WYDOT photo, June 3, 2022.

Massive Spring Snowstorm Dumps Six Feet Of Snow On Beartooth Highway

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

The most beautiful highway in America is still closed.

A massive spring snowstorm has delayed the opening of the Beartooth Highway — which was dubbed the most beautiful in the U.S. years ago by CBS journalist Charles Kuralt for his “On The Road” series.

The roadway, which links the Northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park to Red Lodge, Montana, will remain temporarily closed until hazardous winter conditions improve.

“Segments of the highway have 4-6 feet of snow that need to be cleared,” Yellowstone spokesman Morgan Warthin said. “More precipitation is expected over the coming days. Crews have erred on the side of safety and discontinued snow removal until conditions improve.”

The road itself is 68.7 miles of the most rugged country in the region, climbing to a height of 10,947 feet above sea level.

Highway 212 (as the Beartooth Highway is formally designated) generally closes at the beginning of winter, and usually opens at the end of May, thanks to multiple state and federal agencies that work in cooperation to clear the road in the spring. 

“The Wyoming state line is over the top of the mountain,” said Cody Beers with the Wyoming Department of Transportation. “The Montana Department of Transportation opens from the other end, and it’s a big process every spring.”

Beers said it takes one full-time WYDOT employee to monitor conditions throughout the winter, where the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway (Wyoming 296) meets Highway 212. But with the big storm that hit the region last weekend, more crews were called in from WYDOT, MDOT and Yellowstone National Park to clear the road.

“We always want to try to be open by Memorial Day weekend,” Beers said, “but last weekend’s storm kind of changed the game plan.”

The highway is usually the last of the seasonally-closed roads to open near Yellowstone, but Beers said the decision to keep the Beartooth Highway closed this week was primarily due to avalanche danger.

“Right now the reason the Beartooth Highway is not open is because they started having avalanches down on the Montana side toward Red Lodge,” he said. “So Montana DOT pulled out until next week, and Yellowstone pulled out right after they got to Long Lake because of the same issue. So they’re all going to hit it next week, and… hopefully it’ll stay open this time.”

Cooke City, Montana, lies near the Northeast entrance to Yellowstone. Although the unincorporated community boasts just 75 full time residents, it’s a popular destination for tourists in the summer and local snowmobile enthusiasts in the winter.

Because of the recent storm, business in Cooke City has been significantly slower than in the last couple of years, according to Chad Meador, the general manager for the Alpine Motel. Meador said that snowy, wet weather has impacted more than just the road conditions recently.

“We had a power outage for four days, and we finally got it back two days ago,” Meador told Cowboy State Daily. “We had a few guests staying here when the power went out, but it went out in the middle of the night so they were good to check out the next morning. But all the following guests that were coming in for the next three nights, they couldn’t stay with us because you have no heat, you have no power.”

And because there is no cell service at all in Cooke City, Meador said neighbors had to rely on each other to reach the outside world.

“There was one place in town that had a generator, and had Starlink satellite WiFi,” Meador said. “I went up and just borrowed theirs to try to communicate with (guests).  Most of the guests were pretty understanding, and went on to Cody or Gardiner (Montana) or something like that and found a place to stay.”

But this year has seen a significantly higher amount of snowfall than in the last few, according to Meador, who has managed the motel for the last three years. That means that fewer people are staying at the Alpine this spring.

“This is the most impact I’ve seen in the springtime,” he said. “Usually springtime is pretty busy – this year we’ve had a lot of late snow storms.” 

Warthin noted that the Beartooth Highway will reopen to the public as soon as conditions allow.  She urged travelers to check the Montana and Wyoming  departments of transportation websites for road status.

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