Cycling Beartooth Pass (Montana) is one of the greatest bike climbs in the United States - Bucket List!
This climb is has been hailed for the past 50 years as “The most beautiful road in the United States.”
Ride 30 miles gaining 6,040’ to elevation 10,949 at 3.4% average grade.
This is an absolutely gorgeous climb - there is no room for debate about this. The climb throughout is fairly mild and it is the length, elevation gain and altitude that puts the climb legitimately in the Top 100 U.S. Climbs - it would be in the Top 25 Most Scenic Climbs if we were to create such a list.
Beartooth Pass from the north begins in Redlands, Montana.
Population 68,747 (2017); elevation 1,358’.
We enter Custer National Forest at mile 4.8 and begin climbing up a canyon where the roadway begins a 6 mile series of spectacular switchbacks (see slideshow) at mile 14.
Mile 7.3 - Custer National Forest
Established 1908 by Teddy Roosevelt; 1,188,130 acres.
This is the alternate start spot - paved parking here.
The more scenic Beartooth North route begins 8 miles from Red Lodge at the beginning of the Beartooth Scenic Byway At this location, there is a public parking lot where you can park your car and begin our climb, thus eliminating 7.3 miles from Red Lodge that gain you only 790’ at 2% (dropping the FIETS index only a bit from 7.80 to 7.62). Here is a link to the RideWithGPS map for this alternate climb route.
Beartooth Pass is, not surprisingly, in the Beartooth Mountains of south central Montana and northwest Wyoming.
Exceptional views as we climb towards the switchbacks.
Very few trees - minimal visual obstructions of the surrounding views.
The views up towards the roadway to come, and back at the roadway already travelled are magnificent along the switchback corridor (see slideshow). It is along this stretch that we fully appreciate being on the bike as we have none of the restrictions of motorists along this scenic route - we can stop where we please, cross the road (when safe, of course), go any speed we please and, quite simply, fully appreciate the splendor of this magnificent climb. Words do not do justice to the climb, although we believe the photographs in the slideshow above prove our point.
7 giant hairpins for 6 miles from mile 14.3 to 20.2
The hairpin section is 6 miles at 4.5% from elevation 7,900’ to 9,300’ at 4.5%
This climb is never “difficult” in the sense of steepness or challenging grade, but it is long and climbs to high elevation. We had trained and were prepared for many days of back-to-back-to-back Top 100 climbs, yet Beartooth was more demanding than anticipated - we feel it’s primarily the altitude that taxes the rider, particularly those from lower elevation venues that cannot train for altitude before tackling this climb. The first 10 miles of the full route gain only 1,165' at 2% average grade while miles 10-26.5 pick up to 4.5% average grade, gaining 4,075' along the way. At mile 26.5 there is a 1.3 mile -4.9% average grade descent (-350') followed by a final 2 miles at 3.8% (we could have gone without that 350’ ascent on the way back to Red Lodge!.
Beartooth Highway is the highest paved highway in the northern Rocky Mountains and was referred to by the late CBS news correspondent Charles Kuralt as "the most beautiful drive in America” which offers the following description of the roadway:
The Beartooth Highway is a 68-mile travel corridor, beginning (at its easternmost terminus), just south of Red Lodge, Montana at an elevation of 6400 feet and ending (at its westernmost terminus) near the Northeast Entrance to Yellowstone National Park and Cooke City and Silver Gate, Montana, at an elevation of 7500 feet. In between those two elevations, the road rises to 10, 947 feet at Beartooth Pass in Wyoming. The section of the Beartooth Highway that has been awarded the National Scenic Byways “All-American Road” status is a 54 mile section of the Highway beginning 8 miles south and east of Red Lodge and ending just east of Cooke City, Montana.
Our research indicates there had been a race up Beartooth from Red Lodge in recent years past, but it is unclear if it has survived - we welcome and will include any input regarding the viability of this event. A past post for the event beartooth blitz notes “The run up Beartooth Pass was recently named one of the 5 top bike climbs in the nation, the Beartooth Pass is a once-in-a-lifetime ride.”
Roadway surface and traffic: The roadway is in excellent condition. Traffic was fairly heavy when we climbed the pass on August 3, 2015. We were surprised that there were many more motorcyclists (the touring, not low slung racers) than cars on Beartooth - we later learned this was related to the beginning of the annual Sturgis SD Harley Davidson week-long festival was about to begin.
The roadway is in pristine condition.
In a nutshell - if you ever have the opportunity to do this climb - DO IT! Do not pass up the opportunity - it is a Bucket List Climb in our opinion. We loved the scenery, the altitude challenge, the spectacular views and, although we are very partial to these, the switchback views, particularly looking back at the roadway that we had already travelled in the far distance well below us (representative photograph)
The Challenge: We have mapped and recommend for anyone interested in (a) a significant climbing day/challenge, and (b) expanding the spectacular experience of Beartooth Pass North - the following out-and-back ride from the beginning of Beartooth Scenic Hwy North to the start of Beartooth Hwy Climb South and back which involved 88 miles riding and 9,866’ of climbing (Map)
Steepest ¼ mile begins at mile 21.9 (9.3%) and steepest mile begins at 15.8 (6.3%)
This side of Beartooth does not rise to the Top 100 level, but it is still very scenic and challenging. The foremost challenge to this side of Beartooth is that it also ends at the same high elevation as the north ascent of Beartooth Pass. This route begins 20 miles closer to the Northeast Entrance to Yellowstone National Park (15.8 miles to be precise) and can be included in an ambitious out-and-back from Roosevelt Lodge at the northcentral part of YNP (130.8 miles / 9,691’ climbing - Map of this route).
The climb itself is very scenic, although a bit different than the spectacular canyon/switchback views we experience on the north side of the pass. On the south side, we still have the excellent road and long gradual climb, but the scenery is a bit “softer” (absent is the long entrance into and through steep canyons with the switchback views), replaced by more views of meadows and lakes. Leave no doubt, this is an exceptionally scenic climb and we only qualify it because it competes with a Top 25 U.S. scenic ascent on its northern side.
Traffic and Roadway: We have the same traffic “congestion” on this side as we do on the north side due mainly traffic flow in and out of the northeastern entrance to Yellowstone (just to the east of Cooke City-Silver Gate).