Beartooths Loop

Ideal as a summer road trip, this three-day journey showcases the rugged Beartooth Mountains (and the Absaroka Range beside them) as the unforgettable scenic centerpiece. The range includes Granite Peak — with an elevation of 12,799 feet it’s the highest point in Montana — and rocks that are nearly 4 billion years old. As you make your way around the mountains, discover picturesque places to play outside, explore the friendly communities tucked into the surrounding foothills and valleys, and take the opportunity to learn about the fascinating geological and cultural history of this area. Note that in the winter, the world-renowned Beartooth Highway — part of this loop — is closed to travel, so you can alter this itinerary into a one-way road trip of snow-fueled fun: Start in Red Lodge, perhaps with some skiing at locally beloved Red Lodge Mountain, then travel north, west, and back south — through Columbus, Big Timber, Livingston and Gardiner. Continue into Yellowstone National Park to end in Cooke City with a snowmobile excursion into the Beartooths backcountry — a true Montana adventure!

Beartooths Loop image 1   TravelingMel
Beartooths Loop image 2   Dusan Smetana
Beartooths Loop image 3   Visit Montana
Day one

Red Lodge to Gardiner

Your journey around the Beartooths starts in Red Lodge, a mountain town that boasts stellar skiing opportunities in winter and makes a great basecamp for outdoor adventures in summer. Get a feel for the community with a stroll down its charming main street, then check out a couple attractions right in town: the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary and the Carbon County Museum and Historical Society. The sanctuary offers visitors a chance to see animals from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem up close — the facility is home to bears, bison, bobcats, wolves, birds of prey and other animals that can’t be released back into the wild for various reasons. The Carbon County Museum and Historical Society is the place to go to see exhibits on local history, including the Crow Nation, historic firearms, mining, and two famous rodeo families from Red Lodge.

After your Red Lodge explorations, head south on U.S. Highway 212 to drive the iconic Beartooth Highway (open seasonally from Memorial Day Weekend to mid-October, as weather permits). Buckle up: The 68-mile stretch connecting Red Lodge and Cooke City is the ride of a lifetime. A National Scenic Byway and All-American Road that’s been called “the most beautiful drive in America,” the Beartooth Highway delivers jaw-dropping views as switchbacks lead you up and up to Beartooth Pass at an elevation of nearly 11,000 feet. The drive takes at least a couple of hours, more if you hike to an alpine lake from one of the trailheads along the way or if you stop at the numerous scenic pullouts to admire the incredible vistas — which is highly recommended.

The Beartooth Highway ends in Cooke City, whose sister city, Silver Gate, is a mere 3 miles farther west. Stretch your legs with a spin through Cooke City Montana Museum’s exhibits on the Beartooth Highway and on life in these remote communities over the years or take a stroll through Silver Gate to admire its rustic log architecture. Then head west to enter Yellowstone National Park just a mile past Silver Gate. The route across the northern part of the park will take you through the wildlife-rich Lamar Valley — depending on the time of year, keep your eyes peeled for bears, bison or wolves.

Continue west when you reach Grand Loop Road and head to Gardiner, the original entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Pass through the historic Roosevelt Arch to exit the park and enter Gardiner, which straddles the Yellowstone River and has long been a basecamp for park visitors. Within sight of the arch is the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center, a storage and research facility that houses a world of Yellowstone National Park treasures, including photographs, oral histories, watercolor field sketches by artist Thomas Moran and indigenous artifacts discovered in the park, among many other items. The center is part archive, part library and part museum, and visitors can see rotating exhibits from its holdings in the lobby or make an appointment to explore the archives or museum collections. Work at the center is supported in part by the Yellowstone Forever Institute, the official nonprofit partner of Yellowstone National Park dedicated to protecting, preserving and enhancing the park through education and philanthropy. It offers a variety of guided educational experiences of the park year-round that focus on wildlife, geology and cultural heritage.

Day two

Gardiner to Big Timber

We dare you to drive north from Gardiner into Paradise Valley and NOT be amazed by the stunning scenery — it’s not called Paradise Valley for nothing. The road follows the Yellowstone River, with the Gallatin Mountains to the west and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness to the east, and runs into the town of Livingston at the north end of the valley. Long a hub for artists, writers and outdoor enthusiasts, Livingston offers plentiful opportunities to experience arts and culture, history, and incredible outdoor recreation. Its downtown, with several “Old West” buildings that date to the 1880s and ’90s, serves as the charming backdrop for a noteworthy restaurant and bar scene.

From Livingston, you’ll head east on Interstate 90 toward Big Timber, where the Yellowstone River and the Boulder River meet and offer prime fishing opportunities. Take State Secondary Highway 298 south following the Boulder River and enjoy not only the views of open grassland and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in the distance but the fishing access sites along the way. The road will lead you to Natural Bridge Falls, a stunning 100-foot waterfall amid stone cliffs. Hike or relax in this picturesque setting before heading back north to Big Timber.

Named for the large cottonwood trees along the rivers in town, Big Timber has a history as a farming and ranching community that continues to this day — evidenced by the prairie land to the north and east. In summer, take the chance to explore this wide-open, serene landscape with a drive north and east on the gravel Route 478 to the small town of Rapelje. Nearby Dallmann Lake offers a quiet place to fish, and if you didn’t spot your fill of pronghorn antelope on the drive out, you can do some wildlife watching at the two national wildlife refuges in the area: Hailstone and Grass Lake.

Back in Big Timber, take in some local color and history. The Crazy Mountain Museum offers exhibits on the town’s past, including ones on rodeo, settlers and the sheep and wool industry. Pop into Cole Drug Store and Soda Fountain for a sundae, shake or float — they’ve been making them here since 1935 — or head to the Circle T Taproom, which serves beer locally made by Crazy Peak Brewing Company. The historic Grand Hotel is worth a visit as well. Built in 1890 and one of the early masonry structures in town, it’s been a hotel, restaurant and community gathering place for more than a century.

  • Perfect for:
  • Families
  • Adventurers
  • Sightseers
  • History Buffs

Family Suggestions

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History Buff Suggestions

Day three

Big Timber to Red Lodge

Who needs a rooster crow to start the day when the endearing chirps of prairie dogs will do? Make Greycliff Prairie Dog Town State Park, just a few minutes east of Big Timber, your first stop of the day and see a protected community of black-tailed prairie dogs in their natural habitat. Then head east to Columbus, a jumping-off point for outdoor recreation opportunities in the area since it’s nestled in the foothills of the Beartooths and close to the confluence of the Yellowstone and Stillwater rivers — you can even cast a line (and swim, boat and camp) at Itch-Kep-Pe Park in town. Explore the Museum of the Beartooths and its displays on life in Stillwater Country over the last 100+ years, including exhibits on the Crow Tribe of Indians, the railroad and World War I. You’ll find more local history at the New Atlas Bar — the building itself dates to 1916 and the interior is remarkably well preserved. It’s also adorned with taxidermy — including a two-headed calf.

From Columbus, head south on Montana Highway 78 toward Red Lodge. This stretch of road known as the Beartooth Front Scenic Drive offers chances to explore small towns and out-of-the-way outdoor recreation as it winds through rolling hills and climbs to Red Lodge at the foot of the Beartooths. The two-lane road parallels the Stillwater River and features several fishing access sites along the way — perfect for admiring the river up close, casting a line or dipping your toes. Just keep an eye out for the signs and enjoy a refreshing river break. You’ll soon come to Absarokee, a small community where you can embark on rafting or fishing adventures or begin the 44-mile Absarokee Scenic Loop. This drive makes good on its name, delivering panoramic views of the landscape’s foothills, mountain peaks and valleys. It’s also dotted with fishing access sites. At Nye, take a short detour to the Woodbine Campground, where you’ll find the trail for a short hike to beautiful Woodbine Falls.

Heading back to MT-78, those inclined toward arts and culture should plan to visit Tippet Rise Art Center, just outside the charming town of Fishtail. Open during the summer and set on a working sheep and cattle ranch, the center enables visitors to experience a unique confluence of art, architecture, music and nature through its large-scale outdoor art installations and the musical performances it hosts. There are limits on the number of visitors allowed per day and concerts are ticketed, so check the center’s website for hours, events and access information. As you pass through Fishtail itself, don’t miss the Fishtail General Store, Montana’s oldest continually operated general store. Here, you can find a little bit of everything — from hunting and fishing gear and licenses to Montana-made crafts and gifts to made-to-order deli sandwiches and fresh-baked cinnamon rolls — just like folks have since the spot opened in 1900. Fishtail is also where you can head south on W. Rosebud Road — in summer only — to reach the Mystic Lake Trailhead, the start of an 11-mile round-trip hike to Mystic Lake, the largest and second-deepest lake in the Beartooths.

From Fishtail, continue south on MT-78 toward Red Lodge. If you’re traveling in the summer, consider passing through town and taking State Secondary Highway 308 east for about 5 miles to reach Bearcreek — and the little known but much loved Bear Creek Downs Pig Races at Bear Creek Saloon and Steakhouse. Take in the lively race atmosphere while indulging in a bite and a brew, and join in the fun by placing bets on which little piggie will be the fastest — some of the money goes to scholarships for Carbon County high school students. Past Bearcreek, S-308 leads to the community of Belfry and the turnoff to reach the town of Bridger.

To wind down for the day, backtrack to Red Lodge to enjoy some laid-back nightlife. Red Lodge Ales’ taproom features pub fare along with their local brews. If a more elevated dining experience is what you’re craving, look no further than the James Beard Award-nominated PREROGATIvE Kitchen on Broadway. Finally, see the historic Pollard Hotel. Built in 1893, it was the first brick structure in town. It’s hosted its share of famous guests over the years and continues to extend warm hospitality to travelers drawn to the Beartooth Mountains today.

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Hit These Trails

Great Wide Open road trips intersect with a handful of engaging Montana trails — the Montana Dinosaur Trail, Montana's Trail to the Stars, the innovative Talking Trail app and the Southeast Montana Burger Trail — and our itineraries note when a point of interest is a site on one of them. These trails enrich your travel experience in Montana, highlighting places where you can learn about dinosaurs, listen to stories of local history, nature and culture, find great spots for incredible stargazing or discover some truly remarkable burgers. Visit each trail's website to learn more.