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The Chief Joseph Scenic Byway

Valleys and Mountains Along the Chief Joseph Byway
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The Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, a federally designated forty-six mile scenic byway, lies entirely in Wyoming. The route follows Highway 296, also known as the Chief Joseph Highway, between the Beartooth Highway near Cooke City and Highway 120, north of Cody.

Despite lying entirely in Wyoming, I’ve included this scenic drive on Big Sky Fishing since it’s a very scenic and enjoyable trip that can be taken, in conjunction with the Beartooth Highway and two other state highways, to create a 160-mile scenic loop that begins and ends in Red Lodge, Montana.

The Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, which is a paved highway that is open year-round, is more than just a scenic drive. The road closely follows the path take by the Nez Perce as they fled the US Calvary in 1877. Several historical and interpretative signs along the road provide more information about the flight of the Nez Perce.

Highlights of the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway include excellent views of the North Absaroka Mountains, more distant views of the Beartooth Mountains and Beartooth Plateau, and Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River.

Similar to the Beartooth Highway, the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway passes through National Forest lands for almost its entire length, allowing for virtually unlimited outdoor recreation. Several developed campgrounds are located along the byway, although the best campgrounds are located on the many gravel side roads that lead deeper into the National Forest. The combination of National Forest ownership of the lands as well as the open nature of the terrain also allows for excellent primitive camping options.

Canyon of the Clarks Fork Yellowstone River
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Unlike the Beartooth Highway, the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway is not a high-elevation drive. Although the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway does cross a high mountain pass called Dead Indian Pass, which has an elevation of 8048 feet, by and large the byway passes through a series of open, scenic valleys surrounded by tall, forested mountains.

That said, the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway spends little time traveling along flat terrain or going straight. The Byway makes numerous twisting ascents and descents of large hills and across lower passes. Indeed, at times it seems the Byway is incapable to driving in a straight line for any length of time. Because of this, the time needed to travel down the Byway is more than the relatively short forty-six mile length of the drive suggests.  To enjoy the drive, and to prevent frustration from creeping in when yet “another hill” or “tight turn” lies ahead, I’d suggest leaving a good two hours to explore the scenery along the Byway.

While there are many scenic highlights along the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, there are two of special interest. The first highlight is where the Byway crosses the Clarks Fork Yellowstone River. At this crossing, the bridge is far above the river since the river flows through a deep canyon. A scenic pullout is located on the southern side of the river. Be sure to take the time to stop here and head out on the sidewalk that leads across the bridge. The views of the river, the gorge and surrounding mountains are superb.

The second scenic highlight is Dead Indian Pass, which is also the highest elevation of the highway. The views of the higher peaks of the North Absaorka Mountains are excellent. But just as interesting is the superb view of the deep canyon that the Clarks Fork Yellowstone Flows through—from above it seems that the earth essentially split apart, allowing the river to pass through it. Finally, several signs are located at the pass that provide detailed information about the Nez Perce, their flight into Montana, the US Calvary, and the Nez Perce War in general terms.

Overall, the time spent traveling down the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway is time well spent. The views of the surrounding mountains are excellent, and traffic isn’t too terribly heavy in comparison to other routes that lead into Yellowstone National Park. Additionally, the Byway, when combined with the Beartooth Highway, creates a superb 96-mile drive between Cody, Wyoming and Red Lodge, Montana.

Quick Facts

  • Length: 46 miles
  • Highlights : Beartooth Mountains, North Absaroka Mountains, Clark's Fork Yellowstone River, Historic Dead Indian Pass
  • Road Type : Paved
  • Nearby Towns : Cooke City, Cody
  • 4wd needed? : No, except when road is snow-covered during the winter
  • Traffic : Moderate
  • Trailers? : Yes
  • Season : Year-round, weather permitting

Map of the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway

The map below shows the route and location of the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway in Wyoming, along with other nearby scenic routes.

Photos of the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway

Near Cooke City Clark's Fork Yellowstone River View From Dead Indian Pass

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Where to Stay & Other Services

There are no services or lodging along the route. Cooke City, on the border of Yellowstone National Park, is just fourteen miles away from the western end point of the drive and has plenty of places to find lodging and buy supplies. Cody lies about twenty miles south of the eastern starting point of the drive, too.

There are several developed campgrounds along the route, although the best ones are located off the scenic byway, on the various roads that head deeper into the National Forest lands. There are also many spots for primitive camping due to the open nature of the terrain.

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