Hands down, the most scenic approach to Yellowstone National Park is the Beartooth Highway, a narrow ribbon of road that climbs to nearly 11,000 feet between Red Lodge, Montana, and the park's northeast entrance. And then, even as the road peaks out at 10,947 feet, you still have peaks to look up to.
The craggy views of the Absaroka and Beartooth mountains, with their icefields and glaciers and wildflower strewn meadows, that you enjoy along the 68-mile drive to Yellowstone rightfully have earned the route distinction as a National Scenic Byways All-American Road. Your passengers get the best of these views, as you're too busy keeping your eyes on the road as it switchbacks up in elevation while just beyond the road's shoulders the landscape plunges far, and steeply, away in places.
Roaming as it does at nearly 11,000 feet in the Rockies, weaving into both Montana and Wyoming, it's not hard to imagine that the Beartooth Highway encounters some serious maintenance problems. They involve clearing away mountains of snow to open the road in time for summer travel season, repairing crumbling pavement and potholes, and other problems that tend to befall high-elevation, mountainous routes, such as the historic mudslides that roared across the highway in 2005.
While the National Park Service long has tended to this maintenance, the days when Yellowstone National Park could afford to handle it seem to be drawing to a close. The budget sequester that sliced 5 percent from the park's budget a year ago made that clear. And now Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk is making the rounds of state government offices in search of deeper pockets to serve as the highway's caretaker.
'The work we do on the Beartooth Highway will always be secondary to the work we do in the park,' the superintendent told the Wyoming Transportation Commission the other week while hoping the state would take maintenance control of its 35 miles of the highway. 'I'm telling you it can't be our highest priority.'
According to a story on yellowstonegate.com, neither Montana nor Wyoming officials are anxious to take over maintenance. Just dealing with issues on Wyoming sections of the Beartooth Highway would cost 'many tens of millions of dollars,' estimated Wyoming Department of Transportation Chief Engineer Del McOmie, who added in his presentation to the Transportation Commission that annual maintenance alone could approach half-a-million dollars.
In short, this scenic national treasure is valued by the two states and the National Park Service...but apparently not enough to justify a budget line for its upkeep.