Goodbye I-90 W
A good night’s sleep at last, after two weeks over here. The skies are still cloudy though outside my window but the forecast at my destination is clear, and it’s only a couple of hundred miles away. So I’m unsure what the drive will bring today. I’ve checked the conditions online for a particular road I’m heading towards, and it’s reporting wet with snow and ice. Could be interesting. But, crucially, the road is open. It shuts on October 15th for the winter, so my trip timing was cutting it close.
The hotel has three, maybe four, buildings that house the bedrooms. I’m in a block across a road from the main place where the bar and reception are, plus the breakfast room. At 8.30 am I walk across to find the usual breakfast fare. They do however have a melon, orange and pineapple fruit salad to go with some granola and yoghurt.
My bedroom is good, as is the hotel. And, again, a fridge. From ranting in my diaries a few years ago about the lack of fridges, most hotels this trip have had fridges even when I didn’t need one like today because breakfast was included.
I’m away at 10.10 am. As soon as I’m on I-90 W the cloudy sky descends and there’s a fog warning as well. The weather omens are not looking good. About 14 miles up the road I exit I-90 for the last time. Off the Interstate and onto US-14 W, it is still very cloudy and even foggy in places. A few miles on I see some light in the clouds above, maybe the sun is trying to break through? But the cloud base is still very low. The road starts to climb slowly, and more spots of brightness begin to appear.
“I’m doin’ fine, up here on cloud nine” *
At first there were small patches of blue sky. Literally seconds later, it was like a light was switched on in a dark room. Or the bedroom curtains suddenly flung open on a bright summer morning. The sky is now brilliant blue with not a cloud in sight. Above me, mountains tower, complete with pine-covered hillsides. It is magical. It’s one of those “wow” moments in life.
I was literally driving in fog and then the curtain lifted. It was perfection to behold. Welcome to Bighorn National Forest and the Bighorn Scenic Byway. It is truly a stunning sight. Beautiful. Amazing. I continue to climb the mountain on good roads at reasonable speed, but there are hairpin corners that need care.
At a scenic viewpoint I stop and get out of the car. I look back down the mountain where I’ve come from to see a sea of white cloud, its surface almost flat, covering and entombing the land in gloom, as far as the eye can see. It’s crisp, clear and warm-ish at 55º F. And like another world. Incredible views. Cloud Nine indeed…
Over the next hours or so the scenery and the road are brilliant. I cannot believe the contrast from setting off to what I’m driving in now. It is a superb drive. Maps, as is its wont, suggested a 20 minute quicker drive to my destination by staying on I-90 W. You’d have to be mad to not use the Bighorn Scenic Byway. This is why I come to America.
“As I was motivatin’ over the hill” **
The summit of the road is around 9000 feet and the descent commences. It’s steep in places, sometimes 10% or more. There are dire warnings to truckers about using low gears and there are numerous gravel run-off traps. So I’m merrily driving along about 60 mph on the generally sweeping bends, and slowing down for the slower, tighter corners, when I suddenly have to slam on the brakes and come to – almost – a standstill. There are three trucks in a line going downhill. Doing 7 mph. There are about 10 miles to go until the bottom of the descent according to the signs.
The road has solid double yellow lines – do not cross or overtake. That means I’ll be behind these jokers for an hour and a half. Not likely I decide. Then I realise that the last two trucks are practically nose to tail. I have to await my moment, which takes time because the road is still twisting and turning, with few straight sections. But everything comes to he who waits and eventually I blast past the latter two trucks and into the gap ahead. Then a bit further on there’s another straight section of road and I can get past the lead truck. What made this possible was that they were going so slow that I could get past them. If they’d have been doing any reasonable speed I might have been stuck behind them for ages.
I’m free again and from then on it’s 75 mph all the way down to the valley floor, where I leave the National Forest. A truly great drive. Apart from the trucks, there was no traffic, a great road and even better scenery. I then notice that my gas tank is nearly half empty. Despite a full tank when setting off, and having done only 120 miles so far, I conclude the car must burn fuel at an alarming rate when going uphill on tricky roads. Another mountain pass awaits ahead so I decide to fill up somewhere before I get to it.
Off the mountain the landscape is now a flat plain with a few hills here and there. In the distance, I see more mountains. Further on I enter Montana and deviate slightly into Bridger to get gas, some lukewarm coffee and a cookie. Back out of town, it’s a left turn to take me towards Red Lodge.
“The most beautiful drive in America”
The road is fast, with no traffic to speak of. There are a few strange rock formations to create some roadside interest. The day’s main event lies ahead. State Highway 308 descends into the western side of Red Lodge at a junction with US-212. I turn left, onto US-212 W, which is now called the Beartooth Highway and a National Scenic Byways All-American Road. This road is was called “The most beautiful drive in America” by a CBS journalist many years ago…. We shall see.
Along a valley floor to start, the views are indeed stunning. Trees line the hill sides, the sun is shining down, scattered pure-white clouds are dotted across a blue sky. The road starts to climb. The switchbacks begin. They are not that tight on this side of the mountain but care is still needed. After each switchback takes me higher, the view changes, each seemingly more stunning than the last. There are scenic viewpoints to stop and take in the view, plus multiple turn-outs. Where to stop? If you stopped at every one, you’d be on the Beartooth Highway all day!
It is, however, a beautiful, breathtaking drive up the mountain. With dry and sunny weather it’s a pleasure to drive. I’m not quite sure where the Montana Department of Transportation website got their snow and ice weather forecast from for today, but I’m sure glad it was wrong.
At the top there’s a surprise in that it’s almost flat, there’s not a summit peak, but a plateau – the Beartooth Plateau, in fact. The road continues to rise little by little whilst driving along the ‘top’. After what seems ages I come across a sign reading ‘Beartooth Pass Summit, Elev. 10947 ft’, the highest point. I get out to walk around at the summit, and it’s quite windy, but there’s not a lot to see apart from the views all round.
Over The Summit
The descent begins. Over the summit the vista is of a more open landscape with distant mountains and rugged scenery. Some of the switchbacks are tighter here on the way down. Even as the road starts to flatten out, the scenery remains as incredible as the other side, albeit in a different way. It’s also constantly changing as I drive along, and is always great to look at. I do think however that driving east to west, as I did, is the best way.
Eventually the Cooke City town marker comes into view and I pass the Super 8 Cooke City Yellowstone Park Area motel that is home for the night on the outskirts of town. It’s 4.20 pm and I cruise up the high street to see where the bars I’d scoped out are located, and for gas. I pull into a Sinclair gas station to re-fuel. I spotted the Miner’s Saloon but not the Beartooth Café. It’s a very small town so I’m surprised I couldn’t see it. Time to check-in.
I’m on the second floor but there’s no elevator, but that’s about the only thing wrong with the place. It’s a clean, modern and spacious room. The receptionist told me the Café has closed for a month, after the summer season and before the onset of winter. She says snow is expected in the next couple of weeks – and will then continue all the way through until June next year! 9 months of snow cover!!
Later on I walk down the main street to the Miner’s Saloon. The place has an up and down reputation on TripAdvisor. Mainly this seems to be that the owner and waitresses can take against customers for no apparent reason, leading to some damning reviews. Equally, others love the place. So, my antenna is primed for surly staff.
I squeeze in at the bar between two guys, last seat available. The barman appears to be the owner, from comments I overhear. He blanks me for a number of minutes. When he eventually heads down my end of the bar, I ask very politely for a beer. It has become clear during this time that this guy has an attitude problem with customers. I wonder to myself what the hell he is doing in a customer-facing role, running a bar. I quickly figure out that if you said the wrong thing – in his mind – to him, you’d be toast.
So I play the very nice guy and I do get along with him for the rest of the night. The two guys either side of me are from out of town, and we start talking. I never got to know their names, or much of their lives, but we all have a good chat about all sorts of stuff. Just like bar chats used to be in the US many years ago. We don’t know each other but we swap stories without annoying each other. 😉
We pay our checks and bid each other farewell. I then decide however to have another beer, but I move away from the bar to a table to write some diary, away from Danny, the owner, and his prying eyes. My eyes also half-follow the end of MNF on TV. I finish my beer, settle up and walk back to the motel. The Beartooth Highway is deserted at 10 pm.
There was some stunning scenery on today’s drive, and some great roads. Is the Beartooth Highway “the most beautiful”? Over it’s whole length it certainly is great to look at, there’s very few ‘naff’ bits, if any. But in parts the Pacific Coast Highway beats it, just, I think. But there’s no winner as such, beauty is in the eye of the beholder…
What I do know is that the Bighorn Scenic Byway and Beartooth Highway made for a great day on the road. Tomorrow, into Yellowstone National Park.
* Cloud Nine by The Temptations
** Maybelline by Chuck Berry