August had arrived out of nowhere and my bucket list for summer was still a million miles long. That’s the problem living in Jackson Hole, where the activities and access to nature are endless. It could be far worse, yet it’s easy to feel guilty letting expensive toys sit unused during our short summer. So with renewed resolve to make the most of what was left of summer (it was August after all, it could snow any day!), I decided to make a short tour through Yellowstone National Park to a place I had never been before—Red Lodge, Montana via the Beartooth Highway. It seemed wrong to have Yellowstone, the jewel in our national park system’s crown, in my backyard having never really explored it.
Accompanying me was my friend Jesse on his KTM 1290 Adventure. My weapon of choice was a 1987 BMW R80 that my uncle had ridden across the country from Maine way back when the moto was state of the art technology. Either due to time constraints or saddle soars, he left the bike in Salt Lake City with a friend where it sat collecting dust for 30 years. After the friend storing the bike passed away, the moto found its way to a garage in Jackson, WY, about 15 minutes from my home. After inquiring about the bike one day it was generously offered to me for some summertime riding. I couldn’t believe my luck.
The bike’s condition was functional, but not perfect. A sticky throttle, no back break, and low idle made for a quirky ride, but I didn’t let that stop me. Astride the vintage moto I felt like a king, hearing the low thrum of the antique boxer engine. The classy European moto was all the more rare in the heart of Harley country, where deafening 1,600 cc engines rule the road.
With the bare essentials for a night out loaded on the bike, we hit the road, bound for Cooke City, Montana. Only discovered by white man roughly 200 years ago when Jon Colter split off from the Lewis and Clarke Expedition after 3 years of tramping through the unknown all the way to the Pacific Ocean, Yellowstone’s wildlife and geysers have captivated the world ever since. At first it was only known to Indians and trappers, but before long word of the park’s beauty made its way to congress, prompting President Ulysses S. Grant to declare Yellowstone the world’s first ever National Park.
We took a break next to Yellowstone lake and took in the vast landscape of forests and mountains. At 7,500 ft there was a magical clarity to the air, giving the sheen of the lake an otherworldly quality. Through the Hayden Valley we hummed past herds of bison and multi-colored geyser basins.
A dilapidated shack with a tongue-in-cheek sign announcing “Cooke City Tuxedo Rental” greeted us as we entered one of Americas most notorious and quirky towns. Cooke City is a time warp, taking you back in time to the days of fur trapping and land grants. After cashing out at the general store on a nickel plated antique cash register (“cha-ching”) we made the questionable decision of filling our stomachs at glorified food truck called “Montasia” over the smoke filled saloons that made up the other options. The food sat okay with me, but Jesse’s moto would soon be shaking the mediocre curry out of him before he knew it. We learned about Cooke City’s prolific snow fall and its reputation as a bastion for outlaws and renegades, given that in the winter there is only one way into town and the closest authority figure charged with maintaining law and order is hours away. Cooke City is up there as one of America’s kookiest towns. A mix of cowboys, homesteaders, yurt dwelling hippies, and any anybody trying to live amongst nature in a place defined by freedom, space, and beauty. I can’t wait to be back.
From Cooke City the Beartooth Highway rises to the northeast. It is hands down one of the most stunning roads America has to offer. At 68 miles and topping out at nearly 11,000 ft, the road takes you high through the alpine, past glaciers, lakes, and high alpine meadows full of Indian paintbrush and other colorful flowers. The northern Absorka range, for those who know, represent the best of what the rocky mountains have to offer. And with the Beartooth Highway being one of the longest paved roads in the country to traverse the high alpine, the views are simply stunning. The road defies gravity and is a veritable pleasure track in another dimension; road through the clouds of western lore.
Despite being late August, snow still clung to the north facing aspects and we frequently passed groups of people preparing to drop in for some summer ski turns. Indeed the backcountry ski access is second to none, and the highway even boasts a rustic little ski center near the top that is open in spring/summer.
Dropping down the north side to the Beartooths, we spotted where we had planned to camp for the night. We raced down the ample, smooth switchbacks, chasing the last rays of light, knowing our job of finding a descent spot to boondock for the night would be made much easier by a little natural light. We camped along side a dirt forest service road, route 421, in an enormous valley split by Rock Creek, which spills out of the trout filled Glacier Lake some 10 miles up canyon. The hiking, fishing, and photographic opportunities appeared endless, steeling my resolve to come back, possibly with a proper duel sport.
Our comfort and contentment attested to the old axiom “less is more.” We spun yarn until stars filled the sky and then called it a night.
In the morning we took a quick spin up to Red Lodge for breakfast in the cool morning air. My first thought upon hitting main street was that we had stumbled upon a bonified motorcycle rally, the size of Sturgis or Daytona. Main street was lined with an impossible number of chrome pipes, ape hanger handle bars, and leather saddle bags. Despite our two wheeled mode of transportation, it was clear this was not our ilk. At the dinner we were the only two people without skull caps and mean looking biker getups. A ferocious looking eagle with a tattered American flag in its talon’s stared at me from the bicep of a fellow patron wearing a cutoff denim jacket, despite the brisk morning air. We could hear middle aged leather clad women with the raspy voices of lifelong smokers telling tales of their pilgrimages to Milwaukie for Harley anniversaries and rallies of bygone eras. These were not mere dilettantes.
We reversed course after breakfast, up and over the Beartooth highway in the opposite direction. Having taken our time the night before, we decided to give our bikes a proper run out, leaning into the turns, taking no prisoners. I had the old bike pinned, passing big motos twice the size of mine. It was another brilliant day and the curves through the sky did not disappoint the second time around.
Before reaching Cooke City we peeled southeast on the Chief Joseph highway towards Cody, Wyoming. Once again it was impossible to keep track of all the mountain passes and river crossing we made that morning. The road was simply stunning, winding through the northern Absorka Range, a gem I could hardly believe I had never touched before. In Cody we stopped at a farm to table restaurant, a delightful find in a most unexpected place. Named after the famous” Buffalo Bill” Cody, the little town has a lot going for it beyond its gateway to Yellowstone status. The Shoshone River provides kayaking and white water opportunities, while Shoshone canyon is a famous rock climbing destination. On top of that, we found the people to be interesting and engaging.
After a nice dip in in the Buffalo Bill Reservoir, and another dip in Yellowstone Lake, we began our journey home, through the southern gate, past the Rockefeller Corridor, and along the foot of our home mountain range, the Tetons.
The trip to Red Lodge was two days well spent with fantastic company and a large number of pleasant surprises. I can’t think of a more wonderful way to get away and explore some new areas in a short amount of time.
Any good adventure will only stimulate an appetite for more and I know this little corner of Northwest Wyoming that nobody gives much thought to will never get boring for me. When I was younger, reading about The Corps of Discovery and the incredible expedition of Lewis and Clarke, I could hardly believe what would compel Jon Coulter to request a discharge before the Corps had make it back to civilization in order to lead a couple trappers back into the unknown. I can’t say I fully understand it now, but it at least makes a little more sense.