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Braving the Beartooth

March 1, 2015
Chief Joseph Switchbacks

High elevations, scenic look-offs and a seriously twisty road make this National Scenic Byway a motorcyclist’s treasure

Story and Photos by Liz Jansen

Are you Liz?” Almost two weeks into a six-week solo trip and 3000 kilometres from home, I wasn’t expecting to meet up with anyone I knew, let alone at the top of a desolate mountain pass. Headed south from Red Lodge, Montana, I’d pulled into the gravel lookout near the summit of Beartooth Pass. Loaded with camping equipment and gear for extended travel, I called on my slow-speed skills as I picked my way across the uneven rocky surface amidst dozens of bikes, heading for a clearing at the far end of the lot. Braced against the cold and wind at an elevation of over 3300 metres, I was focused on stopping my tall bike safely and dismounting, without a tip-over.

View from Chief Joseph BywayBalancing precariously against the gusts, I smiled blankly at the handsome stranger, standing beside his friend and their parked bikes. He was the husband of a good friend, and although I hadn’t met him yet, I was headed for their home, where I’d been invited to spend the night. The guys were returning from the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and, like everyone else there, had stopped to take in the incredible view.

Elevation aside, the panorama from this spot, where snow can close the road in July, is absolutely breathtaking. Descending into the surrounding wilderness envelops you in unequivocal beauty between earth and sky, and connects you to the land, its history and its culture. Despite noble efforts, the sheer power of nature has overridden any attempt man has made to tame it.

The roads in these wilds of northwestern Wyoming and southern Montana create an exhilarating sensory experience. You can access the area from one of three gateways: Cody, Wyoming – which was my starting point – Red Lodge, Montana, or Cooke City, Montana. My route took me north from Cody, via Chief Joseph Scenic Byway and the Beartooth Highway, to Red Lodge. Here I turned around, returning via the Beartooth, this time continuing west through Cooke City and on to Yellowstone National Park.

Legend of the West

Riding down the roadA mecca for riders, Cody still embodies the spirit of the Wild West. No one symbolizes it better than William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody, for whom the town is named. Attracted to the area in the late 1800s by the abundance of fish and game, and the potential for agricultural land development, he invested in projects that he hoped would bring economic growth to the West.

Walk through the doors of the landmark Irma Hotel and back into the Old West to enjoy a meal or relive day’s past in the Silver Saddle Saloon. Built in 1902 and named after Buffalo Bill’s youngest daughter, the hotel reputedly housed famous personalities such as Frederic Remington, Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane.

A few blocks south, fascinating artifacts and gripping tales in the Buffalo Bill Museum move you back in time to when the Plains Indians lived in harmony with the land, its resources and the cycles of nature. The subsequent turbulent history is chronicled through the life, times and strength of Buffalo Bill. Despite shifting financial and personal fortunes, he remained optimistic, willing to invest his heart and soul in his dream. The 25,000 people in attendance at Buffalo Bill’s funeral on January 10, 1917, were a testament to the spirit he personified and ignited in others – a spirit which lives on to this day.

You’ll leave Cody with a new appreciation for the land and its early inhabitants as you ride north out of town on Highway 120. The wide-open plains and endless blue sky absorb you into a timeless space, which looks much as it did hundreds of years ago, minus the buffalo. How inhabitants were able to survive here is mind-boggling, as is the beauty, which is felt, not just seen.

Flight for Freedom

AView of Beartooth Montanalthough you can continue north, to Red Lodge on Hwy 120, you’ll want to turn west 27 kilometres down the road onto Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, Wyoming 296. It’s named after the chief of the Nez Perce, who along with 800 members of his tribe, was fleeing to Canada along this route, away from the U.S. Cavalry, which was trying to force them onto a reservation. After 13 battles and more than 2100 kilometres, and only about 60 kilometres from the Canadian border, Chief Joseph was forced to surrender, imparting this famous quote: “Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

The straight, placid entrance is deceiving. An overlook, not too far in, offers a…

One Comment

  1. Wonderful photos, Liz. I rode here back in ’07 and your vivid description brings back great memories. Thank you.

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