Travel is one of our great pleasures and passions in life. After more than six months of being cooped up by the new reality of coronavirus restrictions and having two international trips cancelled, we just had to get out and go somewhere. With overseas travel restricted for the foreseeable future, a road trip was in order.
The ride and the route
We would be driving our beloved 2014 Mercedes-Benz E350 Cabriolet. Our E-Class came equipped with the 3.5-liter V-6 producing a very useful 302 horsepower paired with a seven-speed automatic transmission. Our car also has the Premium 1 Package, which includes features that were much appreciated during the drive, namely the navigation system, the 14-speaker Harmon Kardon surround sound system, SiriusXM satellite radio, heated front seats, and the AirScarf ventilated headrests. Even with the cooler temperatures we encountered along the Beartooth Highway, the AirScarf system allowed us to be comfortable with the top down. Speaking of the E350’s soft top, the triple-layer fabric design allowed for incredibly quiet cruising at highway speeds. Conversation was always easy.
From our hometown of Spearfish, South Dakota, the best road trips are west into Wyoming and Montana, or southwest to Colorado. With Bobbi, my wife and co-driver, still teaching at our local Black Hills State University, our destination had to be drivable within a four-day weekend. That narrowed the possibilities down to somewhere in Wyoming or Montana. We had always wanted to drive to Red Lodge, Montana. And Red Lodge just happens to be the eastern gateway to the little known Beartooth Highway, which I had longed to drive. To get there we could also stop at another location we have long wanted to explore, Buffalo, Wyoming.
The time of year was also an important factor. I normally drive the E350 in the warmer months without snow – usually this means April through October – after which the car is garaged for winter. In late September we had already seen one brief snow. Although it quickly melted the next day, clearly, the clock was counting down the days for convertible weather.
Other factors to consider were the fall leaves, particularly the beautiful yellow of the Aspen, due to peak the first weekend of October. The final consideration was the Beartooth Highway itself, which is a seasonal road and would close in mid-October. So, the first weekend in October was the date and we had our plan!
We would drive from Spearfish to Buffalo for an overnight, and then on to Red Lodge for three days to tackle the Beartooth Highway and the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway in a roughly 120-mile loop back to Red Lodge. We planned to stay in two boutique restored hotels from the late 1800s: the Occidental in Buffalo and the Pollard Hotel in Red Lodge.
The beautiful road
The Beartooth Highway was dubbed "the most beautiful roadway in America" by On the Road correspondent Charles Kuralt. The Beartooth Highway is 63 miles of winding roads between Red Lodge, Montana and the northeast entrance to Yellowstone Park. The road takes a minimum of two hours to drive, not counting numerous photo stops, and climbs over 5,000 feet from Red Lodge to the West Summit Overlook at 10,947 feet.
From the highway one can view 20 peaks over 12,000 feet, glacial cirques, clear alpine lakes, and snow that lingers through the summer. And of course, we could look forward to the sheer joy of driving a Mercedes-Benz through the switchbacks and hairpin turns too numerous to count while enjoying the magnificent vistas.
Leaving Thursday afternoon, a leisurely three-hour drive on Interstate 90 brought us to Buffalo, an historic old Wyoming frontier town. We spent the first night at the Occidental Hotel & Saloon, a 140-year-old faithfully maintained hotel with period furnishings and art. The creaky painted wood floors and claw tooth tub of our large Creekside Suite added to the Old West authenticity. Butch Cassidy, Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill and a young Teddy Roosevelt had all signed the Occidental’s guest register. Thursday night was also the free Bluegrass music night in the old west bar!
Friday morning, we decided to take the northern route, US 212, from Sheridan, Wyoming through the Bighorn range and on to Red Lodge. The roughly 5½ hour drive took us through our first series of switchbacks and up to the Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark. We had programed the navigation system from Sheridan to Red Lodge because once we left US 212 there were a series of road changes between Wyoming and Montana. As we drove through the Bighorns, we discovered how accurate the GPS system was as we marveled at the squiggly presentation of the upcoming switchbacks on the navigation screen.
The Medicine Wheel is located at an elevation of 9,642 feet near the crest of the Bighorn Mountains of north central Wyoming. It occupies a rolling limestone plateau 12 miles south of the Montana border. The high-altitude summit is an important prehistoric archeological landscape as well as an ancient Native American spiritual site. Tribal ceremonies continue at Medicine Wheel to this day. The Medicine Wheel is a circular configuration of limestone boulders about 80 feet in diameter, with 28 rock “spokes” radiating from a prominent central cairn. From the top of Medicine Mountain, we felt like we were literally on top of the world.
From Medicine Wheel, we descended 30 miles west into Lovell, Wyoming. While still full of switchbacks, the descending road was wider and less treacherous than the climb. Just outside of Lovell, we stopped for a picnic of cheese, crackers and salami at a National Park Visitors Center, which had the only picnic tables in town. Fortuitously, a park ranger was handing out maps and brochures touting the Bighorn Canyon, just 10 miles away. He described the canyon as a must-see experience where we might also view bighorn sheep and wild horses.
We had the time and decided to take the 20-mile round trip to the Devil Canyon Overlook. Sure enough, as soon as we entered the park, we saw a small herd of about six bighorn sheep with their carefully attendant ram. Less than a mile further along, we came to the overlook. The ranger had not prepared us for the magnificent views of what we both likened to a spectacular mini-Grand Canyon. Here the Bighorn River had cut deep into the red and gray limestone walls to create a 1,000-foot-deep canyon with the river running through it. On our return, we luckily spotted a wild mare and her colt grazing in adjacent Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range.
Arriving in Red Lodge, we checked into the completely restored Pollard Hotel, billed as Montana’s Historic Hotel, built in 1883 of red sandstone. Again, the list of past guests included Wild Bill and Calamity Jane but added William Jennings Bryan and the infamous Liver Eatin’ Johnson, a noted frontier scout. We did not inquire as to the origin of the liver. The Pollard was beautifully appointed and featured thoroughly modern rooms and baths. The hotel’s signature meal was the huge breakfast, complete with delicious eggs Benedict, and incredible blueberry pancakes, all part of our special Bed-and-Breakfast rate.
Saturday after breakfast at the Pollard we set out on the Beartooth Highway, which begins just a few miles out of Red Lodge. To say we were lucky with the weather is a major understatement. The forecast was for clear skies, temperatures up to 70 degrees and low 50s at night. Only after arriving in Red Lodge did we learn that the Highway had been closed the week prior due to 10 inches of snow, which had quickly melted before our arrival. We also discovered that the Aspen trees were at their peak color just that weekend. We must have been living right!
Shortly after leaving Red Lodge, the Beartooth Highway rises quickly, soon arriving at the Rock Creek switchbacks, seven miles of zig-zags with 10–15 mph hairpin turns, more than a few of which were white knuckle affairs. The Beartooth Highway is an engineering marvel, with the ascents and descents carved into the sides of incredibly steep cliffs. It is not a driver’s road, as the narrow roadway is bordered by steep rock face on one side and shear drops on the other. There is no respite from a constant need to focus on the road conditions and keeping speeds low. Thankfully, there were numerous well-spaced turnouts to allow us to pull over frequently to appreciate the incredible views of the peaks and glaciers of the Beartooth Mountains.
Topping 10,000 feet, we came to the Hellroaring Plateau, an awesome windswept expanse of treeless tundra and rock with remnants of the prior week’s snow still clinging to the side of the road. Further on, we viewed the Bear’s Tooth, a sharp pyramidal spire carved by glaciation. Luckily, there was no wind, and with the temperature in the high 60s, I quickly agreed to Bobbi’s suggestion of lowering the top. This took only 20 seconds and really improved the views.
As the highway began to descend, we came to beautiful Beartooth Lake, a popular campground. We stopped for a snack ahead of a one-lane road closure with up to 30-minute waits. The single lane road ahead revealed the reason for the closure. A massive mountain rock slide seemed to have wiped out the missing lane, presenting an incredible reconstruction challenge for the huge earth moving equipment and cranes to even get to the site. Past the road construction we came to Pilot and Index Peaks, volcanic remnants over 11,000 feet high. From this vantage we got our first view of the Aspen groves in their full fall yellow glory. As we descended 7-to-10-degree grades, I was able to use the manual paddle shifters, which allowed for greater control and let the engine take some of the load off the brakes. Manual downshifts were smooth, with no abrupt motions and resulted in a pleasant throaty exhaust sound clearly audible with the top down.
Chief Joseph Highway
We soon arrived at the junction of Wyoming Highway 296, also known as the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway. This is a 46-mile scenic road that follows the route taken by Chief Joseph as he led the Nez Perce Indians out of Yellowstone and into Montana in 1877 during their attempt to flee the U.S. Cavalry and escape into Canada.
The Chief Joseph Scenic Highway travels in a southeasterly direction through a beautiful valley as it winds through the Shoshone National Forest and the Absaroka Mountains before passing through Dead Indian Pass. Now this was a driver’s road! There were still lots of switchbacks, but with a much wider road of gentler ascents and descents. I switched to Sport Mode to open it up and enjoy the full driving capabilities of the car’s powerful engine, with the transmission, braking and suspension operating in unison.
Later the road crosses Sunlight Creek Bridge, the highest in Wyoming, with views of the gorge far below. We soon reached the eastern end of the highway at WYO 120 for a return to Red Lodge and the successful completion of our Western driving adventure.
Looking back at our trip at the end of our adventure, I found myself asking: between the Beartooth and Chief Joseph, which was the best to drive? These amazing roads are hard to compare. The Beartooth was incredibly engineered and offered stunning top-of-the-world views of peaks, glaciers, windswept tundra and alpine lakes. But with miles of slow switchbacks and hairpins, we drove it to experience the views, not the road.
The Chief Joseph Highway, on the other hand, was truly a great driver’s road. It also has beautiful vistas, but lends itself to aggressive driving that offers full engagement for a high-performance vehicle. With rarely a posted speed limit and no sign of the highway patrol the entire trip, here was a road that invited spirited driving and summoned up a car – and driver’s – full set of abilities.
Each experience was wonderful in its own way. Ultimately, driving a great car on the right road on a perfect day with the top down – well, it just doesn’t get any better than that!