Beartooth Highway Softened Depression in Red Lodge

Absarokee: For the economy-minded, the country kitschy Stillwater Lodge ($/$$, 406-328-4899) has six cute and tightly quartered rooms on the main drag of town. It makes a good base camp for all the outdoor adventures popular in the area.

Red lodge: The historic landmark and literally the cornerstone of downtown Red Lodge is the red brick Pollard Hotel ($$$$, 406-446-0001). The Pollard has accommodated the likes of Buffalo Bill, Jeremiah Liver-Eating Johnston, and Martha Jane Cannary Burke, a.k.a. Calamity Jane, among other frontier celebrities. The building fell into disrepair, then was renovated and reopened in the early 1990s as a fully modern hotel and dining room that retains much of its former charm It even has a racquetball court in the basement. Plus, breakfast off the menu is included in your rate. For upscale-plus B&B lodging, the Rocky Fork Inn Bed & Breakfast ($$$, 406-446-296, June-Sept.) has six suites in a sprawling log structure overlooking Rock Creek and serves a small breakfast. Gallagher’s Irish Rose B&B ($$, 406-446-0303, closed April/May and Oct./Nov.), is a century-old home with three themed rooms that reflect the town’s Irish miner roots. Original artwork from Leah Gallagher and others adorns the walls of the 1910 home. The Yodeler ($/$$, 406-446-1435) is our pick for a motor-style inn. We love its throwback Euro ski-lodge ambience, old-style Jacuzzi tubs (in some rooms), and covered outdoor hot tub. The stylish Rock Creek Resort ($$$/$$$$, 406-446-1111) is an invitingly understated collection of townhouses, condos, and standard rooms in a variety of decors ranging from Guatemalan to Montanan. You’ll be surprised to learn that rooms start at $130, and it all includes a continental breakfast served at the Old Piney Dell Restaurant. The Beartooth Hideaway Inn & Cabins ($$/$$$$, 406-446-2488), formerly a Super 8, has standard motel rooms but also new detached log cabins. Their indoor swimming pool is the largest in town and always a draw. What’s a Wyoming motel doing in a Montana book? Well, the out-of-the-ordinary Top of the World Resort Motel ($, 307-587-5368) is on the route and open year-round. Although it’s quite a stretch to call it a resort, Top of the World does have RV and camp spots as well as four standard motel rooms. It might not look like much, but the prime location just below the Beartooth plateau and access to spectacular country make it so popular that reservations are recommended months in advance especially since road work companies like to use it for construction projects here that never seem to end.

By the turn of the previous century, Yellowstone National Park was becoming an international tourist destination. Such gateway communities as West Yellowstone, Gardiner, and Cody were riding a tidal wave of economic success since automobiles were legally allowed into the park for the first time in 1915. Though separated from Yellowstone by some of the region’s most rugged terrain, Red Lodge nevertheless wanted a piece of the action especially after the nearby coal mine closed in 1924.

A road over the rocky Beartooth Plateau, city fathers surmised, would give tourists direct access to the park’s northeast entrance and enable businesses in Cooke City to tap a mother lode of gold in the New World Mining District about 3 miles from Yellowstone’s boundary. They weren’t the first to consider travel over the Beartooth Indians had been doing it for thousands of years but the task was daunting nonetheless. The grandiose vision was to punch a road into Rock Creek Canyon, carve switchbacks out of the side of a 4,000-foot mountain, lay pavement across the plateau’s fragile tundra and 3-billion-year-old rocks, and then etch a serpentine route down the backside into Wyoming and back to Montana at Cooke City. It took years of planning.

But in 1931, as the darkness of the Great Depression enveloped a nation, construction began. Remarkably, it would take only five years, opening to great fanfare in 1936. It has been a bucket-list drive ever since. Answering a letter in the 1970s from a fan inquiring about the most beautiful drives in America, the late CBS newsman Charles Kuralt, renowned for his regular On the Road features, responded US 212.

Not surprisingly, keeping the Beartooth All-American Highway open and maintained is a chore. Wicked weather and extreme temperatures cause the road to heave and hiccup, resulting in constant repairs that require patience from drivers. In 2005, a mudslide ruined 13 sections of road and kept it closed all summer, to the detriment of Red Lodge businesses.

The road officially opens on Memorial Day and closes on Labor Day, though it’s often possible to drive the route well into October. Don’t be surprised if you run into patches of snow terrific for summer photo-ops at any time of year, or if your summer plans to reach the plateau are waylaid by a snowstorm

Beartooth Highway Softened Depression in Red Lodge Photo Gallery

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