Beartooth Highway’s Wild Wild West

Beartooth Highway’s Wild Wild West

The History of a Wild Highway

It could be said that events leading to the construction of the Beartooth Highway were set in motion on March 1, 1872 when the Congress of the United States set aside Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first national park, a full 70 years before its eventual opening on June 14, 1936.

Mining + Tourism = A Highway

Cooke-City-Montana-gold-minerBy 1880, following years of exploration by trappers, gold seekers, and government expeditions, followed by a rapid influx of tourists anxious to view the wonders of Yellowstone National Park, the mining communities of Cooke City and Red Lodge, Montana were well established. With gold, coal, and tourists to be moved these two communities recognized the importance of building transportation infrastructure for the area.

It was quickly determined that building railways for hauling ore through Yellowstone National Park was not going to be an option. At the same time it was determined that, in order to take advantage of the economic development that tourism generated for a community, access from Red Lodge to Yellowstone National Park would need to be secured. Then, in the 1920’s the automobile became the preferred mode of transportation for visitors to the area and the need to develop a road system into and out of Yellowstone from the two communities galvanized community leaders to action. After years of lobbying by area citizen groups Montana’s then congressman Scott Leavitt sponsored legislation called the Park Approach Act (H. R. 12404). The Park Approach Act provide for construction roads that led to National Parks and allowed construction of the Beartooth Highway to begin in 1931. Although it was originally intended to authorized a major national program of access roads to National Parks only one road was actually constructed under the legislation – the Beartooth Highway.

Early Years of Road Construction

A majority of the Beartooth Highway was built between 1932 and 1936. The engineering aspects of the project were impressive, even by today’s standards. For example, the 4,000-foot descent into the Rock Creek Canyon (7.5 miles at over 6 percent grade) on a very steep sidehill slope required creative field engineering. The project was completed on time and within budget; but at the cost of the lives of two workers. Considering the difficult terrain, short construction season, and harsh weather the progress was remarkable. The highway was officially dedicated on June 14, 1936 with a ceremony and caravan of supporters.

Beartooth-Highway-early-constructionMost names given to geographic points on the highway during construction have not survived, but definitely represented some meaningful interpretation to workers in 1936: “Primal Point”, “Lunch Meadow”, “High Lonesome Ridge”, “Grizzly Knob”, “Frozen Man’s Curve, and Inspiration Point” to name a few. Today’s Rock Creek Vista was known as “Knox Point”, and at nearby Wyoming Creek, a curving switchback that doubles back on itself was referred to as “Mae West Curve”!

75+  Years Later – The Road Remains

Seventy-five plus years after its completion the Beartooth Highway continues to fulfill the role its strongest proponents dreamed for it. The Beartooth Highway provides today’s visitors, as it did visitors driving Ford Model T’s in 1936, an unparalleled journey through some of the most remote wilderness on earth. Traveling between two of the Beartooth Highway’s gateway communities – Cooke City and Red Lodge, Montana allows visitors the opportunity to experience all 67 miles of this extraordinary road. Traveling onto the Highway from its third gateway community – Cody, Wyoming, allows visitors an additional scenic byway driving experience, traveling the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway (Wyoming 296), which intersects with the Beartooth All-American Road close to mid-point between Cooke City and Red Lodge.

The Beartooth Highway Goes All-American

National Scenic Byways - Wyoming and MontanaOn June 13, 2002, following a community driven nomination process that included development of a Beartooth Highway Corridor Management Plan, the Beartooth Highway became one of the first 10 highways in American to be given the National Scenic Byway’s most prestigious designations – that of All-American Road. Today, Friends of the Beartooth All-American Road continue implementation of the Beartooth All-American Road CMP, ensuring that:

“The Beartooth All-American Road will be managed in a manner that protects corridor resources; enhances visitor appreciation of the scenic, natural, recreational, cultural, historical and archaeological qualities of the corridor; and integrates the primary transportation role of the highway with other tourism attractions in the Northeast Yellowstone Scenic Corridors”

Did You Know?


Beartooth Highway Wyoming & Montana

Whirlpools often form when water rushes through a rough channel.  Water glancing off rocks starts spinning as it is hit by other water rushing by.  Any material caught up in the whirlpool will spin with the water.  In time, spinning sand, pebbles and grave may carve potholes, like the ones seen in the rocks above the bridge.  During the construction of Lake Creek bridge, boulders were removed from the creek’s bed the water channel was changed exposing the potholes.  Watch for them when you visit Lake Creek Falls.

Cooke City Montana - Beartooth Highway

The Cooke City cemetery is located only a short distance from town, adjacent to the Gallatin National Forest Service Campground. Within the plot lie the remains of many who cherished the hope for the future of Cooke City, including one of its founders, Horn Miller.   When lumber for coffins were needed, men of the community simply used parts of uninhabited buildings to construct the boxes.