SCENIC RED LODGE IS THE ANCHOR FOR ROAD-TRIPPING the Beartooth Highway. After just a 60-mile drive from the Billings Logan International Airport, it’s easy to kick back in this no-pressure mountain town, where the annual three-day rodeo and Western Victorian architecture aren’t manufactured kitsch. In 1897, the Sundance Kid tried to rob a bank here. Buffalo Bill Cody and Calamity Jane slept at The Pollard Hotel. Red Lodge, and especially its main drag, Broadway Avenue, has a nearly mythic Old West aura.
You could spend a fine day just eating. Montana Candy Emporium, filled with antique bicycles and vintage signs, peddles chocolate truffles and old-fashioned sweets. Piccola Cucina at Ox Pasture serves classy Italian farm-to-table cuisine. On the banks of Rock Creek, the Red Box Car blends slurp-worthy shakes in an actual 1903 railway boxcar. Prerogative Kitchen delivers epicurean fast-casual fare. In between noshing, tour Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary, home to wolves, black bears, bison, elk and falcons that are unable to return to the wild. End the day in a wood-paneled room at Alpine Lodge, or sleep in bed-and-breakfast style at the gracious Inn on the Beartooth.
DESTINATION DRIVE In the morning, grab a breakfast burrito at art-filled Honey’s, then point your wheels toward the Beartooth Highway (U.S. 212). Many have called it one of America’s most beautiful drives, and with good reason. The road ascends 5,000 feet as it travels past majestic granite, cobalt lakes and grand alpine landscapes encompassing 20 peaks higher than 12,000 feet. But the byway’s season is brief; snowfall typically closes it from mid-October until Memorial Day weekend. Opened in 1936, the 68-mile-long engineering marvel winds through switchbacks to 10,947 feet at Beartooth Pass. Your reward: top-of-the-world scenery, an astonishing panorama of glacially carved cirques and lingering snowfields.
You’ll need at least three hours for driving with stops at scenic overlooks, but if you can afford more time, get out of the car and hike. Drive to the trailhead at Island Lake and trek out-and-back to other high-country lakes; or, as the road nears Cooke City, take the short Flume Trail at Clarks Fork to see ruins of an early 1900s hydroelectric plant and gaze at cascading waterfalls.
PREP FOR YELLOWSTONE When the Beartooth Highway delivers you to Cooke City, stop by the Cooke City Montana Museum for local history exhibits, then grab a few supplies in town—Bearclaw Bakery’s pecan sticky buns have devoted fans. Make your way to Yellowstone National Park’s northeast entrance and the wildlife-rich Lamar Valley, where you may spot bison, elk and coyotes. To increase your chance of wildlife sightings, join a Day Adventures session with the nonprofit Yellowstone Forever Institute.
At the Tower-Roosevelt junction, head south to see Tower Fall, framed by imposing volcanic pinnacles, as its waters plummet 132 feet. Two miles away at Roosevelt Lodge, ride in a covered wagon to a barbecue cookout. Continue on to Gardiner, just outside the park’s north entrance with its grand 1903 Roosevelt Arch, to set up your basecamp for Yellowstone area exploration. The rustic-chic Wonderland Cafe and Lodge gives you space to spread out in its mountain-view rooms decked out in reclaimed wood—plus the first-floor restaurant tempts with perfect steaming lattes in the morning and dishes like elk chili at night.
See as much of Yellowstone as you can. The steaming travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs lie just 5 miles south of Gardiner. Farther into the park, loop down to highlights like the trails near Canyon Village, with spectacular views of the upper and lower falls of the Yellowstone River; the West Thumb Geyser Basin; and Old Faithful, with its walking paths to Geyser Hill.
WILD AND WET North of the park, go rafting on the Yellowstone River. Montana Whitewater offers mellow Class II runs perfect for first-timers, plus combined rafting and zipline tours. Wild West Rafting offers overnight river trips; float during the day and spend the night in a riverside teepee.
When it’s time to put Gardiner in your rear-view, head north on U.S. 89, stopping in Pray for a soak at Chico Hot Springs or to sleep in style at riverfront Sage Lodge. Then move on to the aptly named Paradise Valley and stylish Livingston. Explore Main Street’s high-end art galleries, including the Livingston Center for Art and Culture. At Mustang Fresh Food, chef Carole Sullivan’s new frontier cooking has satisfied the appetites of President Barack Obama and Martha Stewart. Faye’s Cafe entices diners with eclectic food served in a colorful old schoolhouse. Trust in Faye and order the chef’s special, whatever it is. The historic Murray Hotel makes a cozy, convenient overnight in walking distance of the Yellowstone Gateway Museum, Livingston Depot Center and two dozen restaurants.
On your final day, stop at Big Timber, located where the prairies meet the curiously named Crazy Mountains. (There are many theories, but nobody knows exactly how these peaks got their title.) Step back in time at the Crazy Mountain Museum, a shrine to Sweet Grass County’s past with a vintage dentist chair, Model T Ford and Stetson chaps. At the 1890 Grand Hotel, order an elk sausage sandwich and savor this trip’s last meal. Then make your way back to Billings and dream of driving this circuit all over again, in reverse.
At the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area near the Crow Indian Reservation south of Billings, stop by the Bighorn Canyon Visitor Center or Yellowtail Dam Visitor Center for an introduction to area activities. Eat, sleep and fish at destinations such as Bighorn River Lodge and Forrester’s Bighorn River Resort.