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THE BEARTOOTH HIGHWAY: ACCORDING TO CHARLES KURALT, THIS IS AMERICA'S MOST BEAUTIFUL DRIVE.

Years ago as a roving correspondent for CBS, Charles Kuralt criss-crossed the United States in an RV looking for stories about extraordinary people and places.

On a stint out West he drove the Beartooth Highway, a 64-mile ribbon of pavement that cuts across the mountain wilderness of northwest Wyoming.It impressed him so much he called it America's most scenic drive. He expressed no doubts. No question marks. No equivocation.

I happened to catch Kuralt's TV story. It left me with scenic images that have blurred only slightly over time. When an opportunity to drive the Beartooth came along in late June, I took it. No doubts. No question marks. No equivocation.

This legendary section of road, part of U.S. Highway 212, connects the tiny Montana towns of Cooke City and Red Lodge. In between is Wyoming/Montana wilderness as vast and beautiful as anyone could imagine.

Because it's within a two-day drive of the Wasatch Front, it's relatively easy for Utahns to see for themselves the sights that melted Kuralt's heart.

It's a good getaway for Utahns for other reasons, too. Motel and restaurant prices along the way are generally reasonable, and there are a number of campgrounds to choose from.

Once you're in the area, you'll find more to do than twiddle your thumbs. There's good hiking and fishing, for example. And if you visit Cooke City or Red Lodge, they'll remind you how charming small-town America can be.

Utahns who appreciate the great outdoors will love the Beartooth. If this isn't God's country, there's no such place.

Here are the details.

Getting there

Any number of routes will work. The most obvious include taking the northeast entrance out of Yellowstone National Park to Cooke City, or driving through Cody, Wyo., and following Highway 296, aka the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway. It connects into the Beartooth about 12 miles east of Cooke City.

Red Lodge is the highway's eastern gateway. Once a mecca of coal mining, it's now a tourist town. But don't let that bother you. Its turn-of-the-century buildings and friendly residents help it retain a charisma that's hard to ignore.

The trip between Red Lodge and Cooke City takes about two hours, if you're bent on making time. But that assumes you're blind to the beauty of Mother Nature and that your heart won't skip a beat at the sight of impressive panoramas.

You'll more likely linger at scenic overlooks where the vistas will take your breath away.

The two-hour drive time assumes you won't be delayed by construction. Road improvements are an unfortunate fact this summer and will perhaps drag into the summer of '95. They could set you back as much as 30 minutes.

It also assumes traffic won't be bad. You won't encounter traffic jams, as such, but the area gets busier every year. "A lot of people are discovering the Beartooth," says Lyle Hancock, recreation forester with the Clarks Fork District of Shoshone National Forest.

The highway is not for the timid or the faint of heart. The road is narrow with tight switchbacks. And driving a cumbersome RV is not a good idea. "It's not an easy highway to drive if you're in a large RV," says Hancock. "There's also the elevation. It's a fairly high pass. (Both the west and east summits of Beartooth Pass are nearly 11,000 feet in elevation). Some people have trouble with altitude sickness."

Another variable: The weather can be unpredictable. "Freak snow storms can close the highway anytime during the summer," says Hancock. "Weather conditions are often very different from down at Red Lodge or Cooke City. It's very cold on top, and many people are still wearing their shorts and sandals."

Another thing to keep in mind: The area is grizzly-bear habitat. Food storage guidelines thatapply in Yellowstone are applicable in the Beartooth.

The highway is closed from approximately mid-October to Memorial Day Weekend.

Camping

There are four developed campgrounds along the Wyoming portion of the highway. From west to east they are Fox Creek, Crazy Creek, Beartooth Lake and Island Lake. In addition, there are three forest service campgrounds in Gallatin National Forest near the Cooke City portion of the highway and six in the bottom of Rock Creek Canyon on the Red Lodge side.

They are available first-come, first-served and cost $8 per night. They have garbage service, running water and vault toilets.

Fire restrictions apply this summer. You can make a fire only in developed campgrounds. Campfires in the backcountry are prohibited.

Hiking/sightseeing

Clay Butte lookout tower near Beartooth Lake is open to the public and offers a splendid view of the surrounding countryside. Trails take off from several of the major campgrounds including Island Lake, Crazy Creek and Beartooth Lake. Beartooth Loop trail on Beartooth Pass is 13 miles long, but you can make it a shorter hike if you like.

Fishing

"There are so many lakes up there it's hard to recommend any particular one," says Hancock, the recreation forester.

Beartooth Lake and Island Lake are close to the road and have boat access. Beartooth Lake is stocked with lake trout as well as rainbow and grayling. Other lakes have primarily brook trout. Because of the short season and limited food supply, trout make up in quantity what they lack in size. Wyoming fishing licenses are available at the Top of the World Store on the highway.

Services

The only services between Cooke City/Silver Gate/Colter Pass and Red Lodge are at Top of the World Store, which sells groceries and gasoline.

Red Lodge

"Downtown is a walker's paradise," says Sherry Fears of the chamber of commerce. "We have art galleries, antique stores and a nice selection of eating establishments."

- Two districts are listed on the National Register. They are the commercial district and the residential area known as Hi-Bug. Most of the buildings were erected between 1893 and 1910 during the coal mining boom. A walking-tour map is available at the chamber of commerce on Broadway.

- The Carbon County Museum located on the south end of Broadway, recounts the area's coal mining history and the construction of the Beartooth Highway. It also has rodeo memorabilia.

- Coalminer's Park on the north end of town has a petting zoo and picnic area.

Cooke City/Silver Gate/Colter Pass

With a summertime population that swells to 300 from its wintertime population of 90, Cooke City is the largest of these enclaves of civilization near the northeast entrance to Yellowstone. It has seven motels/hotels and a handful of restaurants. Its General Store is listed on the National Register.

Virtually surrounded by the Absaroka/Beartooth wilderness, you have plenty of trails for hiking, mountain biking or four-wheel driving.

Cooke City began life as a gold mining camp. Now it caters to tourists as well as summer residents who converge on the area from all over the country with an art gallery, three gift shops, a handful of saloons, several gas stations and motels.

Highway history

The Beartooth Highway, completed in 1936, was the brainchild of Red Lodge resident Dr. J.C.F. Siegfreidt. He hoped it would bring tourists to town, replacing the declining coal mining industry as the area's major source of revenue.

According to Shirley Zupan, who with Harry J. Owens co-authored "Red Lodge, Saga of a Western Area," Red Lodge businesses raised money for the publisher of the local newspaper to travel to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress for money to build the road. The Keavitt Bill, also known as the Park Approach Act, was signed into law in 1931. It authorized $50 million to build or improve roads into national parks. The Beartooth, first referred to as the Cooke City-Red Lodge Highway, was built at a cost of $2.5 million.

The Beartooth Highway begins and ends in Montana but the majority of it is in Wyoming. Since it's virtually in "no states' land," it is maintained by the National Park Service.

A scenic viewpoint on the highway looks toward a rock pinnacle once known as "the Needle" but now called "the Bear's Tooth." According to Zupan, American Indians first referred to another rock formation in the area as the bear's tooth.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

For information

For a Red Lodge visitors guide, available free, write the Red Lodge Area Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 988, Red Lodge, MT 59068, or call 1-406-446-1718. The publication lists accommodations, restaurants, attractions and includes a city map and calendar of events.

For a Forest Service map of the north half of Shoshone National Forest, send a check for $3, payable to the U.S. Forest Service, to the Supervisor's Office, Shoshone National Forest, 808 Meadow Lane, Cody, WY 82414. Or you can purchase one at the General Store in Cooke City or at the Top of the World store on the Beartooth Highway or at various other sporting goods outlets in Wyoming.

For information about Cooke City, known for mountain biking and hiking, call 1-406-838-2272.