For the first time this season, U.S. Route 212 between Wyoming and Montana — aka the Beartooth Highway — has closed because of winter weather and poor road conditions.
This isn’t the end of the road for the Beartooth Highway in 2023, as the entire stretch is expected to reopen Saturday. But it is the time of year when every trip over any of Wyoming’s mountain passes becomes more questionable.
Bite Of Winter In The Beartooths
Snow fell on several of Wyoming’s high-elevation highway passes overnightThursday as a Pacific weather system started moving into Wyoming on Thursday night, bringing cooler, wetter weather. Any area over 9,000 feet elevation was expected to get a dusting of snow.
While the ground was still warm enough in most areas that the snow melted soon after it fell, the Beartooth Highway, which is 10,947 feet at its highest point is, its own animal.
“There were probably some fairly low temperatures up high,” Cody Beers, a Wyoming Department of Transportation spokesman, told Cowboy State Daily. “So, there was probably some icing on the roads, and the ground temperature was already reasonably low because it gets colder up there at night. It’s fall up high.”
WYDOT only manages a section of the Beartooth Highway. The majority of its maintenance — including snow removal and closures – is the responsibility of the Montana Department of Transportation and the National Park Service.
Not Yet Ready To Hibernate
There has never been an official closure date for the Beartooth Highway, which stays open each year as long as possible. Once the snow starts falling consistently and heavily, the highway is closed for the season until plowing begins the following spring.
Beers believes this will be a temporary closure and the highway will reopen Saturday. He also thinks it will stay open for a few more weeks before its seasonal closure, but it’s risky to trust the weather at that elevation at this time of year.
“From my experience, it could be next week or another month,” he said. “Normally, I’d say the Beartooth Highway is closed for the season by early November. It all depends on the weather.”
Cowboy State Daily meteorologist Don Day said the forecast aligns with Beers’ appraisal, and the weather should be nice enough for the Beartooth Highway to reopen.
“There’s a warmup coming Sunday through Wednesday, so the Beartooth probably can open again,” he said. “I don’t see permanent road closures on any mountain passes yet, but occasional closures will happen more frequently.”
Snow Reason To Worry
None of Wyoming’s other mountain passes closed Friday, but that doesn’t mean they were unaffected by the incoming weather system. A good dusting of snow fell on Carter Mountain and around 1.5 inches of rain was reported in Buffalo.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation was reporting foggy and snowfall on Togwotee Pass on Friday morning.
Day said the current weather system will continue bringing snow and icy conditions to high-elevation areas for the next few days, particularly in northwest and north-central Wyoming.
“Snow will be moving into the Bighorns soon, so Burgess Junction and Powder River Pass will have icy conditions until early (Saturday),” he said.
Beers said “good homework is essential” for anyone planning a trip across one of Wyoming’s mountain passes. As each day becomes shorter, the weather in the mountain passes becomes more erratic and can change without much warning.
“It’s the normal time of year when we get little blasts of winter. Then those blasts get longer, and pretty soon, it’s winter. People need to keep an eye on the road conditions. If you’re going to drive Beartooth Pass, have a plan. You’re gaining several feet of elevation, and the weather can change in an instant,” he said.
If they haven’t already, Wyomingites should prepare their vehicles for winter driving. That includes getting a tune-up or putting on winter tires and packing a winter survival kit with a warm set of clothes, blankets or sleeping bags, booster cables and flares in case their vehicle gets trapped in a snowstorm.
However, Beers isn’t discouraging anyone from taking a trip along the Beartooth Highway. Late September is one of the best times to witness the beauty of changing seasons at 10,000 feet.
“It’s a beautiful time of year up there,” he said. “The leaves are there and have already turned, so there are some beautiful colors. And there’s no construction, so there should be little to no delay for drivers. People just need to have a plan and check the road conditions and the weather before heading up there.”