Travel Tales

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Phil Armitage

Travel Tale: The Beartooth Highway and Sunlight Basin

September 23, 2008
by Lindsey Chapman
When my family gets a hankering for some trout, a fishing trip is usually in order. And as far as we’re concerned, there’s no other place to fish than in Wyoming’s Sunlight Basin.

Red Lodge, Montana

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For my family, no camping trip starts well without a trip to Red Lodge, Montana. This quaint little resort town is nestled in the mountains, and has been kept alive by various industries over the years, including mining and tourism. Today, tiny shops line the main street, which is almost always filled with travelers wandering back and forth across the road exploring. My favorite pit stop here is the candy store, where it’s quite easy to walk out with more than enough goodies to satisfy a sweet tooth for a year.

Over the Beartooth Highway

Perhaps one of the most beautiful ways to travel from Montana to Wyoming is via the Beartooth Highway. This road is not for the faint of heart, but if you can muster up the courage to leave Red Lodge and head up the mountain, you’ll be richly rewarded. The highway takes motorists from an elevation of about 5,500 feet to right around 11,000 feet on the Beartooth Mountain range. Along the way, travelers navigate a series of switchbacks that alternately place both the driver and the passenger’s sides of the car next to a formidable drop-off. At the top, however, a breathtaking 360-degree view of the mountains is the panoramic payoff. Depending on the weather, it’s sometimes possible to look down on the clouds. This is the closest I’ve come to feeling on top of the world.

Sunlight Basin, Wyoming

When I decided to tell this travel tale, my dad and my brother made me swear that I wouldn’t reveal where we fish beyond saying that we go to the Sunlight Basin. It’s our generations-long family secret. Dad has relayed many stories about his encounters with bears in this country. Little did I know that I’d have a story of my own to tell this year. As we fished our (mostly) secret spot, I inadvertently scared a grizzly bear out of the brush and right past a pair of horseback riders. To be honest, I never saw the bear, but one of the riders informed us that the critter was “packing the mail” (translation: running away quite fast).

Cooke City, Montana

Just a short drive from our fishing spot is another mountain town: Cooke City, Montana. Even smaller than Red Lodge, this little community has a long mining history. Some of the old mining cabins are still visible. If mountains could talk, I’d love to hear what they would have to say about Cooke City. I’m sure there are plenty of stories about this area that never found their way into a history book.

In the winter, Cooke City’s population dwindles to about 100 people, but swells to around 300 in the summer season. I think it takes a strong person to live here. Nature isn’t always forgiving. In 1988, the Yellowstone Park fires made their way out of the park, past Cooke City and into the Sunlight Basin. Although charred trees still serve as a vivid reminder of events past, this is a trip I’ll be eager to make again next year.
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