Unable to afford a biking trip to Europe one summer, I headed to Cody, Wyoming instead. This is not quite as odd as it sounds. Cody can be the starting point for a bike ride that is as close to European-feeling as one can get in the states: the Beartooth Pass. It's thirty-some miles of climbing 5,000-some feet.
Make Cody the starting and return point though (a shorter option is to start/end in Cooke City) and you get the added workout of the unfortunately named Dead Indian Pass. A 3,000-foot, 13-mile climb.
The biggest annoyances of Beartooth? 1.) The overly aggressive mosquitoes swarming from 9,300 feet to 10,400 feet on the western side. 2.) The giant head fake that is the very inappropriately named “Top of the World” shop and cabins. The last time I checked, it was about 20,000 feet too low to be the top of the world. But it’s not like you really expect to get anywhere near 29,029-foot summit of Everest. You would expect that a place with such a name would be at or very near to the top of the pass. You’d be wrong. There’s still another (mosquito-infested) eight miles and 1,500 vertical feet to get to the West Summit. 3.) The dozens and dozens (and dozens) of Harleys. I’ve decided I want to become mayor of some town just so I can outlaw the Harleys that deafen you as they pass. Why would anyone want a bike spewing such an offensive racket? But the bikers are super friendly at least, giving you thumbs-ups and “way to go” as they rumble past. 4.) The thunderstorms that can roll in from nowhere as you’re rolling across the totally unprotected stretch of road above treeline, bruising you with hail the size of a cycling computer magnet.
While I think the ride from Cody to Red Lodge, which lies at the eastern base of Beartooth, is the more difficult direction to do because of headwinds (and mosquitoes), the ride from Red Lodge back to Cody is the more impressive because of its switchbacks.
It is disappointing to end in Red Lodge and be greeted by dive bars rather than cafes serving up wine and cheese though. (Red Lodge does have a yummy German bakery however, City Bakery.) The food scene arriving back in Cody isn’t any better. It’s got a cute coffee shop, the climber-run Beta Coffee House, 1132 12th St., but that’s about all. Unless you feel, as I do -- that a McDonald’s shake and double cheeseburger with BigMac sauce is the perfect post ginormous-ride recovery meal. Then you’re in luck.
What Makes It Great
All in all, it adds up to 112 miles and 10,500 feet of climbing (one-way). And I’d do this ride over riding up Teton Pass outside of Jackson, Wyoming any day of the week. It’s long. And, yes, there can be horrible (horrible) headwinds on the false flats on Highway 14A just as you’re getting started out of Cody, as well as in the valley you drop into off Dead Indian Pass (Sunlight Basin). But the actual climbing part is so friendly I was giggling my way up both passes in both directions. Maybe Dead Indian has a short section that’s 7%. I don’t think Beartooth even has that (which goes a long way towards explaining why it takes about 30 miles to get to its 10,942-foot summit).
Who is Going to Love It
Experienced cyclists in great shape will undoubtedly put this ride on their list of "Best Rides Ever." Other cyclists will mostly likely hate it while they're riding, but, once recovered, be proud of their accomplishment. This is one of the toughest mountain rides in the country.
Cyclists wary of technical descents need not fear this ride. Because both climbs are so gradual, few switchbacks are tight and grades are such that it is possible to control your speed. That written, if you want to scare yourself, you could hit 60 miles an hour if you don't use your brakes.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
Take Wyoming 120 north from Cody. After you pass Heart Mountain to the east, you can’t miss the signs for the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway.
It heads west. And climbs upwards of 3,000 feet over 13 miles. It’s shorter than the Beartooth Pass, but steeper. Descending Chief Joseph lands you in Sunlight Basin, one of the most beautiful spots in the state and also one of the least-visited. Restock your food and water as often as possible on this section as 1) there aren’t many places that sell water and snacks and 2) your next chance to get more food and water is at Top of the World Resort, about 50 miles away. And make sure to savor the scenery. Spanning Sunlight Gorge, Sunlight Creek Bridge is the highest bridge in the state. You’ll also pass the Cathedral Cliffs. In the distance, catch a glimpse of Table Mountain and Beartooth Butte. Wyoming 296 dead ends at the Beartooth Highway. Take a left and, in about 10 miles, you’ll be in Cooke City. But you don't want to do this. A right takes you to the spectacular scenery of the BTP and the creature comforts of Red Lodge. Do this ride in August to avoid the horsefly-sized mosquitoes that plague Top of the World. If one trip up the BTP is enough for you for a summer, when it comes time to head back to Cody, you can opt for the flatter, shorter route via Bearcreek and Belfry, Mont. and Wyoming 120 south.