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Living in Columbus MT to Ride the Beartooth Highway

Back in Laramie we had stopped at a highway rest area and picked up a bunch of brochures covering Wyoming, South Dakota, and Montana. It is amazing what you can learn about an area and the various offerings simply by grabbing some brochures. One of the said brochures was promoting Red Lodge MT and the Beartooth Highway. Unfamiliar with either we took some time learning about the two and made a note to try and visit as we passed along the route.

Fast forward a few months and here we are in Columbus MT, 40 miles from Red Lodge, with the simple goal to ride the Beartooth Highway on the tandem. Dubbed an “All American Highway” the Beartooth is an example of early 1930’s cronyism in Congress where a local representative from Montana was able to pass a bill under the guise that it was for the good of the country when really it was written simply to build this one highway. At a cost of over $1 million back in the 30’s the road was considered, heck it still is considered, an engineering feat. Climbing from Red Lodge at 5,700 ft the road passes over Beartooth Pass at an elevation of 10,900 ft during the course of its 68 mile run to Cooke City and the entrance to Yellowstone.

Closed in the winters due to an average of 60 plus ft of snow the road opens in late May early June and is a very popular destination for motorcyclists and car nuts. Amazingly it is not too big in the cycling circles. From Red Lodge it is about 25 miles of non-stop climbing, with grades averaging about 5%, to the top of Beartooth Pass. While not a short climb by any measure the gradual up makes it a doable trip on a bicycle or tandem as long as you are fit.

We allowed ourselves 1 week in the area to acclimate and enjoy. Arriving on Sunday we looked at the 5 day weather forecast and identified our best window for the ride on Thursday. Of all the days Thursday was forecast to be the coolest, with highs in the low 80’s, and least likely to have afternoon thunderstorms.

On Tuesday we took the tandem and rode a 25 miles roundtrip jaunt up a forest service road to East Rosebud Lake nestled below the Beartooth Mountains. Starting early in the morning we were presented with magnificent views of the surrounding mountains and a beautiful alpine lake at the top. The road paralleled a roaring river filled with snow melt making for stunning pictures and riding.

Thursday morning the alarm woke us bright and early at 6 am and we made the quick drive over to Red Lodge MT. By the time we were parked and off on the tandem it was 8am and it was obvious we were in for absolutely perfect weather. Beartooth Highway, as mentioned before, begins climbing at Red Lodge and does not let up until 25 miles later after Beartooth Pass. The first 11 miles of the ride meandered along a river as we gained elevation through the trees. After mile 11 the famous switchbacks began proving to be more of a psychological barrier over anything else. Knowing you have 14 miles to go and looking up at the road as it snakes back and forth up the 9000 ft mountain face is very disconcerting.

After about 8 miles of switching back and forth up the mountain there is a scenic turnout with restrooms and information. We stopped for a break and from here began the final push to the top. Until the break we were pushing a strong pace up the mountain but passing the 9000 ft elevation mark we found ourselves buffeted by a strong and cold crosswind without protection of trees (we were into the arctic zone now). As fate should have predicted the wind prefaced our entrance into Wyoming where a little roadside rest area allowed us a safe area to rest and add layers of clothing for the final 3 miles to the top of the pass.

To say it was no big deal when we made the top would be an understatement. Marking the highest elevation we have ever ridden the tandem and one of the longest climbs we have ridden period made summiting Beartooth a very rewarding achievement. In a final time of just under 4 hours we reached the top and were presented with panoramic views of the peaks of the Beartooth range. Still capped with snow they made for some dramatic photos before we quickly saddled back up and headed down the mountain. The reward for all of our efforts was 25 miles of downhill through sweeping hairpins and along 1000 ft cliffs. The wide well cared for road surface made the descent a breeze with our tandem racing easily up into the 50+mph range on the straights.

Arriving back at the truck after 50 minutes of descent was a relief. We quickly cleaned up and headed into Red Lodge for a well deserved lunch of bison burgers and fries.


One Response to “Living in Columbus MT to Ride the Beartooth Highway”

  1. Steve & Nancy says:

    I’m enjoying your Beartooth Pass adventure. I’m exhausted just reading it!