The Chief Joseph Highway and Bear Tooth Pass

JacksonI never got a chance to write about this ride last summer and since I haven’t been able to ride the last couple of weeks, I thought it was a good opportunity to share one of the best rides in this part of the country.

Just 17 miles north of Cody, Wyoming after two days of riding in the rain from Salt Lake City to get there, my friends and I were pointed west on the Chief Joseph Highway. The 47 paved miles of Scenic Byway is named after Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce who fled east through Yellowstone following the Battle of Big Hole in 1877. He and his 1000 warriors ran from the U.S. Calvary to escape life on the reservation. It’s not hard to understand why they felt this country was worth fighting for as the beautiful landscape unrolls underneath my feet.

Without a doubt, this is one of the most enjoyable 47 miles you’ll ever do on a motorcycle as you climb the pass followed by a traverse of switchbacks down into the valley and set up for the Bear Tooth Highway. Mile after mile of sweepers, perfectly designed for a motorcycle, will have you grinning from ear to ear.

If you don’t enjoy this section of the ride (that is far too short for me), you should probably be in a car. It doesn’t get any better on a bike.

Charles Kuralt called “The All-American Highway” over Bear Tooth Pass “The most beautiful road in America.” Summiting at just shy of 11,000 feet, it should definitely be on your bucket list—if it isn’t already. Climbing from the turnoff on Chief Joseph, beautiful alpine lakes, waterfalls, and time above the tree line await.

The road over the summit was opened in 1936 following a “shortcut” from the Yellowstone taken by General Phillip Sheridan in 1872.

The temperature dropped as we made the climb this weekend, thankful for our heated gloves and jacket as the early summer temperatures dropped to the high 30s. Navigating the hairpin turns partway to the summit I was glad the road was bone dry after the rain we’d had in the days leading up to the ride over the pass. When you hit this road, be prepared for varying weather conditions and slow-speed bike control (I feel like the posted speed limit through the hairpins is just about right). Don’t be surprised if you’re a little nervous your first time over the pass, you’ll be spending a fair amount of time above the tree line on some pretty exposed asphalt shoulders.

The road has been in great shape every time I’ve been on this ride—kudos to the Wyoming and Montana highway crews. The snow was still piled up about 10 feet on the summit as we shared the beautiful day with folks on snowshoes and cross-country skis.

The descent down into Red Lodge is well worth the effort. You may want to turn around and do it again after topping off the tank. I’ve done that before.

We had a great lunch stop at a little place called Bogart’s on the Red Lodge Main Street. Someone in Cody recommended the place to us, and it wasn’t a disappointment. My chicken fajita tacos were very tasty. And, I didn’t hear any complaints from my companions either.

If you don’t want to go over the pass again, you can go take a shortcut to Cody. Either way, it’s a great ride.

Late spring and early summer rides in this part of the world require a little preparation. The weather changes quickly from hot sunshine to rain, and even snow, before you know it. Be prepared to layer—over the course of the five days we rode through this part of Wyoming I was in raingear, heated gear, and my hot-weather mesh to regulate the temperature and adapt to the conditions.

The fall is a great time to visit the Bear Tooth Highway. We had a little rain and cold temperatures last fall, but it was still a great ride. It really feels like you can almost reach up and touch the clouds as you’re looking down on the trees.

Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone dominate where most people go, but some of the riding outside the National Parks is as good as it gets. Cody is a great place to base camp for a few days. There are a number of nice hotels and you can’t help but enjoy the way the town kind of cocks its hat to one side and gives off a little attitude.



Filed under Western Rides

5 responses to “The Chief Joseph Highway and Bear Tooth Pass

  1. Steve

    Great ride, thanks for taking me!

  2. Amanda

    This was fun.

  3. DRF

    I did this ride 2 years ago after a motorcycle camping trip in Yellowstone, just before it was closed for the winter. I remember snow flurries as I reached the top. I hope to do it again some day.

    • It’s an awesome ride and well worth doing more than once. As beautiful as Bear Tooth Pass is, the Chief Joseph Highway is one of my all time favorite roads. Definitely in the top five.

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