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Beartooth Mountains - Montana
 

by Rick Dunn

 

   Lonesome Mountain

Perhaps one of the things I like most about the Beartooth Mountains is that Yellowstone National Park, an hours drive or so from the heart of Beartooths, attracts the lion's share of visitors to this region.  This leaves the Beartooths and the near-by Absarokas far less populated.  Backpacking in the Beartooths offers a great opportunity for solitude, in addition to experiencing a wonderfully diverse ecosystem. 

The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness lies in Wyoming and Montana, and incorporates portions of the Gallatin, Custer, and Shoshone National Forests.  The Wilderness also borders the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park.

The Beartooth Range derives its name from a distinctly shaped mountain peak that resembles a bear's tooth, and makes up the eastern portion of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.  The two ranges contrast greatly with the young jagged Absarokas having been formed by recent volcanic activity and the Precambrian granitic plateaus of the Beartooths having been uplifted and subsequently weathered by glacial activity in the region.  Forested valleys and  rugged peaks of the Absarokas take turns in competing for your attention while the aged Beartooths display character and aesthetic beauty that cannot be adequately articulated by words or pictures.  The Beartooth Highway that runs from Red Lodge, MT to Cooke City, MT at the east entrance to the Park has been described by Charles Kuralt as the "most beautiful highway in America". 

Most of my time in the wilderness area has been spent in the Beartooths.  They are, more often than not, genuinely captivating.  A landscape of ancient rock, sculpted and shaped by the liquid flow of solid ice, replete with a patchwork of glacial tarns and lakes, mountain meadows nestled within formidable geologic formations, and populated by audiences of wildflowers, the Beartooths are as inspiring a range as any I have visited.  The Beartooths also provide the opportunity to visit four distinct life zones and their associated flora:  the grasslands, the montaine, the sub-alpine, and the delicate, fragile alpine tundra.  Bears, both Black and Grizzly, inhabit the area, and hikers are wise to take the necessary precautions. 

More so than any other place I have spent time, the weather in the Beartooths lends as much drama to the outdoor experience as does the landscape itself.  Places like "Hurricane Mesa" and "Hell Roaring Plateau" sound fanciful, but accurately reflect the dynamic nature of the weather in the Beartooths. 

The combination of inclement, unpredictable weather, the presence of grizzlies and wolves, and the almost complete absence of other humans on any given outing makes backpacking in the Beartooths one of the most genuinely "wild" and peaceful wilderness experiences I have ever enjoyed.

The integrity of this region is not without its threats, however.  As recently as the mid-90s, Crowne Butte, Ltd. was proposing and proceeding with development of a sub-surface gold mine and associated tailings empoundments that were within 2 miles of the Yellowstone National Park, and less than 2 miles from the borders of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.  Only vehement opposition on a local and national level were able to outweigh the rights afforded the mining company by the antiquated 1872 mining law that, amazingly, is still in effect today. 

The volume of visitors to nearby Yellowstone National Park continues to increase, and, in turn, increases the pressure on an already stressed Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  Even as Yellowstone recovers from the fires that marched through the Park in 1988, it is the march of the human parade that places the ecosystem in a precarious situation.  While fire has shaped and reshaped this ecosystem over millions of years (and will continue to do so long after we're gone), it is undeniably ironic that the visitors attracted by the geological and ecological majesty of this region (including me) threatens to permanently violate the integrity of that very ecosystem.  

 

 

Swamp Lake (Jennifer & I married here)

 

Beartooth Butte reflected in Beartooth Lake

 

Black Canyon

 

Kelvin-Helmholtz instability cloud and Lenticular, hovering above the Beartooth Plateau
 

All images and text copyright Rick Dunn