It’s been a hot one all across the West lately so yesterday, my cowboy and I decided to head to the mountains for an afternoon, as the irrigation water was on a long set. From our homestead it’s only an hour or so drive up to the rustic western town of Cooke City, the highest town (in elevation) in the state of Montana and home to one of our favorite “waterin’ holes.”
Traveling highway 72 and then west onto 308 at Belfry, Mont., the road passes through two tiny historic mining towns, Bearcreek, famous for their weekend Pig Races and Washoe, with its quaint quilting shop. Up the Bearcreek Hill, the road ends just outside the town of Red Lodge. There we turned southwest on highway 212 and started up the famous Beartooth Scenic Byway, happy to feel the breeze cooling the farther we drove. As we headed up this two-lane, I watched out the window as the creek beside us glistened in the sunshine on its way down the mountainside, foaming and rumbling over the rocks, adding a special music to the mountain air. A heavenly scent of pines seemed to settle inside the truck and we both commented that it was a relaxing aroma ... so different then the hot dry grass smell of the valley.
Known also as the Beartooth All-American Road and made famous by the television reporter Charles Kuralt in his “On the Road” travel series, this byway passes 68 miles through the Shoshone National Forest from Montana into Wyoming and back again till it reaches the Northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park, just outside the little town of Silver Gate. All along Rock Creek, campers can find established campsites and trailheads to the lakes on the Hellroaring and Beartooth Plateaus. This is a great snowmobile and cross country ski area in the winter too.
Starting up the steep switchbacks, we twisted and curled our way up the mountain. There were several places along the route that retention fences had been built to keep the rocks from falling onto the roadway. They looked like giant chain-mail curtains, bolted into the hillside with hundreds of huge metal interlocking rings. Open only from mid-May to mid-October, this road has had many closures over the years due to washouts or granite rock slides. There is always a local celebration up on the top each year when the road is open for the season. Often, long narrow 20-plus-foot tall snow tunnels make driving pretty exciting for the first auto-travelers. Even in late June of a hot, dry year we saw travelers’ names carved into the icy reminder that this is a very rugged winter mountain plateau.
At the top of the switchbacks, we pulled into the Lookout rest stop. Here are restrooms and ample parking for cars and RV’s for those going up or down the steep mountain. There is a wonderful, granite block walkway built out to a lookout point and we took the short walk to the very edge to see down into the valley below. Looking west across the deep canyon we could see the Bear’s Tooth, a sharp mountain top approximately 11,000-feet high. The wind whipped our hair as the breathtaking 360-degree view filled us with the awe of Mother Nature ... from the glacier formed valley, the soaring granite mountains, to the pristine lakes dotting the tundra plateaus.
Walking back to the truck, we were “hounded” by stripped chipmunks, begging for treats. All along the rock wall in the parking area, people were feeding the little scamps, delighting in their antics of stuffing their cheeks and running off through the drain slots in the wall to the pine trees. When I looked over the wall, I noticed a quiet, well fed rock-chuck, snooping under the nearby stones for any missed peanut or corn chip. As we continued our drive up the mountain, we saw a herd of mountain goats resting peacefully on a grassy ridge not far from the switch-back road, seemingly uninterested in all the stopped cars and spectators snapping photos of them while they dozed.
Rock-chucks dotted the nearby granite formations, chirping their irritation at all the commotion. From here we could also see the single “ski-lift” bringing skiers up from a VERY steep snow covered mountainside ... members of the International Summer Ski/Snowboard Camp practice “diving” off this cliff. It was unbelievable and looked to us that if they weren’t careful, they’d end up at the twin-lakes WAY down below! Maybe that was what the goats were waiting to see from their nearby advantage point. ❖