Memorial Day Weekend: The Opening of the Beartooth Highway

National Park Service Rotary Plow at Long Lake, Beartooth Mountains.

Memorial Day weekend is traditionally the time when crews from the National Park Service and their massive rotary plows finally opened the 54-mile road between Red Lodge and Cooke City, Montana. Last spring was difficult for travelers; there were several major late-winter storms, as well as a serious avalanche that closed the road for days. Road crews were kept busy into June with re-plowing the highway. This year the schedule calls for opening the road May 22 (Thursday), and it looks like the weather will cooperate.

The main attraction on opening weekend, which often brings people from Billings and even farther away, are the enormous cuts in the snowdrifts that cross the highway made by the rotary plows. In places the walls of snow are more than 20 feet high, like small canyons of pure white. This year, road crews on the Montana portion of the highway report drifts running as high as 26 feet.

The Bear’s Tooth, as seen from the Beartooth Highway.

Add the snow canyons to some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the United States, and opening weekend is something to celebrate — the beginning of summer and the start of tourist season. In fact, it’s a tradition for the folks in Red Lodge and Cooke City to meet near the West Summit (Beartooth Pass) and have an Open House in the snow.

Many other people use the opening of the highway as an excuse to rack their skis on the car roof one last time and head out for some of the best late-season free skiing in the country. The Beartooth Plateau provides miles of open and fairly level skiing at elevations about 10,500 feet.

For travelers heading to Yellowstone from the east, the Beartooth Highway, which connects to the Northeast Entrance of Yellowstone National Park, is a do-it-at-least-once-in-your-lifetime experience. In reasonable weather the driving is safe (if occasionally thrilling), and the feeling of being on top of the world is breathtaking.


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