along the Beartooth Plateau for several miles, so it was time to begin our descent towards Red Lodge (and lunch!). Our lunch reservation was at 13:15 in Red Lodge, so we had to hurry. We did make one last stop on the way down at the Beartooth Pass Vista Point.
Red Lodge // Lunch
Even after all those stops, we were only 15 minutes late for our lunch reservation at Piccola Cucina at Ox Pasture in Red Lodge, MT. The restaurant is run by a famed Sicilian chef who also has restaurants in Italy and NYC. How another location ended up in a small town in Montana, I have no idea.
For lunch, we split two caesar salads, and then each ordered a pasta dish. I got Paccheri alla Carbonara (paccheri pasta with eggs, Italian bacon, and pecorino cheese), Faith got Orecchiette Gamberi e Burrata (orecchiette pasta with shrimp and burrata cheese), Dad got Ravioli al Ragù di Manzo (ricotta ravioli in beef ragù), and Mom got Lasagna al Ragù (lasagna with meat sauce & creamy béchamel). Our meal was accompanied by fresh-baked focaccia and a sun-dried tomato oil.
The entire meal was fantastic, especially the Caesar salads. You could taste the quality and see the attention to detail that had gone into all the dishes. Faith said it was even better than the Italian food we’d had in Italy.
Chief Joseph Scenic Byway
After our lunch, we attempted to find a nearby bakery to pre-purchase a snack for later. Unfortunately the bakery was closed, so we settled on getting some coffee for Faith, and then drove south on Highway 120, crossing back into Wyoming. Soon, we reached the start of the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, which returns to Cook City from the southeast.
The highway follows the route that the Nez Perce indians used to escape from the US Army as they were being forced from their homelands. Several signs along the way detailed their journey and tactics. Dead Indian Summit Overlook provided the best views and information.
About 10 miles from the top of the pass, we reached the Sunlight Bridge, which crosses 1,200′ above Sunlight Creek, which feeds into the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River. It was an impressive but narrow canyon with steep rock walls and clear rushing water far below. The Sunlight Bridge is the highest in Wyoming.
Since we’d been trading off napping during the cloudy drive back to Yellowstone, we found somewhat of a second wind. Faith and I decided to do a short hike just east of the Lamar Valley. The Trout Lake Trail is a short, 1.2mi lollipop-shaped loop trail that climbs to a beautiful lake surrounded by wildflowers. We actually saw several large trout jumping in the lake, as well as a family of geese and a least chipmunk.
Ice Cream // Roosevelt Arch
We’d originally planned to explore Mammoth Hot Springs in the evening, but unfortunately, Faith came down with some altitude sickness and Dad was in need of some eye drops, so we went to a grocery store in Gardiner instead. After everyone was finally feeling better, we got some ice cream from Scoop! There It Is and Yellowstone Perk (we abandoned Yellowstone Perk after one cone purchase because we realized it was incredibly expensive). Flavors of the night were huckleberry and raspberry sorbet; both were very good.
After finishing our ice cream, we walked/drove to the Roosevelt Arch. The arch is named after Teddy Roosevelt, because he was visiting the park during the time of its construction and gave a speech at its dedication when they laid the cornerstone. The inscription on the top quotes the 1872 legislation that established Yellowstone as the world’s first national park, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people”.
The Best Things We Saw Today
The best thing I saw today was… “Trout Lake and the moose”.
The best thing I ate today was… “the salad at lunch”.
The best thing I saw today was… “the top of the Beartooth Highway and the moose”.
The best thing I ate today was… “the shrimp pasta at lunch”.
The best thing I saw today was… “either moose or bears”.
The best thing I ate today was… “the Italian salad and pasta”.
The best thing I saw today was… “the bears playing this morning”.
The best thing I ate today was… “breakfast this morning at the Bearclaw Bakery”.