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20 miles southwest of Red Lodge, Montana Pass
Up to 3,500 feet
Minimum Time Needed:
Shuttle or hitchhike
Forty-five-degree aprons of corn. The granite spires of Yellowstone National Park as a back-drop. A dearth of backcountry skiers, save for a handful of diehards with idling snowmobiles. That-and not much else-is what you get at Beartooth Pass, Montana, just outside the cow town of Red Lodge, where chaps and pearl-buttoned shirts outnumber fat skis and soft shells-and where the locals are too busy calving heifers to notice a three-foot dump.
Although most daytime May and June temps hover around a blissful 60 degrees, storms have a tendency to roll down from the Arctic and blindside bare-chested skiers. Come prepared with T-shirt, Gore-Tex, and down. Those storms also bring wagon loads of light, low-moisture snow, which fills in the sunbaked headwall entries but makes for mean wet slides when the mercury creeps up.
Unless you’re a seasoned snowmobiler, don’t even think about going before Memorial Day: The heavily switchbacked section of U.S. 212 that leads to the top of the pass is 17 miles long, and closed to cars. From Red Lodge, drive southwest on U.S. 212. Motor all the way to the top of 4,000 vertical feet of switchbacks, park it, and try your luck hitching a ride post-descent. Or leave a car at the third switchback from the bottom of the pass. (There’s parking on both sides of the road.)
THE GOODS: Morning corn usually sets up nicely on Gardner Headwall, part of what locals call the “West Summit.” Make the quick 100-foot hike from the parking area that’s just south of the top of the pass. From here, chutes such as Hourglass, the Main Chute, and the East Chute are 1,000 feet long and fall away at 50-degree angles. They’re treeless, but there’s enough fist-size granite rockfall to keep you on your toes. Before the slope levels off, be sure to admire the snow art that decorates the flatlands spreading clear to Yellowstone and the Absaroka Range. When you’re done ogling, open it up and spray corn trails down the final 700-foot pitch. The only drawback: A boot-pack back out to the road. After lunch, head back to the top and hike northwest to Rock Creek Headwall, where several northeast-facing, rock-lined chutes plunge 1,800 feet at angles up to 50 degrees. Most of them start with skinny entries before aproning out into sparsely treed football fields of corn. Big winds on the headwall often whip up 20-foot cornices, but there are usually sneak entries, too. If you want to rack up some extra vert at day’s end, shell out 50 bucks and ride one of two Poma lifts (run by the Red Lodge Race Camp) just below the pass. You’ll ski only 700 feet per ride, but this is hell-and-gone Montana, so you’ll feel like you’re skiing out of bounds.
Snow creek Saloon, Red Lodge, Montana
“Memorial Day weekend is the biggest party of the year,” says Brandon Richardson, bartender at Snow Creek Saloon (406-446-2542) on Highway 212 in Red Lodge. “There’s always bar-top dancing…it’s rivaled only by Harley week.” Not only does the 108-year-old tin outpost hold the rowdiest spring bash, it’s also home to the “Hall of Broken Snowboards,” a gallery of P-tex carnage that dates back 20 years. Amble in on any Wednesday night for quarter drafts (yes, $0.25; this is Montana), rub elbows with lift-ops and slednecks, and check out the barroom mementos-bras, license plates, a taxidermed deer’s behind lovingly known as Sasquatch.
Check avy conditions, rockfall-a problem in spring-and snow reports with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center (mtavalanche.com) or the local Forest Service office (406-446-2103). Hire Beartooth Mountain Guides (406-446-9874) if you’re not up to going it alone. Stop by the Forest Service officce just south of Red Lodge (6811 Highway 212 ) for maps and tips. Sleep at Alpine Lodge ($46 per night; 877-646-2213). Camp free at the M-K campsite at the bottom of Beartooth Pass (call the Forest Service for more info).