Beartooth Pass rivals Going-to-the-Sun
Rubber Tire Roaming
Highway 212 – Beartooth Pass
By Ian Cobb and Carrie Schafer
The Canadian border guard squinted, a product of the hot August prairie sun and my answer to his query: “Where are you from?”
“You’d be amazed at what we’ll do to avoid driving across Saskatchewan,” I pressed.
We were crossing into Manitoba, for our annual visit with family, near Walhalla, ND, which is directly south of Winnipeg.
“I guess so,” the border guard said, trying to visualize the smile shaped route we took to drive from Cranbrook to Winnipeg.
It’s nothing against Saskatchewan. I’ve simply driven every route one can take west to east and east to west when it comes to treks home to Winnipeg from the Rockies over the past 30 years and am always in search of new roads.
So this year, we opted to head to Winnipeg by first rolling southeast through Montana to Red Lodge (southwest of Billings), where we stayed the night. Making the day’s drive a tad longer was a side-trip to Garnet Ghost Town, east of Missoula. As it is a 941 km drive from Cranbrook, I do not recommend taking side trips. We left Cranbrook at about 7 a.m. and arrived in Red Lodge at about 10:30 p.m.
Our destination for day two was Highway 212 – Beartooth Pass, which runs from Red Lodge into Wyoming and terminates at Wyoming Highway 296 – a winding distance of about 110 kilometres. Highway 296 leads a few miles west to Yellowstone National Park and awesome adventures or east to Cody or Powell, Wy.
So what’s the big deal? It is jaw dropping. The route rivals Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun in terms of ‘holy moly’ inducing visuals and epic driving. If you want to get high in Montana, this is the place to go!
Beartooth Pass sits at 3,337.5 metres / 10,947 feet above sea level. For comparison, Kootenay Pass is 1,775 metres/ 5,822 feet above sea level. Beartooth is 1,311 metres higher than Glacier National Park’s Logan Pass.
A good portion of the drive is sharp, winding switchbacks carrying you more than 1,600 metres up from Red Lodge to Beartooth Pass.
The highway would be sweet on a motorcycle and though I don’t believe there is a restriction on vehicle size, I’d recommend against driving over in anything larger than a pickup truck. The fun would turn to work really quickly.
What we recommend: Make this trip a three to five day affair. Stay at Red Lodge for a couple of nights and do a round trip over the pass – and pop into Yellowstone. Reduce the 10-hour drive one way by staying somewhere mid-way (Butte or Bozeman/Livingstone).
Note of reality: We were lucky in terms of weather. It was a gorgeous, sunny summer day – albeit with some smoky skies. The oomph of the drive would be severely depleted by inclement weather. Also, make sure you’ve got good brakes! This highway closes in mid October and re-opens around late May.
Trip total distance (round from Cranbrook) (Aprox.) – Between 2,100 km and 2,500 km, depending if you head into Yellowstone and drive around there or not.
Trip price range – $$$$$ out of 10; affordable. There is a decent range of accommodations in Red Lodge from pricy to affordable.
Go back/Do it again?: Without hesitation.
Most direct route from East Kootenay: Take Highway 93 into Montana at Eureka and go south to Big Fork, south of Columbia Falls; take Montana 83 southeast to Montana 200. Go east on #200 to Montana 141, head southeast to Montana 12 – southwest to Interstate 90. Head east on I-90 to Columbus, Montana and Highway 78; head south to Red Lodge.