If you ever get out around Wyoming and Montana there is one road you have got to ride on your motorcycle. The Beartooth Highway runs approximately 60 miles between the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park over to Red Lodge, MT, and it is one of the best you’ll ever see. If you’re on a Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 Vaquero that’s just about a perfect bike for this road.
U.S. 212, as it is otherwise known, comes out of the park and passes first through two tiny communities, Silver Gate and Cooke City, and then starts climbing. For most of the ride you cruise along the ridgeline, above timberline, with incredible mountain views to either side. Coming down on the eastern portion takes you down into a deep valley and you then ride out of the valley to Red Lodge.
If you’re not familiar with riding in the mountains there are a few things you need to be careful about. First off, on a road like this you’re going to be gaining a lot of altitude, and the higher you go the colder it gets. Don’t think that just because you’re in Cooke City or Red Lodge and the temperature is 65 degrees that you’re not going to need warm clothes. And don’t even think that just because it’s August that you won’t necessarily run into snow. When you go that high all those bets are off.
One of our best stories about riding the Beartooth is the time we chose not to ride it. We were coming over from West Yellowstone, where we had spent the night, and we were cutting across the northern part of the park. Our plan was to stop that day at Red Lodge. Of course, Yellowstone is a pretty spectacular place, and there’s a lot to stop and see, so we didn’t exactly blast across it. That meant that it was getting late in the afternoon by the time we exited the park and arrived in Cooke City.
This was our first time here, and while we knew we were just 60 miles from Red Lodge, we were intrigued with Cooke City. It was an old-looking place with a lot of log buildings that seemed as though they could have been there for a very long time. Among these were a set of log cabins that were part of a motel. Back in those days we didn’t make solid plans when we traveled, we just followed our noses. Our noses said that this could be a fun place to stay, so we checked in and found a place to have some dinner. Afterward we strolled around the little town, smoked some cigars, and talked about this terrific road we had ahead of us in the morning.
The morning arrived clear and cold, so cold in fact that we each put on all the warm clothes we had with us. We figured that if we slid on some ice up ahead and went down we’d just bounce and be totally uninjured. Up we went, and up and up, and it was awesome. What a ride. At the very top there was a little store so we stopped for a break and some hot coffee.
We got to talking with the guy running the store. He could see we were on bikes and he had a story to tell us. It seems that the evening before, as he and his wife were closing up shop for the day, there were a bunch of motorcyclists coming over from Red Lodge. It was getting toward sunset and the road was already icing up. They asked if the proprietor would mind riding behind them so his headlights could help illuminate the road in front of them. Of course they obliged.
Going no faster than 15 miles an hour, the group descended toward Cooke City and time and time again the folks in the car gasped as a bike or two in front of them skittered on the ice that by now covered the highway everywhere that melting snow had crossed it during the day. It was a long, grueling ride down, but they all finally made it safely.
And you know what? If we had kept riding, instead of deciding to stay in Cooke City, we would have reached that store going the other way just about the same time this group did. And we would not have had the benefit of these folks helping us down.