Top scenic drives around Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone’s famous landscape doesn’t suddenly end at the park fence. Enveloping the park kernel is a protective cushion of national forests and wilderness areas that offer almost as much scenic splendor as the park itself, but without the crowds and the entry fee. Heading to Yellowstone? See the main attractions, but leave time to explore these breathtaking areas as you drive into, out of, and around the world’s first national park.

Beartooth Highway

The breathtaking Beartooth Hwy (US 212) connects Red Lodge to Cooke City and Yellowstone’s northeast entrance along a soaring 68-mile road built in 1932. An engineering feat, and the ‘most beautiful drive in America’ according to the late journalist Charles Kuralt, this road is a destination in its own right and easily the most dramatic route into Yellowstone National Park.  The drive will take you through the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, which stretches along Montana’s border with Wyoming and crosses through Gallatin, Custer and Shoshone National Forests. It takes in two distinct mountain ranges: the forested valleys of Absarokas and the Beartooth Plateau, home to some of the oldest rocks in North America. To really explore and absorb all this wonderland has to offer, you need to get out of the car and walk around, if only for a few minutes. The highway has a short driving season and is usually closed between mid-October and late May.

Mountain Goat along Beartooth Highway in Montana. Photo by Yvonne Baur / Getty Images.

Chief Joseph Scenic Highway

The wild and scenic Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River runs along much of the Chief Joseph Scenic Hwy (Hwy 296), linking Cody (via Hwy 120 north) with the Beartooth Hwy and Yellowstone National Park’s Northeast Entrance, 62 miles away. The highway is named for Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé tribe who eluded the US army and escaped through Clarks Fork here in 1877. The paved highway is open year-round from Cody to the Beartooth Hwy. The 47-mile road starts 16 miles north of Cody, enters the Shoshone National Forest after 8 miles and climbs to a spectacular viewpoint at Dead Indian Pass (8048ft) , which if you decide to stop and hike, will lead you to Clarks Fork Canyon, home of a breathtaking waterfall, and 1200ft granite gorge. USFS Rd 101 will eventually branch southwest into the beautiful Sunlight Basin, whose upper branches end at a wall of peaks forming the remote eastern boundary of Yellowstone National Park.

A Herd of ElksA Herd of Elks, Wapiti Valley by Yuya Sekiguchi. Creative Commons Attribution license.

Buffalo Bill Scenic Byway

Deemed the ‘most scenic 52 miles in the United States’ by Teddy Roosevelt, Buffalo Bill Scenic Byway (US 14/16/20) traces Wapiti Valley and the North Fork of the Shoshone River from Cody to the East Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. You will find yourself twisting to gape at the volcanic Absaroka Range, a rugged canyon of eroded badlands that gradually gives way to alpine splendor. This vast wilderness is home to grizzlies, black bears, deer, elk, moose, bighorn sheep and a few bison. The extensive network of trails, easy access to Yellowstone National Park’s lake region and a selection of the region’s best dude ranches make the valley an excellent wild route into or out of the park. Two miles before the east entrance to Yellowstone is the gas station, store, restaurant and corrals of Pahaska Tepee resort. Staff lead free tours of the original lodge, built by Buffalo Bill in 1904 as a hunting lodge, and there are local trail rides.

Gallatin Valley Route

A broad ribbon snaking through big valleys, the Gallatin River leaves its headwaters in the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park to cascade through the narrow, craggy Gallatin Valley. For movie junkies, scenes from the film A River Runs Through It were filmed on the beautiful Gallatin River, a photo op that shouldn’t be missed. US 191 traces its path, eventually meeting the Madison, Jefferson and Missouri Rivers at Three Forks.  The route, forged by Lewis and Clark, is sandwiched between the scenic Madison and Gallatin Ranges, the route. On a clear day, look for a distinct cluster of summits exceeding 10,000ft rising sharply out of the silhouette of the Gallatin Range west of US 191: these are the Spanish Peaks, the valley’s premier hiking and backcountry ski destination and part of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. After passing the Gallatin Canyon, Hwy 191 briefly enters the far northwestern corner of Yellowstone National Park (there is no entry booth here). The paved route makes for a great bike ride; it’s less traveled and notably less crowded than the main park loops.

The view from the Mallard's Roost in Paradise Valley, Montana. Phot by Jeff R Clow / Getty Images.

Paradise Valley Route

US 89 follows the Yellowstone River through this broad valley, flanked by the Gallatin Range to the west and the jagged Absaroka Range to the east. If you have time, the scenic East River Rd offers a parallel and quieter alternative to busy US 89. Amazingly, in retrospect, plans were afoot in the 1960s to dam the Yellowstone River and flood much of the lovely valley. South of the Tom Miner turnoff, US 89 winds through Yankee Jim Canyon, a narrow gorge cut through folded bands of extremely old rock (mostly gneiss) that look a bit like marble cake. Yankee Jim George hacked out a toll road through the canyon in the 19th century and made a living from Yellowstone-bound stagecoaches until the railroad put him out of business. This stretch of the Yellowstone River is the valley’s hottest white-water spot.