Through Montana to Yellowstone on the Beartooth Highway

MOST PEOPLE TRAVEL FOR AN EXPERIENCE, FOR VIEWS OR A MEAL. I travel to take pictures in new places. By the time I went to Montana in the summer of 2016, I had spent enough time as a travel journalist to know that my priorities weren’t necessarily shared by the people showing me around, or by most of the other travel journalists with whom I might be sharing a car, a bus or a train. I think any travel photographer will know what it’s like to watch one great picture after another whizzing by while looking out a window on the way to the next stop on the itinerary, or rushing around to find every shot possible while the rest of the group finishes lunch, or listens to the tour guide.

My trip from Billings to Livingston through the Beartooth Pass and Yellowstone National Park was the first time I traveled with a group of photographers. Our helpful guide for the trip was Donnie Sexton, a Montana native and also a photographer; she understood the needs of this little group and managed to keep us on schedule, while letting us get out of the car to find that picture all the way along U.S. Route 212, aka the Beartooth Highway, and through Wyoming and the park. Even at the time I knew it was a luxury that wouldn’t be repeated very often.

I was the first to arrive at the airport in Billings, while the rest of our group was delayed due to bad weather coming from the west coast. This meant canceling a horseback excursion – the wind would have spooked the horses, not a promising situation for a tenderfoot like myself – for an improvised trip out to Pompey’s Pillar, northeast from Billings along Interstate 94. This sandstone outcrop above the Yellowstone River contains the only physical trace of the Lewis & Clark expedition – a signature and date carved into the stone by Clark in July of 1806, carefully preserved under glass.

We wandered around the big rock looking for shots, avoiding the long grass with the abundant signs warning us about rattlesnakes. From the top of the rock you can see a view over the river very nearly like the one seen by the explorers on their way back east from the Pacific Ocean. “Big Sky Country” is one of the many mottos Montana uses to describe its natural attractions, and as a longtime sky fanatic, I knew already that this trip was going to be special.

Every photographer loves a ruin, and Donnie was happy to indulge me on the way back to Billings when we passed an abandoned house on the side of the road. Montana is one of the least populated states in the USA, surpassed only by Wyoming and Alaska. I realize that this might not be a selling point for most people, but it was definitely a highlight for me.

Back in town, we checked into our hotel and met up with the rest of the group, which included Greg Vaughn from Portland, Oregon and fellow Canadian (via the UK) Callum Snape. They were both nature and wildlife photographers by trade, so I knew I’d be the least experienced shooter for the next couple of days. We started out on Interstate 90 to where Route 212 starts, making it into Red Lodge and the historic Pollard Hotel on the main street. The rest of the afternoon was set aside for a hike up Red Lodge Mountain on the Palisades Trail, at the edge of Custer Gallatin National Forest.

The trail started with deceptive ease, passing through meadows where the biggest challenge was avoiding horses and bikes. Trail guide Nick Gaddy from Beartooth Mountain Guides kept us going most of the way up the mountain, with tempting glimpses of the rolling hills surrounding Red Lodge through the trees. The day was hot, however, and we decided to head back before reaching the peak, with the promise of local craft beer waiting under a brilliant sky.

Red Lodge is a charming town, with fine restaurants, a vintage candy store housed in an old movie theatre, and a helpful Harley Davidson dealership on the main street for all of the bikers making their way along the Beartooth Highway. Look for the main street storefront of photographer Merv Coleman, who has been shooting in the area for forty years. He’s generous with tips and suggestions for getting great shots on your way through the mountains, if you’re lucky enough to catch him in the shop.

It’s not hard to see why Coleman has based himself in Red Lodge – the town is picturesque and lively when the roads are clear in the summer, and the views just a few minutes from main street are stunning. While the rest of the group headed off hunting for a sunset, Donnie took me for a drive just outside of Red Lodge, to the hills looking back to the rest of Montana, where I encountered this polite but wary little crowd milling around under some big, and truly ominous, skies.

WE WERE BACK ON ROUTE 212 THE NEXT DAY. The highway through the mountains is closed in the winter, and had only become clear of snow a few weeks before. This is where the scenery becomes truly astonishing, with viewing areas and rest stops by the side of the road to give everyone a chance to capture the shots they came for. South of Richel Lodge, before the Wyoming border, there are a series of switchbacks that are eminently Instagrammable, though nearly any spot where you can pull off the road will provide a dramatic panorama or a backdrop for a selfie.

A must-see stop on the Beartooth Highway is Wyoming’s Top of the World Store, in the Shoshone National Forest. Open from Memorial Day to mid-October, it’s a one-stop shop for groceries and gas, fishing licenses and souvenirs. There’s even a motel if you decide to stop and take the trip at a leisurely pace. Originally located next to nearby Beartooth Lake, it was moved to the side of the highway in the early ’60s, where it’s become hub and headquarters for nearly every activity in the area, winter or summer.

With our hunger for views primed, Donnie pulls us off the highway south of the Top of the World and onto a road leading to the Clay Butte Lookout Tower. Built as a fire watch tower in 1942, it was in service until the early ’60s, when it was remodeled and turned into a rest stop and visitor information centre. It’s a magnet for photographers as well as geology and botany fanatics, such as the group of wildflower enthusiasts we met as they wandered the meadows outside the tower, bent double as they looked for blooms.

There’s a sort of fatigue that kicks in when you’re shooting in a place like the Beartooth Highway. It’s not so much that you’re desperate for photos, as much as there are simply too many to be had, and it’s important not to get overwhelmed. In a situation like this I find it useful to switch things up – change aspect ratios to compose your shots in squares or panoramas, or try shooting with a telephoto instead of a wide angle lens.

When you visit a place like Clay Butte, your experience is immensely enhanced by the volunteers who often run attractions like this. People like David Whipple, who will point out the names of all the peaks and ranges within sight of the lookout, and describe life as a fire watcher in the days before airplanes took over most of the job. In the U.S. especially, the jobs of docents, guides and historical interpreters are usually filled by volunteers, whose enthusiasm can make an attraction take on added life.

On the road, Donnie’s knowledge of the area, supplemented by Greg’s experience shooting here, meant we stopped frequently hunting for views. Leaving Clay Butte, we pulled off the highway by Brooks Lake Creek Falls because, well, doesn’t everyone love a waterfall? Approaching the Absaroka Range near the end of the day’s drive, we pull off to get one of the iconic views on the Beartooth – Index Peak and Pilot Peak, rising up behind a curve in the road. Not far away I find a helpful sign reminding me that I’m not at the top of the food chain around these parts.

Crossing back over the border into Montana we arrive in Cooke City, a onetime mining town on the road into Yellowstone Park. We have just enough time to drop our bags off in our motel before piling into a pair of ATVs for a ride up the Lulu and Daisy passes into the Absaroka range by the peaks of Miller and Mineral Mountain. There was a gold rush here that began in the late 19th century, and collapsed cabins and rusting machinery still sit out in the clear mountain sun when we drive through.

Our guide is Cooke City’s Bearclaw Bob – aka Bob Smith, a sometime prospector in the mountains who also runs avalanche rescue efforts in the winter and owns the ATV rental business and Super 8 motel, while his wife runs an excellent bakery adjacent to the motel. He’s a great guide, and an indispensable resource for the wild and dangerous history of mining in the mountains, which remains both a resource and environmental concern as recently as the battles over the New World Mining District nearby, which was part of the creation of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area.

While I loved Red Lodge, I absolutely adored Cooke City. With less than a hundred year-round residents and its own museum, the town is snowed in for months in the winter, accessible only by snowmobile after the highway is closed on either side of the mountains. It has a general store on the National Historic Registry, an awful lot of bars, and an abandoned building next to the motel that the locals will happily (and frequently) tell you was once the brothel.

I love places like Cooke City. I would dread living here over one of its long, lonely winters, but a wander around its handful of streets with my camera while the road is busy and the bars full of travelers has me dreaming of renting a summer photo studio in one of the town’s storefronts. I’d shoot locals and visitors on their way through – a modern successor to the town photographers who set up in places like Cooke City a hundred years ago to capture formal portraits of rough men and women looking for fortune or a way to survive. I can’t imagine a better way to end a day of shooting than an evening in the Hoosier’s Bar.

WITH A TAKEAWAY BREAKFAST FROM THE BEARCLAW BAKERY, we leave Cooke City for Yellowstone National Park the next morning. Bob had told us the day before that bison from the park were given to leaving and wandering down the road past Silver Gate and into town. We’re just outside Silver Gate when right on cue a big bull, his winter coat still shedding, ambles around a curve in the highway toward our car. We stand in the road shooting for as long as we can before Donnie insists rather urgently that we get back in, just in case he decides to charge something or someone. But the big animal, his head low and his eye lazily keeping us in focus, simply strolls past the open window where I’m still clicking. I wish him well – his stroll is taking him away from the protection of the park and into the potential crosshairs of a hunter’s gun.

The northeast gateway to Yellowstone is staffed by a charming young park ranger, who asks if we saw the big fella on our way down the road. She gives us the usual warning about approaching wild animals – in one word: don’t – and sends us on our way. It isn’t long before we’re out of the shadow of the mountains and in the plains of the Lamar River Valley. Parked on the side of the road I spot a bit of park history looking like a Kodachrome slide under the cloudless sky – a vintage yellow and black tour bus made by the White Motor Company, one of a small fleet that still travels along the park’s roads.

The bison herd living on the meadows and grass plains of the Lamar Valley are the larger of Yellowstone’s two herds – the only bison population that has lived in place continuously, without being reintroduced after the mass hunts of the 19th century, descendants of just two dozen left after the slaughter. They sometimes fill the wide fields on either side of the road, grazing and lounging in the sun. Occasionally a cluster of tourists will begin wandering too close to the herds, and alarming grunts and bellows will issue from the bulls. The Wikipedia page on the Yellowstone bison features phrases like “surprisingly agile,” “notable strength” and “irritable temperament,” so it’s no surprise that encounters between tourists and bison don’t usually end well.

It’s surprising just how close you can get to wildlife in Yellowstone without even trying. Elk wander and lounge around park buildings by Mammoth Hot Springs, trotting across paths and lying in the shade of trees. This city boy thinks this is about as close as you should get, but it’s not uncommon to see someone, phone held up in front of them, walk off a bus and straight toward an animal, right past the signs warning them to keep away.

Route 212 ends somewhere by Tower Falls and the Petrified Tree, and we take the park roads north back toward Montana. Everyone knows that Yellowstone is one of the most geologically active spots in the U.S., but you really see that vividly at a place like Mammoth Hot Springs. Around fifty hot springs have formed the multicoloured terraces, mounds and cones, going extinct for years or even decades and then coming alive again. It’s a startling, alien landscape, with nearly endless opportunities for shots, with far more variety than more famous Yellowstone attractions like Old Faithful or the Mud Volcano.

We pick up Route 89 near the hot springs for the drive out of the park through the Roosevelt Arch. Built in 1903, thirty-one years after President Ulysses S. Grant dedicated the park before it was even fully surveyed, it had been recently renovated, along with adjacent Gardiner, Wyoming. Dedicated by Teddy Roosevelt, it’s a monument to the battles by legislators and environmentalists to preserve national parkland like Yellowstone, which would eventually lead to the creation of the National Park Service.

On the highway north back into Wyoming, Donnie takes us off the road for a brief stop at a ranch she thought would make for some photos. A big fan of old barns and farm buildings, she makes a great call – it’s almost movie-set-perfect, exactly the sort of iconic scenery that flies by the window, and the opportunity to see it at leisure is appreciated.

Our last night is spent at the Murray Hotel in Livingston, Montana, originally built in 1904 across from the Northern Pacific Railway station. Trains don’t stop here any more, so the hotel leaves ear plugs in every room in case you can’t sleep while freight trains rumble through town at night. (Not a problem I have.) It’s a fantastic old hotel, whose famous guests have included Will Rogers, Jack Palance, Robert Redford and Margarethe II, the Queen of Denmark. Director Sam Pekinpah lived in the hotel for five years from 1979 to 1984, and there’s still a suite that bears his name. (Which, sadly, I didn’t get to stay in. Maybe another time.)

Livingston is a great town, with a well-preserved downtown full of lovely neon signs. The café next to the Murray is a hangout for local fishing guides and the fishermen who rely on them for the best spots, while the town has a notably youthful population, with its own inevitable hipster contingent. At the end of what I can’t help but remember as a life-changing trip, Livingston provided a gentle transition back to regularly-scheduled urban life.

Rick McGinnis was hosted by Visit Montana, which did not approve or review this story.

Photos and story © 2016, 2021 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved