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The Beartooth Highway is a 108 kilometer (67-mile) route that begins at the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park near Silver Gate, Montana. It runs northeasterly through Wyoming and Montana, and ends in Red Lodge, Montana. The first 13.5 kilometers (8.4 miles) of the route lies within Montana, passing through the communities of Silver Gate and Cooke City, and goes over Colter Pass. The next 55.8 kilometers (34.7 miles) of the route lies within Wyoming, climbing from the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone River over the Beartooth Plateau to Beartooth Pass, at 3,337 meters (10,947 feet) above sea level. The last 38.1 kilometers (23.7 miles) of the route lies within Montana, descending from the Beartooth Plateau into Rock Creek valley and then ends in Red Lodge.
The Beartooth Highway serves as the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park. It is also known as the Red Lodge-Cooke City Highway, and carries US 212 route number for its entire length. The FS recently designated it as the Beartooth Scenic Byway under the FS Scenic Byway Program. The portion of the route within Montana is also designated as Montana Forest Highway 59, and the portion of the route within Wyoming is designated as Wyoming Forest Highway 4. In addition to being on the Forest Highway system, the route carries a special designation as a National Park Approach Road in accordance with 16 USC Articles 8a and 17-j2. To avoid confusion, the route is herein referred to as the Beartooth Highway.
The Beartooth Highway is considered one of the most scenic routes
in the United States, and is a scenic wonder, a geological showplace
and an engineering marvel. From the highway travelers can
see spectacular views of the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountain Range,
with scenic panoramas of the highest peaks in this region of the
country. The route is one of the highest elevation highways
in the country; as it traverses across sensitive alpine tundra,
and descending sheer cliff walls of Rock Creek Canyon, it provides
a thrilling recreational experience.
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The Beartooth Mountains are a section of the greater Absaroka range, extending from Livingston in south-central Montana southeastward to the canyon of the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone in northwestern Wyoming. The Beartooths are part of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness (904,500 acres). Absaroka is labeled on many features of the landscape and is thought to be derived from the Crow name for their people Absarokee, a combination of the words Absa possibly meaning a large-beaked bird, and Rokee referring to their children, suggesting the name of their descendants as meaning, for example, the "bird people", or "children of the large-beaked bird". The Crow name "Na Piet Say", meaning "the bear's tooth," refers to a sharp spire that juts from the plateau, and can be seen by travelers on the Beartooth Highway. Most people admire the Beartooths for their wild, spectacular beauty. But many geologists marvel at this range for other reasons. A band of igneous rock rich in rare minerals lies along the northern edge of these mountains. The uplifted granite block that comprises most of the range dates back more than three billion years and contains some of the oldest rocks found on the surface of the earth. The Beartooth Mountains form a northwest-trending uplift, roughly 75 miles long and 40 miles wide. The Precambrian granitic massif rises abruptly 5,000 feet in elevation above the Bighorn basin to the east. The topography of the northern part of the range is extremely rugged, consisting of intensely glaciated terrain with jagged peaks, glacier-gouged basins, and steep-walled canyons. Altitudes range from 5,500 feet along the Lower Stillwater River to 12,799 feet at Granite Peak, the highest point in Montana. The southwestern part is heavily glaciated with an extensive area of ice-carved basins holding numerous lakes. The plateau forms the headwaters of several major drainages: the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone, Soda Butte Creek, the Stillwater River, East and West Rosebud Creeks, Red Lodge Creek, and Rock Creek. With 944 lakes and nine major drainages, the Beartooths are an angler's paradise. Rainbow, cutthroat, brook, golden, and lake trout thrive in the waterways of the plateau. Much of the Beartooth Plateau is at more than 10,000 feet, and is covered with delicate alpine tundra.
Beartooth Butte is a prominent landmark midway along the route and is an isolated remnant of the younger sedimentary formation. The scenic grandeur of the present Beartooth Mountains is due principally to the action to glaciation beginning about 1.6 million years ago, when extensive ice fields covered a majority of the range, with only the highest points projecting above the glacier blankets. The alpine glaciation of the highlands ultimately transformed large parts of the surface into classic examples of excavated U-shaped troughs, hanging valleys, cirques, horns, lobe basins, and arêtes that today provide the magnificent landscape. Evidence of this great erosive power and glacial transport is found in the lower elevations in the form of moraines, erratics, and glacial outwash plains. For example, Deep Lake is a result of a major landslide that created a huge dam across Littlerock Creek.
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Native peoples have intermittently occupied and traversed the environs of the Beartooth Mountains for at least 12,000 years, and in more recent centuries by roving populations of various tribes such as Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Crow, and Shoshone. During the mid-1800s annual hunting migration parties of the Bannock Tribe led to the development of the Bannock Trail: from Targhee Pass across the Yellowstone Plateau, crossing the Yellowstone River near Tower Falls, to the headwaters of Soda Butte Creek, down the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone, and out onto the eastern plains. In the summer of 1877 this trail was used by the fleeing Nez Perce tribe led by Chief Joseph.
Beginning in the early 1800s the area was explored by mountainmen, trappers and traders such as John Colter, Osborne Russell and Jim Bridger. Next came the gold seekers, as the territory of Montana began yielding mineral wealth such as the bonanza at Alder Gulch discovered in 1863. Several organized Yellowstone expeditions surveyed the area during the years 1869-1871, and whose findings ultimately led to the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872. Initial reports indicated that it was impossible to traverse the Beartooth Range by horseback. In 1880, a boundary survey attempted to follow the Montana-Wyoming State line across the Beartooth Plateau, but the rugged terrain thwarted the effort. The earliest organized trip across the Beartooth Plateau was accomplished in August 1882 by an expedition party led by Lt. General Philip H. Sheridan. The expedition passed through Cooke City, Colter Pass, down the upper Clarks Fork, beneath Pilot and Index Peaks, Beartooth Butte, along Island Lake, across the summit and down the Line Creek Plateau, to a precipitous descent into the Clarks Fork valley.
During the 1880s railroads penetrated the vicinity, bringing immigrants
and tourists, and economic development. The dominant economic
activity in the area was mining. Cooke City became a bustling
town serving the New World mining district, despite its isolated
location. After 1900, the mining activity slowed and the economy
of the region stabilized. Ranching, tourism, logging, and
retailing complemented the mining industry. In the 1920s,
roads improved and automobiles with campers and tourists began heading
to Yellowstone National Park. Many resorts, guest ranches,
lodges, and hunting facilities sprang up in the area, such as Richel
Lodge on Rock Creek, and the L Bar T Ranch in the valley of the
Clarks Fork. A trail was pioneered across the summit, along
Line Creek Plateau and down the east side of Mount Maurice, south
of Red Lodge, which was called the "Black and White Trail".
However, travelers were not satisfied with the steep and difficult
trail and a more efficient route was still needed. During
the 1920s the Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads
(known today as the Federal Highway Administration [FHWA]) conducted
reconnaissance surveys to determine the feasibility of a proposal
for a new road from Red Lodge to Cooke City. The first known
study of this route was made in 1925 by F.E. Thieme, of the Forest
Service, and B.F. Kitt, of the Bureau of Public Roads.
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Initial Road Construction
During the early 1900s various citizen groups from the Red Lodge vicinity lobbied heavily for more diversified economic and tourism benefits of a scenic eastern approach to Yellowstone National Park. Mining interests at Cooke City also joined this effort to possibly help facilitate commercial development of the New World mining district. In the late 1920s these groups gained the support of Montana Congressman Scott Leavitt, and Senators Thomas Walsh and Burton Wheeler. Leavitt championed the proposal for a new road into the park as an amendment to the Federal Highways Act, his sponsored legislation called the Park Approach Act (H. R. 12404). This legislation would provide construction and improvement of roads that led to the National Parks, and which would improve access and encourage tourism. As originally proposed, this legislation would have authorized a major national program of access roads to National Parks. In the modest form in which it ultimately passed, only one proposal survived – the Beartooth Highway. On January 31, 1931 the legislation was signed by President Herbert Hoover. The act gave the Secretary of Interior the power to designate National Park approach roads, the primary value of which was to carry park travel. The approach roads had to cross lands of 90 percent Government ownership and had to be a part of or tributary to a Federal Aid Primary road system. They could not under any circumstances be longer than 60 miles. Another section of the act gave the Secretary authorization during 1932 and 1933 to construct these roads and appropriated $1,500,000 per year for this purpose. This act was general in nature but had so many specific qualifications that few road projects could qualify. After the act was passed and the location work was completed, it was discovered that the distance from the Park boundary to Red Lodge was 68.6 miles long, some 8.6 miles longer than the act could take care of. To address this limitation, the Bureau of Public Roads, Montana State Highway Department, and Forest Service put the portion of road from Red Lodge southwest for 8.6 miles on the Federal-Aid Primary system and included the portion inside the Forest boundary on the Forest Highway system.
After the foregoing actions, the complete route was covered by legislation or by administrative action in accordance with legislation. The various components of the highway were constructed using Forest Highway funds, Federal-aid funds, and funds from the Park Approach Act authorization. The design and construction was directed by the Bureau of Public Roads. Surveying and location studies of the new route were started almost immediately, beginning at Quad Creek (current MP 53.8). Construction contracts were let on June 27, 1931, and initial construction operations began later that summer. The contracts were awarded to the low bidders: Winston Brothers Company (Minneapolis, MN) for the western part from the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park through Cooke City to a point near the L Bar T Ranch in the Clarks Fork valley; McNutt and Pyle was awarded the summit section from the Clarks Fork valley to the Montana Border (MP 43.1); and Morrison Knudsen Company (Boise, ID) for the switchbacks section from the State Line to Quad Creek. S.J. Groves & Sons (Minneapolis, MN) was low bidder for the surfacing contract for the entire route. Other subcontractors on various phases included Utah Construction, Inc., and Collison & Dollivon Company. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) supplemented the road construction effort for specialized tasks, such as construction of the hand-chiseled granite abutments for bridge crossings at Lake Creek (MP 18.6), Beartooth Creek (MP 26.3), Little Bear Creek crossings (MP 28.2 and MP 29.0), and Long Lake outlet (MP 31.2).
Each contractor had their own construction camp that housed workers, families, and equipment during the construction season. The Winston Brothers camps were located between Cooke City and Cooke Pass, the McNutt and Pyle community was at Long Lake, and Morrison Knudsen built its tent camp at the base of the switchbacks along Rock Creek (present site of the Forest Service M-K Campground).
The majority of the highway was built between 1932 and 1936 under
assigned project engineer Charles B. Peterson. The engineering
aspects of the project were impressive, even by today's standards.
For example, the 4,000-foot descent into the Rock Creek Canyon (7.5
miles at over 6 percent grade) on a very steep sidehill slope required
creative field engineering. The project was completed on time
and within budget; but at the cost of the lives of two workers.
Considering the difficult terrain, short construction season, and
harsh weather the progress was remarkable. The highway was
officially dedicated on June 14, 1936 with a ceremony and caravan
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No Federal or State agency claims actual ownership of the highway and it is truly an "orphan" road. Ownership of the highway right-of-way remains with the Federal Government, with the Forest Service assigned the responsibility for administering the land. Under Executive Order 5949 dated November 16, 1932, a 250-foot strip on each side of the park approach system was withdrawn from settlement, location, sale, entry, or other disposal and was reserved for park approach road purposes, and this order has never been revoked. The approach road act allowed the Secretary of Interior to enter into agreements with States or counties to maintain the approach road system or to maintain them with available park funds. The Secretary was unable to interest the States in a maintenance agreement. From 1934 to 1945, the park approach road was maintained by the Bureau of Public Roads as financed by the National Park Service (NPS). After 1945 the NPs maintained the 60-mile park approach road. The State of Montana has maintained the Federal-Aid section continuously since it was built. Since 1965, the Montana Department of Transportation is responsible for maintenance of the 38.1 kilometer (23.7 miles) section between the Wyoming State Line (MP 43.1) and Red Lodge.
Currently, most of the maintenance of the Beartooth Highway from MP 0 to MP 43.1, for the first 13.5 kilometers (8.4 miles) within Montana and the middle 55.8 kilometers (34.7 miles) within Wyoming, is performed by the NPs, headquartered at Yellowstone National Park, by default since no other agency accepts this responsibility. Although the NPs has maintained the 43.1-mile portion of the Beartooth Highway, it does not have authority or funding to do major reconstruction work outside of the National Park boundaries. Since the route was constructed in the early 1930s several sections have been reconstructed and upgraded during the late 1960s and 1970s, using 100 percent federal funding, and some portions of the route are currently in need of repair or reconstruction. Since that time, jurisdictional issues have made improvement of the route impossible under normal highway funding options.
Faced with a maintenance and jurisdictional dilemma, the NPs requested the FHWA look at the route, review current roadway conditions, explore potential funding sources for upgrading the road, and begin to resolve the long term ownership and maintenance issues of the Beartooth highway. A steering committee was formed in 1992 and is made up of representatives from several agencies, including: the Federal Highway Administration, Forest Service, National Park Service, Montana Department of Transportation, and Wyoming Department of Transportation. The steering committee has started, and is continuing, the process of resolving the long-term problems regarding jurisdiction and maintenance of the entire route. The FHWA issued a report, Beartooth Highway Road Inventory and Needs Study, in October 1994 which assessed the overall condition of the route from Yellowstone National Park to Red Lodge, Montana. For study purposes, the route was divided into seven segments (Segments 1 through 7) based on jurisdiction and route characteristics. Two segments, Segment 1 and Segment 4, were identified as having serious deficiencies.
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Currently there are two segments of the Beartooth Highway proposed for reconstruction. Segment 1 is a 13.5-kilometer (8.4-mile) section that extends from the Northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park through Silver Gate, and Cooke City, Montana to the Montana/Wyoming state line. Construction on this section is anticipated to begin in 2003 and last 3 years through 2005. The FHWA Western Federal Lands Highway Division (WFLHD) office in Vancouver, Washington is responsible for preparing the environmental documents for this segment.
This website addresses the proposed reconstruction for Segment 4 of the Beartooth Highway. This segment begins just west of the Clay Butte turnoff and extends east 29.9 kilometers (18.6 miles) to the Wyoming/Montana state border. The FHWA Central Federal Lands Highway Division office in Denver, Colorado is the lead agency for the development of this reconstruction project.
Segment 4 is situated at an average elevation of over 3,050 m (10,000 feet) and is normally open from Memorial Day to mid-October. It was constructed in the early 1930s and was rehabilitated and resurfaced in 1968 and 1969. This segment was resurfaced again in 2001. The roadway in this segment is currently 5.5 m (18 feet) wide, which is much narrower than the adjacent segments and is substandard for the uses that presently occur along the road. In addition to the narrow travel lane width, other deficiencies, including inadequate drainage features and the lack of roadside shoulders, justify the need for improving the road. Construction on Segment 4 is anticipated to begin in 2004 and be completed in about six years.A Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) containing a discussion of alternative methods for implementing the proposed improvements for Segment 4 and the resulting social, economic, and environmental impacts, was released for public review on June 14, 2002. The DEIS and supporting technical documents are available for review in 12 Public Review Locations. The FHWA has scheduled Public Hearings on July 9, 10, and 11, 2002 in Cody, WY, Cooke City, MT, and Red Lodge, MT, respectively, in order to receive comments on the DEIS. For additional information on the public hearings please click on the "Public Hearings" link above. The comment period for the DEIS ends July 29, 2002.
After the completion of the comment period for the DEIS, FHWA will
prepare a Final Environment Impact Statement (FEIS) addressing substantive
comments received on the DEIS. FHWA has tentatively scheduled to
release the FEIS in December 2002. A Record of Decision describing
FHWA's decision regarding which of the alternatives presented in
the FEIS to implement will be released no sooner than 30 days after
release of the FEIS.