Yellowstone Rising: Red Lodge, Cooke City and The Beartooths

Beartooth Mountains near Cooke City

*In June 2022, The Yellowstone River and tributaries caused catastrophic flooding throughout Yellowstone and many of Yellowstone’s northern gateway communities. I want to raise awareness about the beauty and resilience of Yellowstone River communities.

Communities like Red Lodge, Cooke City, Gardiner and Livingston MT are open for business. In this blog series I’m showcasing the beauty and wonder of this gorgeous region.

How you can help:

In today’s Blog post we are taking the scenic route from Red Lodge, MT southwest on the formidable, yet beautiful Beartooth Highway to Cooke City, MT.

Unfortunately Cooke City is not currently accessible via The Lamar Valley in Yellowstone (Cooke City is the northeastern entrance to the park)…HOWEVER COOKE CITY IS OPEN FOR BUSINESS and the most beautiful routes into Cooke City are via:

  • The Beartooth Highway (open seasonally)
  • Chief Joseph Scenic Highway from Cody, WY

No matter what time of year , Red Lodge and Cooke City are always in season for a perfect trip. You can easily dedicate a week to exploring the Cody-Cooke City-Red Lodge ‘triangle’ without even stepping foot into Yellowstone.

Before we dive into today’s scenic detour here are several helpful travel resources to help kickstart your vacation:

Located sixty-three miles southwest of Billings, MT, Red Lodge is a hidden gem and one of the prettiest ways into Yellowstone. Surrounded by high plains and cradled by the towering Beartooth Mountains, Red Lodge is a year round destination for recreation from fishing on Rock Creek to hiking in the neighboring a skiers dream…

Speaking of skiing…Red Lodge is one of the few places in the US you can ski into the summer because of the immense snowpack from the neighboring Beartooths. The US Olympic Team trains right in Red Lodge! Summer skiing info.

Red Lodge is much more than recreation though – it also provides the alpine cool that in my opinion lacks in touted Jackson Hole WY. Red Lodge is authentic American West with a cowboy charm and dose of swank that caters to resort lovers and outdoor enthusiasts.

Downtown Red Lodge is highly walkable with several local museums and a wonderful visitor’s center. This community of 2200 souls provides exceptional hotels, cabins, restaurants and live music.

In planning this itinerary, I recommend booking two nights in Downtown Red Lodge…Day One enjoy the area’s local attractions. Red Lodge and the surrounding communities are filled with beauty, charm and great fun.

My top picks in Red Lodge:

  • Driving to Red Lodge, south from I-90 is worth its weight in gold as you see the high rolling plains and amber ruddy buttes transform into the craggy Beartooth Mountains. Fishtail was one of my favorite photo stops en route to Red Lodge.
  • In Red Lodge – you must visit The Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary. It is amazing and does so much good to promote and educate visitors on the natural wildlife of the region. They are a humane and ethical environmental center that have saved bears, bison, mountain lions, bobcats…and allow you to witness and experience the wildlife in a safe environment.
  • Carbon County Historical Museum: Red Lodge, like many Montana towns has a history attached to mining…this museum allows you to dive into the unique confluence of history in Red Lodge and how this mountain town has survived and thrived.
  • Enjoy a downtown stroll…grab a burger and drinks at The Pollard Hotel, stop for treats at the Montana Emporium
  • To book your AMAZING Red Lodge getaway get started on their fantastic website.

After enjoying a day or two in Red Lodge, fill up your tank (you’ll need the gas for the road ahead), and put on your hiking boots…we’re heading on The Beartooth Highway.

Funny enough, I’ve actually not been able to drive The Beartooth, but I’ve read about its marvels. The three times we made the attempt to drive this scenic highway surprise snow storms closed it down (September).

The Beartooth Highway is typically open from May (Memorial Day) to October – however it does close at times due to weather…but don’t let this deter you.

The Beartooth Highway will take you to the ‘top of the world’ – with views imagination dares to tread on. This All-America Road is not for the faint of heart – it does take several hours to drive the distance from Red Lodge to Cooke City, but in return you’ll be rewarded with pristine mountain lakes…jagged tooth shaped peaks (including the highest summits in Montana) and abundant wildlife.

Make sure you have a full tank of gas. You can stop for souvenirs, views and a bite to eat at The Top of the World Store.

The area has tons of hiking, picnicking and scenic turnouts. I recommend purchasing (or downloading) a travel map of the area so you can have access to the best off road stops.

After driving several hours through ‘heaven on earth’ you’ll reach Yellowstone’s northeastern entrance at Cooke City and Silver Gate.

Cooke City has approximately 100 year round residents (swells to several thousand in the summer). Cooke City is unique because it is completely surrounded by parkland and it’s only year round exit in and out of town is through YNP

This is why Cooke City is particularly in need of your support now. They are open for business and have a lot to offer, but were 100% cut off temporarily after the flooding.

Cooke City + Silver Gate

Credit: Outside magazine

Cooke City and Silver Gate are rugged mountain towns that grew from mining in the area. Tourism is the true gold here, but both interconnected communities still have an ambiance of a forgotten era – with the historic wooden and brick storefronts lining downtown.

My favorite spot in Cooke City is the Cooke City Store – which is over a century old and provides the best mercantile gear for outdoor adventures, camping as well as an amazing scoop of ice cream.

Each of Cooke City’s local restaurants and shops provide local hospitality and top service.

Cooke City is completely sheltered by the shadows of The Absaroka and Beartooths and when the road to Yellowstone is open – you are only a few miles from the world renowned Lamar Valley.

Check into Cooke City-Silver Gate for a small mountain experience and scenery unlike anywhere else in the region and in the world. For up to date tourism info and reservations click here.

Yellowstone Country is calling…

Image near Cooke City/YNP Lamar Valley

Leave a Reply