This is a week-long tour through parts of Wyoming and the southeastern, near-Yellowstone areas of Montana. I have 5 days of activity total, one day spent traveling across Wyoming in order to reach my home base of Red Lodge, MT. The views are phenomenal and are of Yellowstone quality without ridiculous lines. There are illustrious scenic drives, captivating hikes, and overlooks of mountains, valleys, and lakes galore. These places are pretty far off the beaten path and you will have a rewarding feeling that you found things other people normally don't.
For the first time, I had to split my blog into two parts in order to cover everything.
I started brainstorming for this trip from various scenic drives Montana offers, such as https://www.visityellowstonecountry.com/6-scenic-drives-in-yellowstone-countrys-backyard. From there, I branched out to nearby parks, recreation areas, scenic drives that crossed into Wyoming, etc.
I think the mountain town of Red Lodge is the best place to stay for these activities. It is at the foothills of the famous Beartooth Highway, and not too far away from everything else that I did. There are no fast food brands in town except for one Subway; otherwise, you'll need to get familiar with the local bars. There's one pizza joint in town that I liked - can't remember the name, but it has "Red Lodge" in it.
Day 1: Crossing Through Wyoming
On the first day, I go through Wyoming in order to reach Red Lodge from my pre-day 1 stop point of Rapid City, SD. There are two places I highly recommend touring:
Devil's Tower, Wyoming
This is a giant rock tower that sticks out in the middle of nowhere and cannot be missed from a distance. There are some trails that you can walk around its boulder-field base to get all the angles of this gargantuan rock.
Bighorn National Forest/Bighorn Scenic Byway
This is a fantastic "rite of passage" drive that connects Eastern Wyoming eventually to Yellowstone or north to Montana. There are great valleys, mountains, and overlooks to capture, and makes an intriguing transition from green forest to dry brown rock as you complete the drive and leave the Bighorn forest. If you are driving anywhere west into the northern parts of Wyoming, I highly recommend this drive to get there.
Day 2: Two Scenic Highways & Bighorn Canyon
On day 2, I drive two incredible scenic byways that connect Red Lodge to Yellowstone National Park. As I leave these two byways, I travel >1 hour eastward for a big change in scenery in the Bighorn Canyon.
This is one of the best scenic drives in America, offering staggering views of Montana's (and Wyoming's) snow-capped peaks and the enormous valleys that are beneath these mountains. It is steep, there are tight turns, but you will not ever forget this drive. The route goes from Red Lodge to Silver Gate, MT, just walking distance outside of Yellowstone. Near the end of Beartooth Highway, before reaching Cooke City, you have the (highly recommended) option of taking the Chief Joseph Byway (WY 296) for yet another incredible mountain drive.
Chief Joseph Byway
This was a very nice surprise for me, as I didn't initially plan on driving this. But since it was connected right to Beartooth Highway, I couldn't say no. Trust me, it's an incredibly underrated drive that rivals Beartooth Highway at some points. There is a huge river valley surrounded by towering peaks in one portion of the drive, and an incredible overlook called the Dead Indian's Pass that oversees the entire mountain valley below.
Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
After leaving the Chief Joseph byway, I headed east back into the desert-like plains of Wyoming. The Bighorn Canyon features a badlands-like area that shows some portions of red rocks, some hiking trails, views of Montana's mountains in the distance, and most notably, the Devil's Canyon Overlook. This is another massive brown-rock, brown-water canyon that makes a noticeable horseshoe bend as it curves around the cliffsides.
Day 3: Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness & Billings, MT
I started with a hiking trail located in the Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness called the Sioux Charley Trail. Later in the day, I head to the big city of Billings to explore what's called the Rimrocks there.
Sioux Charley Trail
This trail leads to the Sioux Charley Lake, a quiet little lake that is looked over by some very high mountains. It first walks along the Stillwater River for some nice river canyon views, and then passes an overlook (best part of the hike in my opinion - the view almost represents a gateway where the lake goes through) before finally arriving at the lake itself.
Rimrocks in Billings (Four Dances, Swords Park, Zimmerman Park)
These rimrock formations in Billings offer nice aerial views of the nearby cityscape and highway. One of these three, the one I visited called Four Dances Recreation Area, offers a great view of the nearby Yellowstone River too. There's additional things I could have seen in Billings, but I was tired from my hike and it was 95 F outside. Look up more in Billings yourself to see what else there interests you.
Day 4: 2nd run through Beartooth/Chief Joseph & Mystic Lake Trail
On day 4, I do another run of the two highways named above, just because they're that awesome. And because I got better weather the second time around. I recommend you drive those twice too. Once I finish that, I go into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness once more to hike the Mystic Lake Trail.
Mystic Lake Trail
This is quite honestly one the best hikes I've ever done, in any state. It too starts off along a riverside before ascending into another wide valley outlined with boulder fields. The views of the valley in this boulder-field area are amazing, only to be topped by the Mystic Lake itself. The view of the lake, its enormous valley, the mountains, and the dam: simply dazzling, mesmerizing. It's really like you crossed into a natural sanctuary.
Day 5: A Scenic Tour through Yellowstone Country
This is in reference to the scenic drive link I gave above. This is a loop starting from Bozeman (2 hours away from Red Lodge) -> Ennis -> Earthquake Lake -> Big Sky -> Gallatin Gateway and then back to Bozeman. It covers most parts of what is called Montana's Yellowstone Country, since it's a few short hours away from Yellowstone NP.
Bozeman -> Ennis -> Earthquake Lake
This first half of the drive is a little less impressive if you're already familiar with Montana terrain. There are some river valleys that occasionally come near the road, there are a few nice mountain ranges in the background, but otherwise, it's pretty mundane compared to Beartooth/Chief Joseph.
This location, on the other hand, I think is the highlight of this loop. This big lake was formed by a disastrous earthquake that happened there in 1959. There are exhibits showcasing some of the events of that night, and a nice drive/overlook of the lake and the nearby mountain valleys. It is a calm looking location with a traumatic past.
Earthquake Lake -> Big Sky -> Gallatin Gateway
This latter half of the drive cuts through the Gallatin National Forest, and for most of the drive, runs alongside the Gallatin River Canyon. The "river canyon" becomes more distinct after you go north past Big Sky. With some more nice mountain ranges, a river that travels alongside your drive, and later a canyon that starts forming around you, it is a respectable drive that still comes short of the Beartooth/Chief Joseph duo. My advice: do this entire day 5 drive before you view those two other byways.
Things I didn't have time for, but might interest you?
Egad, this wasn't enough for you? In all seriousness though, check out more trailheads in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, found in the northeastern portions of the Custer Gallatin National Forest. Check out more activities in the big city of Billings and Bozeman. In the Gallatin River Canyon, there are a few hiking trails to notable landmarks that I didn't take the time to do (they were too long to add in to my driving time). Of course, if you have the time, you can always brave the lines and get inside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park.