April 2013 Highway Tales - Favorite Drives
Remembering The Best
I’m sure that every one of you has a favorite drive. I remember when I got my first “real” car, a ’69 Camaro. I would take it for spirited drives in our Kettle Moraine area with Steppenwolf blasting from the eight-track player, doing my best impression of Mario Andretti behind the wheel. Eventually, I upgraded to a ’72 Javelin-AMX, which is still parked in my garage today, and the drives continued.
Things change as we get older and mature, although there’s always a part of everyone that never grows up. Instead of blasting up a mountain road in a 500-horsepower sport compact, my choices have changed. That mountain road is now traversed at a much lower speed in a 45,000-pound motorhome dragging a Jeep behind.
Yet, the drive is still exciting. The challenge of seeing how fast we can take corners is now replaced by the ability to just get up that mountain to see the awe-inspiring scenery. Once we park at a campground or RV park, the Jeep takes over and the new challenge is not to see how fast we can go but to see how far we can go.
There are a number of favorite drives in everyone’s repertoire, but my wife Leann and I have a few favorites that we always try to work into our travels. It’s important to have more than one because returning to do the same thing over and over again will cause the excitement and anticipation to wane. So we rotate our favorite travel areas to keep that excitement alive.
Undoubtedly, our first and best is the Beartooth Highway. U.S. 212 leaves I-90 near Billings and proceeds south to Red Lodge, Montana. At that point it becomes the Beartooth Highway as it crosses the Beartooth Mountains on its way to Yellowstone National Park’s northeast entrance.
The road begins as a scenic mountain drive through forested slopes. Eventually, it reaches a series of switchbacks that climb the north face of the mountains. This portion of the road is extreme and will tax the cooling systems and transmissions of many RVs, so those whose RVs are not in top shape are best off keeping them in camp and using the tow rig, or towed vehicle, to explore these mountains. For this reason, I only climb these switchbacks in a southerly direction. Heading north puts too much heat into the brakes, which can cause catastrophic brake failure. For those drivers who don’t wish to tackle these switchbacks, an alternate route is available to access the mountains via the Chief Joseph Highway.
Once you have reached the top of the switchbacks, an overlook and parking area offer a nice view of Clark’s Fork and the valley below. From then on, the grades are more manageable as the road winds up, down, and around across the top of the mountains. Above the tree line is arctic tundra and areas of permafrost, where the ground never thaws. In June, it’s not uncommon to see huge snow banks alongside the road and frozen mountain lakes. This scenery is unmatched on any other road in this country.
The Top of the World Store is always a popular stop. Situated in the middle of the Beartooths at 10,000 feet, it’s a great location for exploring the many trails in the area. Side trips to Beartooth Lake, Crazy Creek Falls, and many scenic overlooks abound as the road winds its way down to Cooke City just before reaching Yellowstone. Charles Kuralt traveled the country during his “On the Road” segments for CBS, and he labeled the Beartooth Highway “the most scenic drive in America.” I wholeheartedly agree.