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Beartooth Pass plowing ahead of schedule as Memorial Day opening weekend looms

Highway set to open Friday, May 27
Beartooth Pass_1.6.1.jpg
Posted at 5:27 PM, May 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-05 19:27:49-04

RED LODGE — The warmest day of the year so far Thursday hinted that summer is around the corner in Montana. It also gave road crews another good day to make progress plowing our region’s most famous road.

"I look forward to it every year. Love it," said Mack Long, director of the Montana Department of Transportation.

Thursday’s Beartooth Pass media tour wasn’t just for media. Long never misses it.

"It's beautiful," he said. "Our crews work so hard year round, but this is a special road."

Beartooth pass media tour
Crews had already bcleared the Beartooth Pass up past Vista Point during a media tour on May 5, about a week ahead of where they normally expect to be.

It’s one of the two most sought-after drives in Montana, along with the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. Hundreds of thousands of tourists drive the pass every year, and almost all of them drive through - and spend money in - Red Lodge.

"A lot of our business comes from tourists and people going up the highway," said Becky Rye, manager at Paris Montana's Red Lodge location. "A lot of times they’ll go up and come back, have dinner, then do a little shopping."

Even more are expected this year due to Yellowstone National's Park 150th anniversary.

Crews have been working on the road for a couple weeks and are actually ahead of schedule, thanks mostly to a small snow pack.

"We were down around 72 percent, but last two storms have us at close to 90 percent," Long said.

Beartooth snow cat
A new snow cat has helped Beartooth Pass crews clear the road more quickly than in previous years.

Work also goes much faster these days thanks to a snow cat plow - a trick MDT borrowed from Idaho. It levels the pack so a larger machine can eat it up and spit it out down the side of the mountain.

MDT will actually be done plowing its side long before the May 27 deadline, but the Wyoming side of the pass, plowed by the National Park Service, always takes it right up to the edge, so it won't open early.

When it does, however, everyone is expecting another big summer.

"We were busy doing COVID, but we expect a barn-burner year this year," Rye said.

Beartooth Pass plowing
A large snow blower sends snow over the side of the Beartooth Highway on May 5, 2022. Crews are about a week ahead of where they would normally be.