Where Wilderness Can Be Mere Feet from the Car
Charles Kuralt described the Beartooth Highway as "the most beautiful drive in America." That is subject to reasonable debate, but there is no doubt that the waterfalls, alpine lakes, tundra fields, and mountain views along this 60-mile drive between the Montana towns of Cooke City and Red Lodge (and dipping into northern Wyoming much of the way) do indeed make this one beautiful drive. Several campgrounds and scenic trails help make the byway a wonderful place to spend a night or two. Remember the heavy-duty bug spray, though; the mosquitoes here are, in my opinion, the worst in Montana and Wyoming.
Aside from the mosquitoes, the area suffers from one notable problem common to all scenic areas that are easily accessible: crowds. So what to do if you love mountaintops but are only passing through out here, in a range where climbing almost any major peak requires at least a one-night stay in the backcountry?
Over the course of a bit less than 24 hours, I learned that the answer is "Quite a bit." And it doesn't even take too much time and effort to find challenges and rewards just off the highway yet "far from the madding crowd."
So think of this as the lazy man's guide to mountaineering along the Beartooth Highway.
Note: All the photographs here are of scenes from the road itself. This is to highlight the scenery and the possibilities out here. The linked pages have photographs of views and conditions from and on the peaks themselves.
Everyone sees Beartooth Butte. Probably close to everyone stops to photograph it. Some even hike the trail beneath its eastern aspect into the Beartooth High Lakes Wilderness Study Area. But only a few bother to expend the modest effort required to reach its summit. Hell, it took me 10 years from first seeing and admiring the mountain to do so.
One reason Beartooth Butte stands out so is that it is very close to the road. Another reason is that it towers over Beartooth Lake, commanding attention. But another reason is that in a range dominated by tundra plateaus and granite mountains, Beartooth Butte seems about as out of place as does a glaciated peak in Death Valley. Especially when seen from the east, the mountain appears more as a rugged, crumbling outpost of the nearby Absaroka Range than it does something from the Beartooths.
I'm not much in the habit of using the word delightful, but I must say that "climbing" Beartooth Butte was one of the most delightful alpine experiences I have ever had. It involved a mostly easy walk along tundra ridges for about three miles. There are expansive views every step of the way, and the views include Granite Peak, the roof of Montana; plateaus and glaciers in the heart of the Beartooths; the Northern Absaroka Range, probably America's wildest mountains outside Alaska; and Pilot Peak, an Absaroka pinnacle that may be the most striking peak in Yellowstone Country, more striking even (for my money) than the Grand Teton. There is a little scrambling in one section near the summit, but that can be bypassed if desired without too much effort (it probably takes less effort to do the scrambling, though).
The easiest way to reach the peak is to start from the good dirt road to Clay Butte Lookout. The road is just one or two miles east of Beartooth Lake, very close to Beartooth Falls and not far west of the Pilot and Index Overlook along the Beartooth Highway.
The highpoint of Stockaid Peak is little more than a rocky swell on the tundra around Beartooth Pass. It is of little interest as a hiking destination, but as a driver continues toward Red Lodge, he or she beholds something of a surprise: the mountain's dramatic east face. Rising almost 1000' from Gardner Lake, steep couloirs and cliffs lead to the gentle tundra slopes of the summit area. This face is popular well into summer with skiers and snowboarders, and it offers some exciting snow climbing with just a short approach. An ice axe is essential, and crampons are almost as important to have.
The couloir starts at a moderate grade and then gets progressively steeper toward the top, where you will likely have to climb or bypass a vertical headwall of snow that when I was there was about 8 feet high. (I climbed it, not liking the bypass option that I had.) I cannot attest to conditions throughout the summer or speculate what average conditions are here, but when I climbed here, much of the snow was hard to the point of being icy or at least difficult to kick-step and drive the shaft of an ice axe into; I had spent the previous two days on mostly soft snow in the Gallatins and decided to leave my crampons in the car when I climbed Stockaid, and I quickly was wishing I hadn’t done so.
Because I didn’t have my crampons, I decided to try the rock islands in order to make the climb a little safer and more varied. The first rock island is at about 10,600’ and separates the couloir into two distinct sections; to the left, it gets narrower and very steep, and to the right, it stays somewhat broad and remains steep but not as steep as the other side. There might have been an easier way up and through the rock island, but I found mostly Class 3 with some brief Class 4 sections. From the top of the island, I climbed a short stretch of snow to another island, which led me to the final snow slopes and to the headwall. It was my wish to finish the climb on snow, but had I not wanted to, there was a third rock island I could have crossed to, and that would have taken me to the summit area snow-free.