There are many ways to get to Billings, Montana, the start of one of my favourite rides – the Beartooth Pass. For Debra and me, getting there can be a bit of a challenge with 850 kilometres of open prairie to cover, but if the winds are light and temperature moderate, that in itself is a rewarding experience. Before leaving Billings, be sure to check out the Billings Motorcycle Club event schedule. With 9 tracks on 1421 acres of ground, there is usually something going on. The hill climb track is spectacular!!!
Heading southwest from Billings to Red Lodge takes you through rolling hills, past small creeks and cooler temperatures. I have travelled here many times during the summer and have only hit rain once. Sunny and warm days are typical, cooling off at night. Watch for deer especially at dusk and dawn.
Red Lodge is a small town at the base of the Beartooth Pass and although it caters to tourists, it feels like a homey mountain town. You must visit the Montana Candy Emporium on Broadway Avenue (main street Red Lodge). Even if you don’t have a sweet tooth, the store is like travelling back in time with antiques displayed, candies from the past you probably thought long gone and great fudge. You can buy assortments by the pound at you stroll through the seemingly hundreds of bushel baskets or select pre-packaged sweets. I have never seen a bigger or better candy store and I have a sweet tooth!
Stay in Red Lodge for a day and take Highway 308 East for 7 miles to Bear Creek. A few houses and the Bear Creek Saloon & Steakhouse are all that you find as you pop over the top of the winding foothills highway. Don’t be surprised if you need a reservation for the Steakhouse or you may have to wait a bit – the food is that good, but don’t worry about waiting – the Pig Races will keep you entertained.
At the rear of the building you will find Bear Creek Downs where piglets, each dressed in a numbered bib, dart from the starting gate and run a circuit around the oval track. Just like horse racing, you can bet on your favourite and the crowds are boisterous and friendly. It took an act of legislation in the Montana Capital to allow parimutuel betting on pigs and profits from the track are donated to charity, so it is fun and worthwhile.
Leaving Red Lodge on Highway 212 you are immediately in the mountains. A series of switchbacks lead you up 1650 feet of shear mountainside to the Rock Creek vista, where you can stop to admire the mountain peaks. Watch for traffic on the switchbacks, as it is easy to lapse into tourist gawking mode at the spectacular scenery. Go off the road and only a parachute will save you!
Past the vista, you are riding sweeping corners winding through high mountain meadows. Deep snow banks line parts of the road even in late July and are perfect for a snowball fight. At the 10947 foot summit, you can see the top lift towers of Beartooth Basin, North America’s only summer ski area.
Riding the rocky tops of the mountains on your way to the North East entrance to Yellowstone National Park, you can find clear mountaintop lakes, wildflowers and marmots sunning themselves on the rocks. The views are breathtaking. The winding highway has been paved in the last couple years but winter conditions take their toll (the pass is closed in winter) so pay attention to the roads.
Cooke City is the last town before the park. Tenting is often closed because of bears in the area so make reservations either there or in Yellowstone Park before travelling – summer is extremely busy, or you can simply turn around and ride the 68 miles of the Beartooth Pass back to Red Lodge again. The ride is well worth it!