Think snowcapped peaks. Think wildflower filled meadows. Think views across valleys with buttes rising majestically throughout it. Think about a destination that you can drive to. Wait, did I say drive to? Yes! The Clay Butte Lookout along the Beartooth Highway has a well-maintained road going directly to it. You may not even have to get out of your vehicle to see the scenery, although you’ll get a better view if you do get out and get up on the lookout platform. This is not a difficult destination to get to, as long as the road is open. (We ended up walking the last 0.25 miles (0.4 km) or so to the tower, but this is well worth it, because you get to see the meadows along the road, as well as look back and see snowcapped peaks behind you.) The road, though uphill, is an easy walk, so even if you can’t drive all the way, it’s still a nice destination, with great views at the top!
***Note*** I’m publishing this post now because I’m not sure how much longer this fire lookout will be open to the public. When we visited in July 2012, the tower appeared to have just been painted, and there were new appliances in the basement. This suggests to me that it is being converted into a rentable cottage…chances are once it’s available to rent, the public won’t be welcome to come for a visit. So, you might want to see the view now. Per new information (June 2013), Clay Butte is still open to the public and is still ready to be enjoyed by visitors driving on the Beartooth Highway!
To get to Clay Butte Lookout, from the east, take the Beartooth Highway (US-212) west for 18 miles (28 km) from the state line—in other words, from Red Lodge, MT, take US-212 west up into Beartooth Pass. Start clocking your mileage when you cross from Montana into Wyoming—the road to the Lookout is 18 miles (28 km) from this point. If you’re coming from the south or east, the road to the Lookout is a little over 7 miles (11 km) from where State Hwy 296 (Chief Joseph Highway) T’s into US-212. On the north side of US-212 (right if you’re coming from the east and left if you’re coming from the west) will be a gravel road with a large sign near it. The day I visited, this was being restored, so although I know it is well-marked, I can’t tell you what the sign looks like now. Turn onto the gravel road (known as FR 142) and drive 3 miles (4.8 km) up to the Clay Butte Lookout. The road is in quite good condition, though there is some washboard, and is passible by low-clearance vehicles. There is a gate 0.25 miles (0.4 km) from the Lookout—this is at the end of a switchback just after some trailhead parking. Between 5pm and 8am this gate is usually locked. We were there in the middle of the afternoon, and it was still locked—I’m guessing this was because the tower had been recently painted (you could smell the paint, but it wasn’t wet). There is space along the side of the road to park a vehicle if necessary.
We started our hike from the gate, since it was locked. The road climbs fairly steeply, but you’re only at 9,000 feet (2,700 m) here, so the breathing isn’t as difficult as it is higher up at Beartooth Pass. The road is also quite smooth, so it wasn’t a difficult climb. As we were walking, we kept looking back—the view of the mountains behind you is really good! Even in late July, when I visited, they were still covered with snow (and from other mountains I saw, I’d say they had a very light snow year). The meadows along the road at this point were also filled with flowers—I hear that the wildflowers come out in force soon after the snow melts. These were likely latecomers. Still, the lupines, thistles, and yellow and purple flowers I don’t know the names of were beautiful. I had fun trying to capture the flowers and the mountains in a single picture…as did another member of my group, who’s graciously allowed me to use his picture in this post!
After walking for ¼ mile (0.4 km), we reached the Clay Butte Lookout. A sign on the tower greeted us, telling us that we were at 9,811 feet above sea level. There is a small gravel parking area, as well as a sign telling you not to camp here. A set of stairs ascends the viewing platform on the right side. Go here first. The views are spectacular. You can see the view you’ve been enjoying coming up the road, and you can also see over to your left, beyond the Lookout, to the Clay Butte. On the right and in front of you is a huge valley with buttes standing up here and there. It was quite beautiful. There were clouds overhead, so the cloudy patterns made for an even more unearthly scene. Enjoy the view, then go inside if you can. I’ve read that there are displays on the 1988 Yellowstone Fire, since the Lookout used to be a fire tower. If you can’t go inside, return to your vehicle.
The Clay Butte Lookout isn’t a long side trip off of the Beartooth Highway…but it’s worth it for the views, if nothing else!
Round Trip Trail Length: 0 if the gate is open, 0.5 miles (0.8 km) if it’s not
Facilities: Primitive restroom to the left of the Tower
Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this?
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