The late CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt, of “On the Road” fame, called Beartooth Highway the most beautiful drive in America.
It’s even better from the seat of a bicycle.
The 10,947-foot pass northeast of Yellowstone National Park links Red Lodge and Cooke City, Montana.
Snow piles high in “winter,” so the highest paved road in the northern Rocky Mountains is open to traffic from mid-May to mid-October.
Friend Bill and I arrive in late July to celebrate his birthday. Bill says he wants to see “the bear.”
Ten-foot snowbanks remain in spots, and the weather can change in a heartbeat to staggering winds and energizing thunderstorms.
Snow can fall any day of the year.
Since the top of the pass is just short of the height of Oregon’s tallest peak, Mount Hood, at 11,250 elevation, I prepare climbing the rolling hills east of Milton-Freewater.
Still, I wonder how my body will handle the altitude.
We stay in a Red Lodge motel.
The next morning dawns with artists’ light. Beartooth Highway rises in switchbacks, or ramps, from about 5,555 feet in Red Lodge.
Over 25 miles the vertical gain is about 5,700 feet, with views of the Beartooth and Absaroka mountains, alpine plateaus and glacial lakes.
A marvelous feat of engineering, the highway opened in 1936.
At Rock Creek Vista, we stop along with hundreds of our newest, closest most personal motorist friends. (Check out the YouTube videos of the route.)
Above 9,500 feet we arrive in alpine meadows and tundra. We reach a false summit, descend and start the final climb.
Reaching the top, we see about 20 peaks soaring above 12,000 feet elevation.
After a snack, we turn our bikes downhill for 18 miles of coasting before the road flattens.
The slope is gentle.
We dodge rockfall, stay aware of traffic, see no bears.
The next night, we stay at Cooke City, 7,608-feet elevation.
Herds of bison wander through town.
Popping around a corner, I encounter a beast whose face is nearly the size of an SUV.
The following morning, we approach the summit, 39 miles away, from the southwest.
We cross Colter Pass and follow the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River for a stretch.
We soon begin climbing again, passing aspen groves and rushing streams, and ride by Beartooth and Island lakes.
The wind is blowing harder this day, especially above timberline. In headwinds, we stand on the pedals to make progress.
We share the top with auto drivers and motorcycle riders reveling in the panoramic view.
After a snack, we coast down the switchbacks.
West of Top of the World store, a black bear crosses the road 50 yards ahead.
My heart pounds.
Bill is a quarter mile back and sees nothing but scenery, which is an excellent consolation prize.