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."
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.
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.