Beyond Yellowstone: Carbon County

Just beyond the borders of Yellowstone National Park, lie communities full of interesting people, incredible adventure, delicious food, and a whole lot of fun. For the next five weeks, we’ll give you a glimpse into each of these areas; blasts from the past, fun facts, and a bit of the present flavor. Join us as we explore beyond Yellowstone. 

Carbon County

Where in the world is Carbon County? 

The short answer? Right up next to heaven.

It doesn’t matter which direction you enter Carbon County from; they are all gorgeous. The rolling hills, spectacular mountain backdrops, and sprawling ranches are so picturesque they seem surreal. Make the drive in the spring, and you’ll see shades of green you didn’t think possible. 

Photo, Merv Coleman. Spectacular sunrise in fall of 2014 from the west bench above Red Lodge, Montana looking south towards Mt. Maurice.

Claims to Fame 

During the coal boom of the 1800s, notable visitors included Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane, Jeremiah Johnston (a former marshal). The Sundance Kid and Kid Curry also frequented the town; at one point, they attempted to rob the bank in Red Lodge but was unsuccessful as the sheriff had already been tipped off.  

Photo, Nik Hardiman

As History Would Have It 

Bridger, Montana, was named for the mountain man and trailblazer, Jim Bridger. The Bridger Trail cut off from the Oregon Trail and was considered a shortcut to Yellowstone Country. 

The Pryor Mountains were a seafloor before they rose into mountains; you can find sea fossils at the top of the mountains. Look for the ancient pictographs that dot the hills just outside of Bridger. 

Historic downtown Red Lodge has a variety of retail, restaurants, and lodging. Download the self -guided walking tour and visit different ethnic areas of town where Finns, Scots, Irish, Italian, and Slavs all settled during the coal boom. 

The Carbon County Arts Guild and Carbon County Historical Society both offer exhibits, tours, art, and books about the local history. Many fine artists are represented, including Kevin Red Star, Elliot Eaton, Joyce Mackay, and Hal Olsen. 

What is there to do around here?

There are several public fishing accesses on Rock Creek between Roberts and Red Lodge. A local marine biologist who has “fished the world” claims ounce for ounce the Rock Creek trout pack as much, if not more, fight than their much larger ocean cousins. 

Cooney State Park, affectionally known as Cancooney to the locals, is excellent for swimming, water skiing, and fishing. 

The Beartooth Highway is worth every mile of this scenic drive. You’ll find gorgeous carpets of wildflowers through June. The plateau on top is the only place in the lower 48 where you’ll discover arctic tundra conditions, (bring layers!) Look for the pink snow, (caused by algae,) and the “Bear’s Tooth” which looks like a jagged tooth at 29.6 miles from the Bear Creek turnoff. 

“The Beaten Path” is a local favorite for backpacking. The 28.6-mile point-to-point trail from East Rosebud Lake to Cooke City, Montana has gorgeous views of Granite Peak (Montana’s tallest peak) and great fishing holes along the way. (Note: you’ll need a shuttle for this adventure!) 

Red Lodge Mountain is one of the most family-friendly ski areas in the state. There is terrain suitable for all levels, and the vibe is 100% laid-back. 

The Home of Champions Rodeo is known for being one of the best in the area. Oozing with talented cowboys and cowgirls, people come from around the country to compete. The rodeo takes place July 2-4 each year and kicks off with a parade each day! 

Snow Creek Saloon on Broadway Avenue at twilight in Red Lodge

Small town bars serve as social hubs of their communities, generally offering great food, drinks, music, and other entertainment. Try a scenic loop from Red Lodge to Bearcreek then up through Bridger and Edgar to Rockvale. Check out the Bearcreek Saloon, Edgar Bar, Fort Rockvale, Lost Village, Heavy Horse, and Grizzly Bar. 

Photo, Kevin Kinzley

Fun Facts 

Carbon County is aptly named for the rich coal deposits in the area. 

Princeton University has maintained a Geology Study Camp in the canyon south of Red Lodge for many decades. Being on the outer ring of the Yellowstone caldera, the area offers incredible opportunities for study. The limestone palisades that jut straight up in front of the Beartooth Mountains are another remnant of the ancient sea that once covered Montana. 

Beartooth Basin Summer Ski Area offers lift service June 1-July 5, weather permitting. Located on Beartooth Pass, you ski right from the top and take the lift back up! 

During the summer months, the Bear Creek Saloon and Steakhouse serves up a great steak, but also, the Bear Creek Downs Pig Races is grand entertainment!

In the 1920s and 30s, local ranchers stocked some of the mountain lakes with Golden Trout, transporting them up on pack horses. The trout are golden colored with pink flesh and are delightful eating! 

Photo, Nik Hardiman