You can’t help but stop to admire Beartooth Butte as you drive along the famous Beartooth Highway connecting the Montana towns of Red Lodge and Cooke City while also cutting through some of the finest Wyoming alpine scenery visible from a road. Three principal road-accessible spots offer the best views of the peak: the switchbacks just west of Beartooth Pass, Beartooth Lake, and the Clay Butte Lookout. The second and third of those spots are places to begin a trip to the top of this impressive mountain that, although much lower than other major Beartooth Mountains summits, still appears as impressive as almost any other peak in the range by virtue of its standing apart from the main peaks and plateaus of the range and being so close to a good road.
It is more than just being set apart from the main range that makes Beartooth Butte seem not to be a Beartooth peak at all. While most peaks in the range consist overwhelmingly of granite and gneiss, Beartooth Butte consists mostly of Paleozoic sediments (though granite and gneiss are underneath), the colors and consistency of which make one think more of the nearby Absaroka Range. The high Beartooth Plateau, one of the country's largest contiguous areas of alpine tundra (vying with parts of Utah's High Uintas and Colorado's Weminuche Wilderness), separates Beartooth Butte from the main thrust of the range's peaks. Almost all the named peaks in the Beartooths are above 11,000', with many above 12,000' (the only part of Montana where mountains exceed 12,000'), yet Beartooth Butte is a relatively diminutive 10,514', lower than road-accessible Beartooth Pass not too far away. Finally, whereas the peaks in the heart of the range are glacially polished and chiseled, with many of the peaks still supporting active (but shrinking) glaciers, Beartooth Butte looks more like something from the type of arid country seen in many Westerns; looking just at the eastern face and not noticing the lake at its base, you might think you were in southern Utah.
It is not Beartooth's Butte fault that it stands apart and seems so different from the rest of the range to which it belongs. When the range pushed upward millions of years ago, there formed a fault line known today as the Heart Mountain Detachment Fault. Sediments slid to the south and found a resting place in the high desert near where Cody, Wyoming is today. The rocks of Beartooth Butte did not go as far as the high desert, obviously, but they are among the rocks exposed and moved by that upthrust and the associated cracking of the earth's crust. Then erosion by wind and water went to work and have continued to do so ever since. Had the rocks that formed Beartooth Butte lain north of the fault line, the mountain, however it might look, would likely be in the middle of the Beartooth Plateau. This article by another SP member offers a more-detailed account of some of the processes that were at work here, although the focus is almost exclusively on Heart Mountain, which is actually visible to the southeast from Beartooth Pass.
Greater Yellowstone is home to some of the world's best mountain wilderness; it has vast roadless tracts and teems with big wildlife, including the predators that make such ecosystems healthy and complete. Beartooth Butte is on the edge of that wilderness, both physically and politically. In one direction, one sees roads and cars. But in all others, there is an ocean of forests, meadows, lakes, glaciers and snowfields, and massive granite peaks. Climbing Beartooth Butte offers a step into this great wilderness for those who lack the time or the experience to reach its core.
This is because although climbing a Beartooth summit often requires two or three days due to the long approaches into the interior of the wilderness, Beartooth Butte can be climbed in just a few hours. And yet it has top-of-the-world views of the highest mountains in Montana, including the snow-draped hulks of Glacier Peak and Mount Villard, and Montana’s highest, Granite Peak; and what are likely Wyoming and the Lower 48’s wildest mountains and among the hardest to access, the Northern Absarokas. The simplest way to the summit involves mostly easy tundra walking along wildflower-covered ridges. If you want to experience a Beartooth summit without the long approaches, this is a great one for it. And it’s also gentle enough and short enough for many kids.
One real warning that comes with this peak concerns weather. Weather in the Beartooths is especially mercurial, and sunny days can turn stormy early and fast. Atop level tundra ridges, you will be about as exposed to lightning as one can be if bad weather moves in. Even though it’s a short “climb,” always carry waterproof gear and wind protection out here.
Another warning concerns the mosquitoes. Rumor has it that Alaska has the worst mosquitoes in the United States, and, never having been to Alaska, I can neither confirm nor challenge that statement. However, I have been throughout most of the conterminous states, including most of the major mountain ranges, the North Woods, and the Everglades, and I will swear that I have never seen mosquitoes worse than those in the Beartooths, and they always, for some reason, seem especially bad around Beartooth Butte and Clay Butte, where clouds of the bloodsuckers greet you instantly when you step from a car; just the act of quickly opening and shutting the door will usually allow entry to a dozen or more. So be warned; the Beartooths are a place for DEET. To those who have philosophical or physiological reasons for not using DEET, I offer my scorn (for the former) and my sympathy (for the latter).
The signed turnoff for Clay Butte Lookout is around Mile 25 on the Beartooth Highway, 21 miles east of Cooke City. The gravel road winds and climbs for almost three miles to a parking area at the lookout, which is manned in summer and is also a popular tourist destination for the fine views of the Absaroka and Beartooth high country. Situated at timberline, it is also an outstanding place to see alpine wildflowers (the high, lush Beartooths are actually one of the best ranges in the country to see such blooms).
If you are going to climb the eastern face, park at the Beartooth Lake Recreation Area, which is a few miles east of the Clay Butte turnoff.
The Beartooth Highway opens in late spring and closes in early fall (typically around Memorial Day and the first week of October, respectively, and motorized access in winter is by snowmobiles only), though the particular year's conditions may speed up or delay the opening/closing. If visiting during those shoulder periods, it is best to check on road status ahead of time. This site has general information about the road and has links and phone numbers for finding out about current road conditions.
The easiest route to the summit is Class 1 and 2 all the way, involving about 3.5 miles of hiking with up to 1000’ of elevation gain. From the Clay Butte Lookout at 9800’, a marked trail leads up a ridge parallel to Beartooth Butte and quickly climbs 200 moderately steep feet to the ridgetop. This is the hardest part of the climb. Then just follow a horseshoe-shaped ridge system around to the summit; in some sections, there is a trail through the tundra, so please use it to lessen your impact on this fragile area. Views seem endless all the way, and a more pleasant hike is hard to imagine. One rocky section about half a mile from the summit requires a little scrambling, harder (even into Class 4) the closer one stays to the ridgetop. It is possible to keep this at a hike by staying below the rocks, but it's more fun to stay high and do a littlr scrambling.
Some variations are possible. One is to head straight from Clay Butte Lookout to Beartooth Butte, an air distance of less than a mile and ground distance of not much more than that. The problem with this route, though, is that you first must descend anywhere from 200-400’ to the bottom of a drainage and then hike straight up steep talus and dirt to the summit, a climb of 900-1100’. This may not end up saving any time over the longer route along the ridgelines, and it will certainly be far more tiring.
Another variation is to start from the 180-degree curve a little less than a mile from the lookout, just before a gate. The starting elevation here is 9600’, and you head straight up the steep slopes, gaining 400’ in no more than a quarter-mile to reach the ridgetop. This route is a little more strenuous than the trail one from the lookout, but it trims a little distance and enables you to avoid the sometimes circus-like atmosphere at the lookout. This is the route I used.
Climbers viewing this peak from Beartooth Lake will doubtlessly wonder if there is a way up the steep, rugged eastern face. There is. Actually, there are several that I noticed from atop the summit ridge, and those I saw looked to be no harder than Class 3. There are certainly many possibilities for technical climbs, but the rock may not be trustworthy for protective gear. The scrambling I did among the rocky section on the summit ridge put me on rock that was great for the boots but rough on the hands, and I expect much of the eastern face would be the same way, and probably loose in many places as well. But as I said, there are non-technical ways to get up that side.
To reach them, you must hike up the trail that leaves Beartooth Lake and heads into the Beartooth High Lakes Wilderness Study Area and from there into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness of Montana. The portion of the trail around Beartooth Lake is boggy and a haven for mosquitoes. You only have to hike two to three miles until you are around treeline and can view ways to make a cross-country approach to the peak and then a climb of it.
I took these pictures around noon, and the first two are heavily cropped because the peaks were so far in the distance. Thus, they're not the greatest, but these shots represent the views north from the peak deep into the wilderness of the Beartooth Mountains. Each looks better if you click on it and then view it in the "Large" format.
There are no fees or other red-tape issues. Just remember about the weather and the mosquitoes and treading as lightly as possible on the alpine tundra. Although the Beartooths are in grizzly country, there is little chance of encountering a bear in the Clay Butte-Beartooth Butte area (but that does not mean there is no chance).
There are several campgrounds along the Beartooth Highway between Cooke City and Beartooth Pass. The closest one to Clay Butte is at Beartooth Lake, and the next closest is about 3 more miles east at Island Lake. Expect both to fill on holidays and weekends, so arrive early.
There is no camping allowed at Clay Butte Lookout or along the access road, but you can always don a backpack if the weather looks good and spend a night up on the ridges. Expect it to be windy and cold.
Cooke City and Red Lodge have several motels and lodges. Red Lodge is larger and has much more of a selection. Some of the motels are franchises of national chains and accept online reservations.
Only a few miles east of the peak is Top of the World Resort. This property has a store, campground, and motel rooms (only 4, so reservations are strongly recommended.