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U.S. Forest Service

Rocky Mountain Region Viewing Area


mountain harebell Campanula rotundifolia, mountain harebell. Photo by Don Finnie.

shooting star Dodecatheon pulchellum, shooting star. Photo by Don Finnie.

Clay Butte Fire Tower, Beartooth Scenic Byway

Forest: Shoshone National Forest

District: North Zone Ranger District

Description: The Clay Butte Fire Tower (9811 feet) is located along the Beartooth Scenic Byway (US 212) between Cooke City and Red Lodge, Montana. This highway is one of the highest and most scenic routes in the country. It climbs to over 10,000 feet and runs along the Beartooth Plateau. Alpine lakes, rugged, snow-clad peaks, high meadows, field of flowers, waterfalls, and deep glacier carved valleys greet the visitor. The 3-mile side trip up gravel road (FR 142) takes the visitor to the Clay Butte Fire Tower. Once a working fire tower, the Clay Butte Fire Tower is now a visitor center, offering spectacular views of the Beartooth and Absaroka Mountain ranges. East of the tower, a cross county day hike can be made to Beartooth Butte (~10,500 ft). The Beartooth Pass section of US 212 usually opens on Memorial Day (May 30) and stays open through mid October. The last 1/4 mile to the Fire tower is usually open 8am to 5pm.

Viewing information: Brilliant displays of wildflowers can be found soon after snowmelt. Some of the common wildflowers include: Mountain blue bells (Mertensia ciliata), Green gentian (also known as monument plant, Fraseria speciosia), Shooting Star (Dodecatheon conjugens), Sticky Geranium (Geranium viscosissimum), Pink plumes (Geum triflorum), Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva), Elephant head (Pedicularis groenlandica), and Mountain hairbells (Campanula rotundifolia). 

Safety First: Snow and freezing temperatures occur even in the summer months! Be careful for snowplows and icy road conditions. Afternoon thundershowers also pose threats from lightning. Caution should be taken driving the narrow gravel road to the Fire Look out tower. Grizzly bear frequent the meadows and forest below the lookout. Observe bears from a distance and do not attempt to approach them. Publications on how to behave responsibly in grizzly country are available at Park Service, Forest Service, and Wyoming Game and Fish departments.

Directions: Take US Highway 212 south of Red Lodge Montana or take the Chief Joseph Scenic highway (WY296 north of Cody, Wyoming) to the junction to of the Beartooth Scenic Byway and follow the signs towards Red Lodge, Montana. Then take Forest Road 142 just west of Beartooth Lake. This narrow gravel road winds approximately three miles to the fire lookout.

Ownership and Management: U.S. Forest Service, Shoshone National Forest, North Zone Ranger District (307) 527-6921. Custer National Forest, Beartooth Ranger District (406) 446-3918.

Closest Towns: Red Lodge and Cooke City, Montana; Cody, Wyoming.

For more information:

Additional Photos

monument plant Frasera speciosa, monument plant. Photo by Walter Hartung.

sticky geranium Geranium viscosissimum, sticky geranium. Photo by Don Finnie.

pink plumes Geum triflorum, pink plumes. Photo by Walter Hartung.

bitterroot Lewisia sp., bitterroot. Photo by Walter Hartung.

chiming bells Mertensia ciliata, chiming bells. Photo by Walter Hartung.

elephantella Pedicularis groenlandica, elephantella. Photo by Bill Michem.