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The Best of Northern Yellowstone: Beartooth Pass, Lamar Valley, Roosevelt Cookout, Mammoth
Hi, my name is Matt Schoss, and I’m back with more of the Best of the West!
Today we’re going to take the least traveled entrance to Yellowstone, where we’re going to see this big guy and more amazing things in Yellowstone. Join me as we explore more of Wonderland.
In this video, we will walk in the footsteps of famous explorers, drive to the top of the World on an all-American road, get in a bison jam, wolf watch in the American Serengeti, take a stagecoach ride to a cookout in the mountains, and ceremonially enter Yellowstone as tourists did 100 years ago.
Yellowstone lies in the northwest corner of Wyoming, although both of its northern entrances are actually in Montana.
On this trip, we’re coming from Theodore Roosevelt National Park, so we’ll stop at Pompey’s Pillar in Montana first. Then we’ll drive to over 10,000 feet in elevation on the famous and terrifying Beartooth Highway. Then we will see the best of northern Yellowstone: Lamar Valley, Roosevelt Lodge, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Gardiner, Montana.
Our first stop is Pompey’s Pillar National Monument, which is on the famous Lewis and Clark trail.
The Lewis and Clark expedition was authorized by Thomas Jefferson in 1803 to explore the Western lands he had just purchased from Napoleon of France, known as the Louisiana Purchase.
Merriweather Lewis and William Clark set out from St Louis on the Missouri river, taking 43 men with them on the two-year journey. They hoped to find an easy river route to the Pacific Ocean, but that didn’t happen.
Instead, they trudged across the Rocky Mountains and encountered over 50 native american tribes on the journey. Remarkably, only one man died, and it was from a burst appendix.
On the way, they met up with a French fur trapper and hired him as an interpreter. They allowed his wife, Sacagawea, to join them on the journey. While on the journey, she gave birth to a son whom she named Jean Baptiste. But Clark nicknamed him Pompey.
They traveled on the rivers as much as possible using boats like this.
On the return trip, William Clark saw this quirky little sandstone outcropping along the Yellowstone River. He climbed to the top of it, which provided views of the river and wildlife nearby. He named it after the child Pompey.
He also etched his name into the rock, which is now protected in this glass casing. It is the only physical evidence of the journey left behind on the Lewis and Clark trail.
This is one of the smallest National Monuments in the country, but surprisingly, it has a gorgeous visitor center, which was completed in 2006, commemorating the 200 year anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
It’s run by the Bureau of Land Management whose employees were so welcoming and kind to us when we were there.
Along Clark’s return journey, one of the men on the expedition asked for his release so he could go fur trapping in the mountains. This was the famous John Colter, and it’s possible that he was the first European to see Yellowstone and the Tetons. Yellowstone was called “Colter’s Hell” for a long time due to Colter’s stories of steam coming out of the land.
Colter Bay in Grand Teton is named after him, as well as Colter’s Pass, which we will drive over as we enter Yellowstone.
We’ve visited quite a few Lewis and Clark sites in this area. Great Falls, Montana has a nice interpretive center. In Helena, Montana, you can take a boat ride through a section that Lewis and Clark called the Gates of the Mountains. And in beautiful Salmon, Idaho, we visited the Sacagawea Interpretive Center.
Red Lodge, MT
The resort town of Red Lodge, MT is the gateway to one of the most famous roads in America: the Beartooth Highway.
Red Lodge was once a little mining town but when the mines ran out, it needed something to keep the town going. So a road was built to connect Red Lodge with Yellowstone, bringing tourists through Red Lodge on the way in or out of the park.
The road was no ordinary road. It took five years to build the Beartooth Highway, as it was called, and it traveled 69 miles through the highest mountain peaks in Montana, across a landscape carved by glaciers.
I’ve been looking forward to this drive for a long time, and it’s an experience we will never forget.
The Beartooth takes its time, luring you into the depths like sirens on the ocean shore. Then, come the rocky shores in the form of four intense switchbacks, climbing more than 5,000 feet in just 12 miles.
The road then crosses into Wyoming, where there are more crazy switchbacks. Just when you think you’ve reached the top, you haven’t. It just keeps on climbing. It felt like we were just driving into the sky.
One of the fun things about this road is to talk to other people when you stop: it’s like you’re all on the same breathtaking roller coaster ride.
Finally, it reaches its summit of 10,947 feet. While high, this falls a little short of the 12,183 summit of the Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, which is another wonderful experience.
In fact, the top of the Beartooth Highway reminded me a lot of Rocky Mountain National Park, but the path to get there felt like more of an experience. I’m used to driving along ledges, but even I white-knuckled this most of the way.
At the top, you’ll find the appropriately named Top of the World store. Here we were so fortunate that one of our viewers from Texas spotted us and said hi.
The Beartooth has a troubled history of ownership. It travels through three national forests and two states. It starts and ends in Montana but a large chunk of it is in Wyoming.
Because of this, its ownership has always been in dispute. No one really wants to maintain it, and funding is always an issue.
Wyoming refuses to plow or maintain its section of the road, so that job has fallen onto the national park service, even though Yellowstone is disconnected from it.
I thought it was strange that when we crossed into Wyoming at the top, the sign said, leaving Montana, making no mention of stubborn Wyoming. Now I know why.
This dispute has given the road a nickname: the orphaned road.
It’s almost like this road needs someone to adopt it. If only there was some sort of an adoption program for highways.
Charles Kuralt, who used to do weekly “On the Road” segments for Walter Kronkite, said it was the most beautiful drive in America.
Allot 2 – 3 hours to drive it. It’s slow going much of the way, and you definitely want to take your time and enjoy the experience anyway.
Make sure to stop at some of the lookouts. Gorgeous lakes, wildlife, and wildflowers dot the landscape. If you have more time, there are plenty of hikes you can do as well.
On the way down, the Beartooth re-enters Montana, ending its 69-mile route at Silvergate, Montana, a community so small it has been merged with Cooke City, and they still only have about 140 residents.
This gorgeous community is the gateway to Yellowstone’s northeast entrance. During the winter, the bear tooth highway is closed and the only way these residents can get to civilization is to go through Yellowstone to Gardiner, Montan.
This is grizzly bear country. We once camped near here just two weeks after a grizzly bear mauled a camper, so we were a little on edge. Especially when the camp host told us he spotted some fresh scat in our campground.
So, we’re staying at the appropriately named Grizzly Lodge.
This place is a delight. Accommodations are simple and rustic. Play corn hole in the courtyard or pull up an Adirondack chair next to the Silver River. The backdrop is spectacular.
They’re most proud of their community bonfire at night. Gather around the massive fire pit to meet fellow travelers and make s’mores.
Cooke City-Silvergate literally borders the Northeast entrance to Yellowstone. Driving through this entrance puts us in the famed Lamar Valley.
Lamar Valley is one of the best places to see wildlife in the lower 48 states. As such, it has been referred to as the American Serengeti.
This morning, we’re waking up at 4:30 in the morning to go wolf-watching.
But in Yellowstone, Bison Jams like this are common. Most visitors call these animals Buffalo, but as every word nazi on Youtube will point out, they are named Bison. Their Latin name is actually bison bison. But they’ve been called Buffalo since the fur trapper days, and it’s also an acceptable term. Please, life’s too short to argue about things like this.
In 1903, Teddy Roosevelt visited Yellowstone while he was president of the United States. When he visited, there were only about 25 bison in the entire park. America nearly killed off the bison, but by about 1900 it was trying to save the species.
One man, named Charles “Buffalo” Jones, earned his Buffalo nickname by being a buffalo hunter. But to his credit, he then turned to saving the bison before it was too late.
Teddy appointed him to save the Yellowstone herd. They gathered all the remaining bison and put them in a fenced area in Lamar Valley. The Lamar Buffalo Ranch operated as a breeding zoo for many years and has been called the birthplace of Wildlife Conservation.
The species survived, and there are now about 4,000 bison in Yellowstone. In fact, the park is at carrying capacity. Bison numbers continue to increase, but the park has to remove about 500-1,000 bison per year through culling or adoption.
Today, the Buffalo Ranch is operated by the nonprofit partner Yellowstone Forever. There isn’t a buffalo zoo anymore, but you can book multi-day field seminars here and stay in the ranch.
Unfortunately, some today think the entire park is a zoo. We even did a whole video about dumb Yellowstone behavior. As one park official said, “Bison are pretty chill…until they’re not.” I found this out last year when I saw a bison herd near me and one charged me. Let this serve as a warning to keep your distance.
We’ve arrived at the popular wolf-watching spot, Slough Creek. Slough Creek is a campground as well as the home of the Junction Butte Wolf Pack.
At the same time the park was trying to save the bison while Teddy visited in 1903, it was trying to eliminate Wolves.
Wildlife management was a young discipline back then, and the prevailing thought was that predators were bad.
As a result, wolves were hunted out of Yellowstone and most of the West by the 1930s.
Wildlife management evolved over time, and biologists realized that natural predators were good for an ecosystem because they keep the grazers in check.
Without natural predators, the elk numbers skyrocketed and they overgrazed Yellowstone.
So in 1995, Yellowstone embarked on a daring project to bring back the Wolves. The initial batch of wolves was imported from Canada and released right here in Lamar Valley.
It was met with plenty of controversy. Imagine living near the park, which doesn’t have fences, in a place such as Cooke City-Silvergate. Would you want a wolf roaming around your neighborhood?
About 25 years later, biologists believe wolves have restored the balance to the ecosystem by reducing the elk numbers.
However, the decision still has its enemies. Locals complain the wolves are a different, larger breed than what existed before and that they’re killing machines, leaving fewer elk for them to hunt and preying on livestock nearby.
As a consolation prize, Montana and Wyoming have legalized wolf hunting, much to the dismay of people called wolf watchers.
Wolf watchers come to Lamar Valley from all over the world because it’s one of the best places to see them from the road.
They get attached to these wolves, so much so that they know the wolf packs and their movements. They even give them names, such as Spitfire. These wolves are tracked by the park using collars and by wolf watchers on websites. Entire books and documentaries have been dedicated to individual wolves.
If you want to wolf watch, winter is the best time. In the summer, you may get lucky and see one up close. But generally, you’ll need a scope; binoculars won’t do.
You can rent a scope from the General Store in Cooke City if you can’t buy one.
Even with a scope, they can be difficult to spot, so I’ve borrowed footage from Canva.com for this video.
If you’re interested in finding wildlife at Yellowstone, check out the links in the description. You can book wildlife tours and learn about the animals, or you can download my much more affordable game plan and audio tour.
There’s more to do in Lamar Valley. Trout Lake is a short hike that’s steep at first but then levels out. A short walk around the lake provides views of streams, birds, and wildflowers.
Walk down to Lamar River to hear more of the sounds of nature.
Every trip to Yellowstone is a new and different experience. You just never know what incredible things you’ll see. This time, I saw park officials carting off an injured or dead bison. I’m assuming it was to protect the wolves and other animals who would soon come for a grand feast.
And of course, everyone wants to see a bear. Unlike in the old days, when people could feed the bears in Yellowstone, there’s no guarantee that you’ll see a bear if you visit. But if you do, you can be sure there will be a crowd.
If you do see one, consider yourself fortunate, especially if you’re lucky enough to have it cross the road, like happened to us in 2006.
On the other side of Lamar Valley is Roosevelt Lodge, named after Teddy Roosevelt, of course. When Teddy visited in 1903, he camped out near this location. A few years later, they built a lodge here, turning Camp Roosevelt into Roosevelt Lodge.
This was a more affordable place to stay for those early, and modern, tourists who can’t afford the fancy hotels like the Old Faithful Inn. Today, you can still stay in one of over 100 little rustic cabins near the lodge.
You can also eat lunch in the Lodge. They don’t take reservations, so the thing to do is to rock on the porch until your name is called.
People usually say Yellowstone doesn’t have good food, but we really enjoyed our meal. There was something for everyone, and we would recommend it to anyone.
This time, two different couples spotted us and said hi. It’s really great meeting people and seeing how excited they are to visit the west.
Even better was the Roosevelt Old West Cookout. After spending the afternoon site seeing, we ventured back to Roosevelt, this time to the nearby Coral. After gathering for a little safety instruction, we board the Yellow wagons, which are reminiscent of the early Yellow Wagons used to carry tourists around Yellowstone.
Here’s one of those early wagons I found in Cody, Wyoming this year.
Our tour guide tells us stories as we ride off to nearby Pleasant Valley, which was once called Yancey’s Hole. It was named after John Yancey, who operated a hotel in the valley. Yancey was a legend in Yellowstone for many years, but his hotel burned down in 1905, which prompted the construction of the Roosevelt Lodge.
Thankfully, the sometimes stuffy national park still allows this cookout to happen, though the cowboys told us they have to defend the Old West experience to the park each year.
This was a delightful experience. The wagon ride was fun, and the horses were absolutely gorgeous. The workers really make the experience great.
[dinner bell rings] Time to DIG IN. Only one steak per person, though. Well, until the second dinner bell rings. Then you can have as many as you want!
I’m not a coffee drinker, but from what I hear, you must try the Cowboy Coffee.
[music paying] As I said, the workers are the best. He even takes requests.
All that’s left is the send-off.
Our next stop is my mom’s favorite place in the park: Mammoth Hot Springs.
Mammoth Hot Springs is a town named after the main geothermal feature located here. The geothermal feature overlooks the town. These cascading travertine terraces are unique in the park. You can see these from below, where you’ll also find the quirky Liberty Cap formation, which is also a popular photo op.
You can also drive or walk to the top of the Terraces.
From here you can look down upon the town, as well as across the way at Mt Everts, which is named after a man who was lost in Yellowstone for 37 days and remarkably survived by huddling up against some hot springs for warmth.
The Mammoth Hot Springs town is also the park headquarters. In the early days of the park, there was no park staff to enforce the rules against hunting. So they sent the US army to oversee and protect the park from poachers, which is why there is also a Fort Yellowstone here.
Mammoth Hotel is located here. Imagine walking out of your hotel room in the morning and being surrounded by elk.
This chill scene gets a little crazy in the fall during the elk mating season when the bulls assert their dominance by charging anyone and everyone who comes near, including cars.
A few miles north is Gardiner, MT, which is outside the park and literally touches borders with the park.
Gardiner is a town of about 1,000 people mostly dedicated to taking care of tourists. Popular activities include rafting on the Gardner River, which flows north out of Yellowstone.
We stayed at the Absaroka Lodge, which is named after a nearby mountain range and is usually pronounced absorki by the locals.
You can’t beat this view from the deck, from which we see the bridge that connects both sides of the town.
Early Yellowstone Visitors used to take a train to Gardiner, and a tour company would take them around the park for a week.
Remember the old yellow coaches? Visitors would hop on one of these and excitedly enter through this fancy arch as their official welcome to Yellowstone.
This arch is called the Roosevelt Arch because when Teddy visited here in 1903, the arch was being constructed. He gave a speech from half completed the arch, and it’s been called the Roosevelt Arch ever since.
Today the actual pay booth is located a half-mile away, but you can still visit the arch and even walk through it if you’d like. It’s a popular photo op. This is after the remodel in 2021, and this is 1991 when it looked a little different.
And remember old John Yancey from Yancey’s Hole? He attended that speech by Teddy, where he caught a cold and died a few weeks later. He’s buried near the arch.
Golden Gate Canyon
When those early visitors entered the park, one of the first things they did was ride on a rickety wooden bridge called the Golden Gate Bridge. Yep, Yellowstone has its own Golden Gate Bridge. This bridge was so rickety that many visitors wanted to give up on their dream of seeing Yellowstone and turn around.
Today, we get to drive on a much more stable steel bridge. Stop at the waterfall to enjoy the great views of the canyon. One early famous painter thought this canyon so beautiful he painted it.
There are even more things to see around the North Entrance, and that’s the thing about Yellowstone: there are so many things to see and do that if you don’t plan it out right, it can actually be a frustrating experience sometimes. We’ve made our fair share of mistakes over many years of visiting the park, so we created a whole trip planner video so you’ll be prepared for your trip! Click the video image on your screen. Thank you for watching and until next time, Go West, young traveler!