The Beartooth Highway has been heralded as one of the most scenic drives in the United States. Surrounded by multiple national forests and abutting Yellowstone National Park, the Highway sits in a million-plus-acre wilderness. And sitting right at the cusp of this natural universe is the charming town of Billings, Montana, where travelers will find legendary attractions, pristine landscapes, and miles of endless beauty.
We start our beautiful trip in the bustling city of Billings, Montana. Billings boasts an endless amount of activities beyond just visiting neighboring Yellowstone. With hundreds of acres of city parks and multiple trails right within the main city center, visitors can enjoy plenty of hiking and biking. Even better, the Billings Visitor Center will let you borrow a bike for the day at no charge! Or, if you prefer a more mellow adventure, there is excellent shopping and dining along Montana Avenue in downtown Billings. Be sure to check out the adorable boutique Cricket Clothing, stop by Lilac for some amazing local fare, or catch a show at the Amusement Park Drive-In (which also offers some classic carnival rides and mini golf). If it's hot out and you need a quick break, Big Dipper Ice Cream is the place to be—voted one of the best ice cream shops in America.
Pictograph Cave State Park is a must-see if you're in Billings. Not only is the park stunningly beautiful and full of grassy pastures, but the caves inside the park house some pretty remarkable history. The park's three main caves—Pictograph, Middle, and Ghost Cave—were home to generations of prehistoric hunters who left behind numerous artifacts and over 100 pictographs, the oldest of which dates back 2,000 years. There is a three-quarter mile loop that leads to each of the three caves and circles back to the picnic area and visitor center. The park is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the spring and summer months, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the fall and winter months. Entry to the park costs $6 per vehicle, or $4 if you ride a bike. Plan to spend about an hour here, and bring binoculars if you can!
To get the best views of Billings, look no further than Rimrocks. The Rimrocks are actually large sandstone cliffs that were once the shores of the Western Interior Seaway, a large body of saltwater that went from the present-day Gulf of Mexico all the way up to the Arctic North. There are plenty of hikes and trails heading up to the top of the Rimrocks, with Zimmerman Trail being one of the easiest and flattest. In the spring and early summer, wildflowers cover the slopes. Both dogs and bikers are welcome, but anyone with a fear of heights should think twice, as many of the trails will take you to the very edge of the cliffs...
After braving the Rimrocks, treat yourself to a delicious lunch at the Fieldhouse Cafe. Located in the heart of downtown Billings, the Fieldhouse Cafe was started by a husband and wife who wanted to serve local, sustainable dishes and also provide a communal space for people to host parties, take classes, and try new foods. Some local favorites are the Brussel sprouts, the burrata, and the homemade bread (which you can buy to go). Be sure to check out their website and see if any events align with your trip. You may luck out and find yourself attending a burger and wine night or a gourmet pizza and beer pairing.
Before heading out of Billings, be sure to stop by ZooMontana—Montana's only zoo and botanical park. In addition to the many wild animals that call this place home, including tigers, owls, wolves, snakes, and grizzles, the zoo recently added bison, as well. ZooMontana is an ideal place for visitors to see many of the animals you'd find in Yellowstone, but in an up-close, safe environment. The grounds of the zoo are absolutely beautiful as well, with tall trees and a river running right through the park. The zoo frequently hosts special events, like concerts, movies, and family fun nights, so be sure to check the calendar online before you go. Even if you aren't able to make it, there's always the 24/7 live cam of the zoo's two adorable two grizzles, Ozzy and Bruno.
One of the few places you can still see skiers in July, Rock Creek Vista Point is an ideal place to stop and take-in the surrounding views. Right at the beginning of the Beartooth Highway, after a series of switchbacks, you'll see a nice, large turnoff with parking. From here, you'll find long stretches of cleared trails and stone railings, where you can see miles and miles of mountain ranges and maybe even a waterfall or two. Look across the valley to Beartooth Summer Ski Basin—one of the few summer ski areas in the U.S.—and you might even catch some skiers on the slopes. Vista Point is usually open from May to October (weather permitting), and has multiple restrooms on-site.
This wouldn't be the most beautiful roadway in America without a trip down Beartooth Scenic Highway. Starting in Red Lodge, this stunning highway runs along the Montana-Wyoming border and ultimately ends at the Northeast entrance of Yellowstone. Because of its high elevation (reaching close to 11,000 feet at some points), the road is usually only open from mid-May to mid-October. However, there are a few snowmobile paths to explore in the winter. Winding through three different national forests, drivers along Beartooth Highway will experience vast mountain ranges, meadows full of wildflowers, and massive glaciers. The whole highway measures 68 miles, and takes about three hours. Be sure to pack warm clothes, as it can get extra chilly towards the peak.
With an elevation of 10,947 feet, West Summit is the highest point along the Beartooth Highway. The landscape, as to be expected, is outstanding—with superb views of both the Beartooth Mountain Range and the valleys below. There are plenty of places to stop and take in the majestic sites. And, if you're lucky, you may be able to spot the actual "bear tooth" at the West Summit pull-out.
About halfway along Beartooth Highway, you'll hit the small mountain town of Cooke City. And it's here that you'll find Miners Saloon—an iconic eatery serving up delicious homemade pizzas and craft beers. It's not uncommon to find a group of locals sitting around, watching football, and enjoying a slice of Redneck pizza. With a cozy wood and stone interior, you'll feel like you walked into a friend's cabin. And if you're there on Sunday, treat yourself to the weekly Sunday BBQ, which typically includes ribs, some sort of fish, and a fully-loaded baked potato.
Before finishing the last leg of the trip, take a quick rest and book a room at the whimsical Alpine Motel. In true Sierra style, each room is adorned with heavy wood paneling and soft scenic quilts. If you're traveling with a group, try booking a suite, which comes with extra space and a large common area. The hotel offers both free WiFi and free parking, and even has laundry on-site.
Congratulations! When you've hit Specimen Ridge, you've officially made it to Yellowstone National Park. This stunning ridge sits along the south rim of the Lamar Valley, and offers great day hikes for travelers entering or leaving Yellowstone. The Specimen Ridge Trail is one of the most popular hikes but also one of the most strenuous. If you take this trail, be prepared to climb some serious elevation over the course of the three miles. Keep an eye out for any fragments of amethyst and opal, as Specimen Ridge used to be a common place for miners to harvest such precious "specimens."
While you may not be able to swim in the Mammoth Hot Springs, these steaming pools are still worth checking out. Nestled within the blooming green hills, you'll discover what looks like pure-white, cascading water. The Hot Springs were created over thousands of years, as hot water from a nearby spring cooled and deposited calcium carbonate (hence the white coloring). There are plenty of boardwalk trails that wind through and around all the pools, so you can get a closer view. But be mindful of the heat! Seeing as these are hot springs, the steam makes everything much warmer, so bring extra water.
There's no better place to end the most beautiful roadway trip than in one of the most beautiful national parks. There are countless things to see in Yellowstone National Park, from Old Faithful to roaming buffalo to gushing waterfalls, so we'll leave it up to you how to spend your time here. And while most people will be entering Yellowstone through its historic North Entrance, you can look back knowing that you've seen some of the most beautiful sites this country has to offer.
On this trip (as with most road trips), the journey is just as important as the destination. There really is no trip quite like this one—from Billings, down the Beartooth Highway, across magical mountain towns—where the alpine tundra has remained remarkably pure and untouched. After all, Billings isn’t just the gateway to the most beautiful roadway in America, it also happens to be Montana's Trailhead. Click here to learn more about the Beartooth Highway and other road trips around Billings.