I’m not much for useless litigation, but the Top of the World Resort should be sued for false advertising. Of course I’m not expecting it to literally be at the top of the world — I’m in Wyoming, after all, not the Himalayas. But I am expecting it’s at, or at least near, the summit of the improbably scenic and winding Beartooth Highway, the long stretch of U.S. Highway 212 between Cooke City and Red Lodge, Mont.
This Top of the World is at 9,400 feet. The Beartooth Highway tops out at 10,947 feet. Traveling the highway from west to east, as I am, in addition to its summit being 1,500 feet above the Top of the World, it is nearly 10 miles past the Top of the World.
If I were doing this trip in my car or on my motorcycle, this misnomer would not make me disagreeable. I’m on my bicycle, though. By the time I reach the Top of the World, I have been pedaling for upwards of six hours and traveled about 70 miles. My legs have already propelled me up nearly 8,000 vertical feet. Another 1,500 feet seems almost too much to bear.
Except I’m loving it: the suffering; the leather-clad, bandanna-wearing, road-tripping motorcyclists who smile and give me a thumb’s up; the details of the landscape and its smells I’d never notice if I weren’t moving through it at 10 to 15 mph and fully exposed to the elements; the suffering; the views; the suffering; the chipmunks that run into the road and play chicken with my front wheel.
The highway’s chipmunks are so oblivious to the dangers of the road that before I’m halfway up the pass, my goal is no longer merely to make it to the top, but to do so without decapitating any. As difficult as the climb is, nearly 6,000 vertical feet over more than 20 miles, avoiding the chipmunks is moreso. I’m looking at the scenery more than I’m looking at my front wheel.
The late CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt called the Beartooth Highway “the most beautiful drive in America.”
Opened in 1936 after years of construction and, in 2002, designated a National Scenic Byways All-American Road (one of the first 10 roads in the country to receive that honor), the Beartooth Highway passes through geology and a landscape no road should.
Because its route through the Beartooth Mountains outside the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park is prone to avalanches, and because these mountains get about 30 feet of snow a year, the pass is only open from the Friday of Memorial Day weekend until the Tuesday after Columbus Day.
It’s not just in winter that the surrounding landscape is hazardous. In the spring the highway is susceptible to mudslides and rockslides. In May 2005, they destroyed or damaged about 12 miles of the road on the Red Lodge side. It took four months and $20 million and change to repair and reopen it; it was ready only a few days before closing for the season.
When you travel the Beartooth, you can’t help but wonder whether it exists because a highway engineer wanted to best the Hoover Dam, also constructed in the ’30s.
Before Highway 93, across the top of the Hoover Dam, was rerouted in October 2010, I walked the length of it, over 1,000 feet. On one side was the 247 square miles of Lake Mead, its water ready to pour through the dam’s smallest weakness. On the other, a couple of thousand feet below, the raging Colorado River. There’s no doubt the dam, the largest concrete structure in the country at the time of its construction, is impressive.
The first time I traveled the Beartooth Highway, as a preteen on a family vacation, I saw a bear and had a snowball fight with my brother. Snaggletoothed, glaciated mountains cut the sky. My mom has a photo of my younger brother and myself — a temporary, uneasy truce in our snowball fight obviously called — in front of a snow bank easily twice my height. (I’ve been 5-foot-10 since about the time I was 12. And this was in August.)
From the back seat of the family’s Oldsmobile Delta Eighty-Eight, the highway wasn’t merely impressive. It was awe-inspiring. I saw things — needle-y mountains reflected in high alpine lakes, glaciers, softball-size clusters of dozens of wildflowers with each bloom no bigger than a ladybug — I had only seen in photos or my imagination. Had I seen a unicorn, it wouldn’t have seemed any more phantasmagorical than Little Bear or Long lakes.
Returning to Beartooth for the first time since 1988, I worried it would not live up to my childhood memories.
To help insure it would, I decided to (a) travel it by bicycle and (b) start in Cody, Wyo., rather than Cooke City. Starting the trip in Cody requires first riding Wyoming’s Chief Joseph Scenic Byway (Wyoming 296). This 47-mile highway, which includes its own 20-some-mile pass that climbs and descends about 3,000 feet, dead-ends at the Beartooth about 13 miles east of Cooke City.
The most popular way to ride the Beartooth Pass is from Cooke City to Red Lodge. It is 68 miles and about 6,000 feet of climbing. The trip from Cody to Red Lodge via the Chief Joseph pass and Beartooth is about 113 miles with 10,000-some feet of vertical climbing and an equal amount of descending. However you define “epic” — difficulty, vistas, terrain, weather — this is one of the country’s most epic road rides.
My plan is to do it from Cody to Red Lodge in a single day, spend the next day enjoying and eating my way through Red Lodge and then, on the third day, ride the whole route in reverse. (The backup plan is to ride from Cody to Red Lodge in a single day, spend the next day in Red Lodge and, on the third day, take the shorter, flat route — Montana routes 308 to 72 to Wyoming 120 — back to Cody.)
Leaving Cody at 7:30 in the morning, the first 16 miles, heading north on Wyoming 120, are merely a means to an end. The “end” is the turn onto the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, named for the great Nez Perce chief who, in 1877 along with 1,000 members of his tribe, fled the U.S. Cavalry through this area.
This turn is where the ride really begins. And the climbing. Although it starts almost immediately, it starts gently. The road takes a straight shot through classic, open Wyoming ranchland. After several miles, the slope steepens to the point of needing switchbacks. The mountainside here is open. Each switchback allows for views down onto those below.
Nearing the top of this pass, the scenery constricts: a pine forest, thick and close enough to feel like a tunnel, replaces the expansive views. A final half-mile — the steepest half-mile of this climb — leads to the top and an overlook with views down onto Sunlight Basin, one of the prettiest and most undervisited parts of the state. This basin is rumored to have gotten its name from early fur traders who remarked that the only thing that could visit it most of the year was sunlight.
After screaming the 3,000 feet down the northern side of the pass, I fly over Sunlight Bridge, the highest in the state of Wyoming.
The Beartooth Mountains come into view about an hour before I hit the Beartooth Highway. The range’s namesake, the 12,351-foot Beartooth Mountain, dominates the landscape. Seemingly pedaling straight at it, I marvel at how perfectly the Crow Indians named it rather than focusing on the approaching climb. “Na Piet Say” in their language. Literally translated it means “the bear’s tooth.” And that’s exactly what it looks like.
Before I’m ready, there are the signs: “End Chief Joseph Scenic Byway” and “Beartooth All American Road.” Wyoming 296 hits the Beartooth Highway at an elevation of about 6,900 feet. A left will take me to the conveniences of Cooke City (pop. about 140) and the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park. I take a right to climb even higher.
Although the highway has a lot of climbing, it is stretched over a tolerable distance — about 20 miles from its intersection with Wyoming 296 — so the climbing is never horribly, steeply onerous. I don’t think there’s a section with a grade of more than 6 percent. The climbing just goes on. And on.
But it goes through that scenery that so awed 12-year-old me. It turns out that it awes the adult me even more. It’s not that it’s gotten better, but experiencing it at 10 mph expands my experience of it. On a bike you aren’t limited just to what you see.
There is the smell of sage and lodge pole pine trees. Shortly after I turn onto the highway, Lake Creek Falls crashes down to my left. Because it’s hot — temperatures can reach into the 80s — I wish the waterfall were close enough to the road it would mist me. Pedaling past rock outcrops that overhang the road, I reach out and touch them.
While this is one of the best road rides in the country, it was not made with cyclists in mind: Shoulders are usually small and sometimes nonexistent. Drivers, both of cars and motorcycles, are conscientious though. Also, the twisty nature of the road keeps them from going too fast. And then there’s the descent, where bikes, better at taking hairpin corners at speed, can pass cars.
Climbing higher, as the highway enters the zone between forest and alpine tundra, marshes reek of decomposing biomass and my ears vibrate with the buzz of mosquitoes. It is here that Top of the World sits. I do not stop.
Above this, the “forests” are of boulders deposited long ago by receding glaciers rather than lush stands of lodge pole pines. Here, the road, and those traveling it, are fully exposed to the elements. The temperature has dropped about 30 degrees since I left the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway. There’s a light wind blowing.
Beartooth is the highest-elevation highway in Wyoming (10,947 feet), Montana (10,350 feet) and the Northern Rockies. Yet the high point of the highway is not obvious. The road undulates between 10,000 and 10,987 feet for nearly 10 miles. If a sign at the west summit did not include its elevation, you wouldn’t be sure it was the top.
Along these 10 miles, there are patches of watermelon snow. Sadly, this snow gets its name not because it smells wonderfully, refreshingly like watermelon, but because there is pink algae growing in it. That smells like mildew. The tiny wildflowers — snow buttercups and alpine forget-me-nots — that eke out an existence in the alpine tundra are not fragrant enough to overpower it.
But the smell of impending moisture almost can. I feel the humidity rising — dark clouds to the east that, a couple of hours ago, seemed far away are no longer so far away. Because of this, even though I’ve got panoramic views of the 943,377-acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, home to grizzly and black bears, elk, deer, moose, bighorn sheep, Rocky Mountain goats, mountain lions, bobcats and 20 mountains over 12,000 feet, I do not linger long at the west summit.
I stop long enough to pull out the windproof jacket, gloves, hat and arm warmers I’ve been carrying in the back pockets of my bike jersey for the past eight hours, to have a motorist snap my photo and to take a 360-degree panoramic with my mind’s eye. (The driver takes a picture of me with his phone, too, “to show friends at home how crazy people out here are!” he says. “You do this for fun?” he asks my quickly receding back.)
The real descent to Red Lodge doesn’t start immediately from the west summit. There is a short, 300-foot descent, but that’s followed by a last uphill to the 10,880-foot east summit.
Heading to Red Lodge, it’s the east summit that marks the beginning of the descent, which starts slowly. From there, for six miles you’re still in that area above tree line that’s completely at the mercy of the elements, including the obvious storm now approaching from the east.
It has snowed on the Beartooth Highway every month of the year, including in mid-August, when I’m riding it. Clouds at nearly 11,000 feet couldn’t care less that Sunlight Basin down below is
The hail starts slowly, with huckleberry-size balls pinging off my lightweight racer’s helmet and prevented from hitting me in the eyes by large-frame sunglasses. The sun has long disappeared, but there’s no way now that my sunglasses are coming off.
I can’t tell whether the clouds mean business or they’re just passing through.
By the time I hit the Gardner Lake Pullout, a reportedly beautiful spot for photos at 9,800-odd feet, I’m fairly certain the clouds are in it for the long haul. I can feel the hail hitting my back through my clothes.
I think back to what Kuralt called this road: “The most beautiful drive in America.”
Descending it now, with Red Lodge still dozens of miles away and my fingers, even inside gloves, frozen to my bike’s brakes, I have different words to describe it. I wonder how far down I need to ride before the hail turns to rain.
With every switchback descended, I focus on one of the items in the box waiting for me, c/o general delivery at the Red Lodge post office. (I’d rather mail myself stuff than carry it while riding.) There are flip-flops. And shorts — lightweight ones meant for running — and a tank top. When I packed this box at home, these seemed perfectly reasonable attire. Now I feel like I arrived in Antarctica with only a bikini.
At just under 9,000 feet, the hail does become rain. It’s about 21 miles down to Red Lodge. Cars and motorcycles had pulled off the road during the hail storm. Now that they’re driving again, about two-thirds of the cars that pass me slow down to ask: Do I want a ride?
It’s very nice of them to offer, and it is tempting. But if I’ve made it this far, I can’t give up in the homestretch. Besides, I’ve come up with a solution to my inappropriate packing job. I remember the bed-and-breakfast room I’ve booked has a deep-soaking tub.
As the switchbacks settle into a straight but still gradually declining road, and forests of trees again close out vistas, I don’t feel bad that my final thoughts as I’m about to complete one of the country’s most epic rides is of an epic hot bath. Also, I’m wondering whether the return trip in two days will have better weather. If not, I might have to take the shorter, un-epic option back to Cody.
Either way, I’m finding a lawyer to talk to about the Top of the World.
Mishev is the editor in chief of Jackson Hole magazine and the assigning editor of Inspirato.
More from Travel:
Top of the World Resort
3838 Wyllie Rd., Beartooth Pass, Wyo.
Break the ride into two days by staying at this small — four rooms — rustic motel. There’s also a small general store nearby with limited groceries. Rooms from $55.
1032 12st St., Cody, Wy.
Eighteen of the 21 rooms at this historic Small Elegant Hotels member inn have claw-foot tubs. Rooms from $195.
Rocky Fork Inn
718 S. Broadway Ave., Red Lodge, Mont.
Four of the six rooms at this B&B — breakfast isn’t hot, but includes homemade cinnamon granola and berry muffins, fresh fruit and yogurt — overlook Rock Creek. Rooms from $155.
The Beta Coffeehouse
1132 12th St., Cody, Wyo.
Founded by climbers, this intimate coffeehouse serves giant breakfast burritos any athlete will love. Splurge on an iced Snickers mocha. Open Monday-Saturday from 7 a.m.-1 p.m. From $3.
1910 Demaris St., Cody, Wyo.
Almost as good as the beef brisket, chicken, cornbread and coleslaw at this chuckwagon buffet is the guitar playing, fiddling, yodeling and singing by the Rockin’ M Wranglers. Dinner from 5:30-8 p.m. daily until Sept. 20; show starts at 6:30 p.m. From $28.
Bridge Creek Backcountry Kitchen and Wine Bar
116 S. Bdwy. Ave., Red Lodge, Mont.
Fare ranges from ahi tuna tartare to flatbreads, burgers and bison brisket in downtown. Open daily from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. From $11.
206 W. 16th St., Red Lodge, Mont.
This small diner serves hearty and healthy breakfasts and lunches and fair-trade coffee; many ingredients come from two greenhouses in its back yard. Open Wednesday -Sunday from 6 a.m.-2 p.m. From $7.
All-American Beartooth Highway
The 68-mile corridor between Cooke City, Mont., and Red Lodge, Mont. Usually open from the Friday of Memorial Day weekend until the Tuesday after Columbus Day.
Chief Joseph Scenic Byway
The 47-mile-long Wyoming 296 connects Cody with the Beartooth Highway via the Clarks Fork Valley and a scenic pass over the Absaroka Mountains. Open year-round.
Buffalo Bill’s Irma Bar
1192 Sheridan Ave., Cody, Wyo.
Enjoy a drink at the cherrywood bar gifted to town founder William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody by England’s Queen Victoria.
Cody Nite Rodeo
519 Yellowstone Ave., Cody, Wyo.
The country’s only daily rodeo and a big reason for Cody’s nickname, “the rodeo capital of the world.” Gates open at 7 p.m. and events start at 8 p.m. daily through Aug. 31. From $10.
Bear Creek Downs Pig Races
7 miles east of Red Lodge on Highway 308
Eat dinner here or just come to watch — and bet on — pigs as they race around a small sand track. Thursday through Sunday at 7 p.m. until Labor Day.