Beartooth Highway, the 64-mile stretch of US Highway 212 in Montana and Wyoming, is a seasonal indulgence.The mountain pass is only open from late May to late September -- savor it and you might understand why Charles Kuralt referred to the Beartooth as "the most beautiful drive in America." The road opened in 1936, tracing roughly the same route that Civil War general Phillip Sheridan took in 1882 when he followed a local hunter's advice about a shortcut on his way to Yellowstone.
With a series of twisting switchbacks that lead you through 3 national forests and over an 11,000-foot-high pass before reaching the northeastern entrance of Yellowstone National Park, the Beartooth packs a wide range of landscapes into a ride of at least 2 hours (count on more time if you really want to enjoy the sights). To reduce glare and make the most of the rugged vistas (there are 20 peaks soaring higher than 12,000 feet along the route), plan to drive the road from east to west in the morning, returning the opposite direction in the afternoon.
Start in the town of Red Lodge, MT, (pop. roughly 2,400), where the scent of pine trees fills the air, and miners' shacks share the streets with Victorian mansions. Imagine what Park City, UT, might have looked like in its early days -- before Sundance made it hipper than Hollywood -- and you'll have an idea for the roots appeal of this former 1880s coal-mining town.
As you settle in for the night, follow in the footsteps of famous Westerners before you and park your boots under a bed at The Pollard hotel. The hotel first opened on Red Lodge's main drag in 1893, and Buffalo Bill Cody and Calamity Jane once shacked up here.
Another fine place to stay just south of town is the Inn on the Beartooth, a modern log cabin with handmade pine furnishings and an outdoor hot tub. While in town, visit the Beartooth Nature Center to see rescued native wildlife such as coyotes, mountain lions and owls. And for oddball animal entertainment, don't miss the pig races (nightly Thursdays through Sundays from late May to mid-September) at the Bear Creek Saloon and Steakhouse.
Before tackling the Beartooth Highway, join the locals for cornmeal pancakes at Cafe Regis. Next, set out on the route south of Red Lodge, where alpine meadows erupting with wildflowers give way to densely wooded mountains and jagged rock formations. Eventually the trees thin away entirely to reveal barren stretches of alpine tundra backed by glacial peaks mirrored in the icy lakes below.
Fly-fishing fanatics in search of trout lasso their lines into the crystal-clear streams lining the byway. Wildlife sightings along the way might include moose, Rocky Mountain goats, mule deer, grizzly bears and marmots. It's the kind of driving where you'll want your foot poised over the brake the entire time, as jaw-dropping views are around every hairpin turn.
Continuing south, the route dips into Wyoming, where you'll come to the only service station along the Beartooth Highway, located in the tiny settlement of Top of the World. A motel offers modest accommodation, and there are campsites if you wish to linger.
If camping is your prerogative, it's worth continuing on to Beartooth Lake, located in Wyoming's Shoshone National Forest. Set in a swatch of pine trees, the Beartooth Lake Campground is backed by a stunning butte. While the sites themselves aren't lakefront, swimming is a short stroll away and the setting is ripe for a magical evening under the stars.
Before you finally reach the entrance to Yellowstone, you'll roll into the park's most isolated and least-visited gateway village. Cooke City got its start as a 19th-century mining camp, and today the town's 80 or so year-round residents rely mostly on summertime traffic for a living.
A good base for exploring Yellowstone is the Antlers Lodge in Cooke City, where you can house the whole gang in private log cabins. Dining options are limited, but you'll be surprised by the fabulous wine list at The Bistro. Perennial favorites include salmon and house-made creme brulee. Another good pick is the Beartooth Cafe. Grab a table on the deck, with the surrounding peaks as your entourage, and indulge in mountain trout worthy of the spectacular setting.