One of the toughest parts of exploring remote locations is finding a place to spend the night. I’m not big on camping, and at the end of the day I like a comfortable bed in a bug-free environment, and hopefully a shower and toilet of my own. A lot of times that means a long drive at the end of the day, and then a long drive back in the morning. But on the Beartooth Highway, that doesn’t need to be the case. If you’re lucky, you can snag one of four motel rooms at the Top of the World Motel and Store, just minutes away from Beartooth Pass. It’s an experience that’s just as unforgettable as a trip over that storied road, which Charles Kuralt called “the most beautiful drive in America.”
The Beartooth Highway, US 212, runs from Red Lodge to Cooke City, Montana. It crosses into Wyoming and tops out at 10,947 feet (3,337 meters) before returning to Montana, just east of Yellowstone National Park. The Top of the World Motel and Store is located a few miles west of Beartooth Pass.
If you’ve ever traveled the Beartooth Highway, you’re probably familiar with the Top of the World Store. For many miles in either direction, it’s the only business you’ll find — the only place to buy gas, get some food, and stock up on souvenirs. And as you can see in the photo above, every inch of this tiny store is absolutely packed.
The store itself is tiny…
Top of the World Motel
… and so is the adjoining motel. There are just four units.
Mine was number three.
This location is so remote, there are no power lines anywhere nearby. This means that the store and motel (and the residences nearby where employees live) must be powered by a generator. There is no Wi-Fi, and probably no cell service, either. The motel’s website warns that sometimes its phone doesn’t work, due to the remote location. And I can vouch for this – just calling to make a reservation took multiple tries.
At the peak of the tourist season, a room costs $70 per night. So what do you get? It’s not luxurious by any means, but it was better than I expected. That mattress wasn’t great, but the headboard was nice. Because power is precious, you won’t get a lot of light. There’s a light fixture on the ceiling, and a dim lamp on the table, plus a light in the bathroom, and that’s it. The motel warns against guests using any appliances that will use excess power.
That means you don’t get an in-room microwave or refrigerator. Instead, you get a gas stovetop, which includes a coffee maker. You also get an assortment of pots and pans. The moment I realized that I could fry up some bacon the old-fashioned way, I was elated.
The room has a private bathroom, which is tiny, but adequate. You do get hot water — presumably heated by gas, not electricity.
Of course, this motel’s best feature is its location. I was able to enjoy the sunset at Beartooth Pass, then shoot some photos during the “blue hour” at a small pond nearby, before returning to my room for the night. If I had been staying in Cooke City or Red Lodge, I would have faced an hour of driving in the dark. And I would have paid at least $100 or more for a room.
The only thing that surprised me was that at night, this is not a quiet, peaceful place. It’s because of that generator, which unfortunately must run 24-hours a day. If you want to experience total darkness and total silence, you’ll need to get in your car and drive a short distance away from the store.
The next morning, I was just a few minutes from Gardner Lake, where I started my day with a hike. Okay, I actually started my day with more bacon.
Here’s a look at the drive from Red Lodge to Beartooth Pass…
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… and from Gardner Lake to Chief Joseph Byway:
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The Bottom Line
The Top of the World Motel provides a good option for a basic overnight stay. The location makes it possible to spend more time on the Beartooth Highway, without the need to drive on to (or back to) the nearest town.