The Chief Joseph Highway and Bear Tooth Pass

Bear Tooth Highway.jpg

The ride from the Salt Lake Valley to Jackson, through Yellowstone, and on to Cody, Wyoming is a great ride all by itself, but adding the Chief Joseph Highway and Bear Tooth Pass make it an epic tour.

Chief Joseph Hwy.jpg

Just 17 miles north of Cody, after riding two days in the rain from Salt Lake City, we were pointed west on the Chief Joseph Highway. The 47 paved miles of Scenic Byway is named after Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce who fled east through Yellowstone following the Battle of Big Hole in 1877. He and his 1000 warriors ran from the U.S. Calvary to escape life on the reservation. It's not hard to understand why they felt this country was worth fighting for as the beautiful landscape unrolls underneath my feet.

Without a doubt, this is one of the most enjoyable 47 miles you'll ever do on a motorcycle as you climb the pass followed by a traverse of switchbacks down into the valley and set up for the Bear Tooth Highway. Mile after mile of sweepers, perfect for my Road King, will have you grinning from ear to ear.

If you don't enjoy this section of the ride (that is far too short for me), you should probably be in a car. It just doesn't get any better on a bike.

The newscaster Charles Kuralt called "The All-American Highway" over Bear Tooth Pass "The most beautiful road in America." Summiting at just shy of 11,000 feet, it should definitely be on your bucket list—if it isn't already. Climbing from the turnoff on Chief Joseph, beautiful alpine lakes, waterfalls, and time above the tree line await.

beartooth switchbacks.jpg

The road over the summit was opened in 1936 following an old "shortcut" from the Yellowstone taken by General Phillip Sheridan in 1872. With that being said, I can't really think of a practical reason for the highway's existence—other than it is one of the funnest roads you'll ever ride on.

The temperature dropped as we made the climb this weekend, thankful for the heated gloves and jacket as the late spring/early summer temperatures dropped into the high 30s. Navigating the hairpin turns partway to the summit I was glad the road was bone dry after the rain we'd had in the days leading up to this ride over the pass. When you hit this road, be prepared for varying weather conditions and slow-speed bike control (I feel like the posted speed limit through the hairpins is just about right for a loaded touring rig). Don't be surprised if you're a little nervous your first time over the pass, you'll be spending a fair amount of time above the tree line on some pretty exposed shoulders.

The road has been in great shape every time I've been on this ride—Kudos to the Wyoming and Montana highway crews that keep the road maintained. I've been on the road when the snow was still piled up about 10 feet on the summit and shared the beautiful day with folks on snowshoes and cross-country skis.

The descent down into Red Lodge is well worth the extra miles. You will probably be tempted to turn around and do it again after topping off the tank—thats what I usually end up doing.


This weekend, we had a great lunch stop at a little place called Bogart's on the Red Lodge Main Street. Someone in Cody recommended the place to us. It wasn't a disappointment. I've been back a time or two since this trip and it's always been good. On this particular day, my chicken fajita tacos were very tasty. And, I didn't hear any complaints from my companions either.

If for some reason you don't want to go over the pass again, you can take a shortcut to Cody and bypass both Bear Tooth and Chief Joseph. Either way it's a good way to waste the day in the saddle.

Late spring, early summer, and fall rides in this part of the world require a little preparation. The weather changes quickly from hot sunshine to rain, and even snow, before you know it. Be prepared to layer—I've been in rain gear, heated gear, and a hot-weather mesh to regulate the temperature and adapt to changing conditions—sometimes on the same trip.

Fall is a great time to visit the Bear Tooth Highway too. I've had some colder temperatures in the fall, but it's still a great ride. I've also shared the road with some riders coming home from Sturgis once or twice and it could be a great option for those who want to take the long way home.

It really feels like you can almost reach up and touch the clouds as you're looking down on the trees. This is one of my favorite rides. 

Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone dominate where most people tend to visit, but some of the riding outside of the National Park is as good as it gets. Cody is a great place to base camp for a few days. There are a number of pretty good hotels and you can't help but enjoy the way the town kind of cocks it's hat to one side and gives off a little Western attitude.