After a week in Yellowstone National Park, my friend Lisa and I prepared for our 12- hour drive home. The night before we departed, we asked our hosts for the best route out of the park. They gave us two options: trek more than 2 hours through a harrowing mountain pass or backtrack to the west and connect with a 70 mile per hour highway in Montana.
Our hosts encouraged us to take the tamer route to the west, while another Yellowstone ranger encouraged us to tackle the Beartooth Highway, a National Scenic Byways All-American Road.
Arguments from our hosts included:
“You’ll be able to drive faster if you take the route to the west.”
“You’ll get home an hour sooner.”
“You won’t fall off the edge of a mountain.”
“You won’t have to have a tense 2 hour drive.”
Arguments from the ranger included:
“You can say you survived the Beartooth mountain pass.”
“If you do survive, you can buy a patch that says so.”
There’s a patch? Sold. We’re taking Beartooth.
After saying our goodbyes, Lisa and I packed our nerves into the car and started our journey not knowing what to expect. Beartooth is known as one of the highest and most rugged areas in the lower 48 states. It has 20 peaks reaching over 12,000 feet in elevation. The drive includes the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains with their glacial lakes, forests, valleys, and waterfalls. The scenic highway is 68 miles long and takes more than 2 hours to conquer.
We were nervous.
As we started climbing higher in Wyoming, we were amazed by the views. For the first 20 minutes of the drive we pulled over at every traffic pullout to take photos of the mountains and lakes. As we kept climbing, the views just got more amazing. Our chattiness subsided as we soaked in the view from the top of the world.
We rounded a corner and maintained our speechlessness as a large blue pickup crossed the centerline. The driver seemed to be reaching for something under his seat and looked up just in time to see us. Lisa lost her breath and pulled to the right, narrowly avoiding a collision.
We rounded a corner and were met with a pullout so large it resembled a parking lot. Needing a moment to regroup and touch the ground, we pulled over. The area was filled with people eating lunch near their skis. Intrigued, we took a seat, just staring at the mountain across from us, and the steep valley below, while catching our breath.
“Look! There they go!” someone near us yelled while looking through binoculars.
We stared at the mountain for minutes before spotting two tiny dots shimmying down the mountainside. It put the mountains’ size in perspective.
We crossed in to Montana and started our descent, which was scarier and included more twists and turns than the way up. As the road became more intense, so did the views. Just when we got used to snow covered mountains, another view popped up in the form of steep rock formations. After more than 2 hours on the Beartooth, we certainly weren’t bored.
I don’t know if I would do it again, and I know I wouldn’t take the highway in the opposite direction. But I did survive, so I would like my patch now please.