The Beartooth Highway is a 68-mile travel corridor that reaches nearly 11,000 feet in elevation with sweeping vistas of snow-covered ridges, high plateau views, lakes and trails. A 54-mile segment of the road is designated as the Beartooth All-American Road, one of only 31 All-American Roads highlighted as the most scenic byways in the United States. In 2012, Friends of the Beartooth All-American Road set out to answer the question ” Does the Beartooth Highway provide positive economic impact for the gateway communities it serves?” Because no visitor research had been conducted on the Beartooth Highway, therefore, the overall purpose of this report was to investigate traveler characteristics on the Beartooth highway including demographics, residency, activities, image, and travel patterns in the region with the gateway communities of Red Lodge and Cooke City, MT and Cody, WY.
Data was collected from May 31st through the end of September, 2012 at the three entry locations to the Beartooth Highway. A total of 4,267 nonresidents and 485 residents of the local counties were intercepted. Of the nonresidents given a follow-up survey, 1,473 mailbacks were returned (45% response rate).
• From May 31 – September 30th total traffic on the Beartooth highway was 178,904 vehicles. Nonresidents represented 91% of total traffic: 76,147 through YNP NE entrance; 57,727 from Red Lodge; 28,391 from WY highway 296.
• Visitors came from all 50 states (81% of visitors), 7 Canadian provinces (3% of visitors), and 30 foreign countries (5% of visitors with England and Germany the highest numbers).
• 32 percent of visitors primarily traveled the highway because it is a federally designated scenic byway, higher than any other reason for traveling the Beartooth. 54% of all visitors responded that the Beartooth Highway was a main destination.
• On average, nonresident visitors spent 2 nights in the Beartooth Region including Red Lodge, MT, Cooke City/Silver Gate, MT, Cody, WY and along the highway itself.
• 49 percent of the visitors also spent a night in Yellowstone; 27% spent a night in Billings; 25% spent a night in West Yellowstone and 25% spent a night in Jackson, WY.
• 44 percent of nonresidents were traveling the Beartooth Highway for their first time.
• Scenic driving (84%), nature photography (61%), and wildlife watching (58%) were the most common activities along the Beartooth Highway. Repeat visitors were more likely to be wildlife watching, day hiking, camping, birding, and fishing than first-time visitors.
• The most frequently reported visitor motivations for traveling the Beartooth Highway focused around the scenic beauty, natural surroundings, and open space.
• The physical attributes of the highway generally received high marks however visitors were least agreeable to the statement that there were good interpretive signage.
• Emotive responses to traveling the highway show that first-time visitors were more reserved, nervous, stressed, and afraid than repeat visitors.
• The Beartooth Highway gateway communities are perceived in a positive light with Cody, WY receiving the highest marks of the three communities for image and beliefs about the community.
• Resident travel made up 10 percent of the total intercepts. Residents stated that they travel the highway on average 17 times per year.
This study suggests that visitors perceive the Beartooth Region as more of a destination than a travel route to Yellowstone National Park. Continued and enhanced collaboration and funding between gateway communities, YNP, the forest service and the highway departments will ensure success of the highway as an economic contributor to the region and to help preserve the ecosystem for the future.