MONTANA-He comes from the entrance to Yellowstone National Park, a big shaggy bull bison, walking slowly away from his herd through the dappled light. Without a sidelong glance from his huge, prow-like head, he ambles past the car while our cameras click away, and down the valley road toward the bars and motels of Cooke City-Silver Gate, where we had spent the night.

After three days of walks through prairie meadows and hikes up mountain paths, passing signs that warned us about bears and rattlesnakes, this is our first brush with serious wildlife. Montana had delivered on big skies and breathtaking views, and now it’s giving us beasts, up close and personal.

Billings, the largest city in the state, calls itself “Montana’s trailhead,” a convenient place to disembark before heading north to Glacier National Park, west to Bitterroot or Sawtooth National Forest, or south, where we are headed, over the Beartooth Pass and into Yellowstone. But first it requires a pilgrimage to Pompeys Pillar National Monument.

This massive sandstone rock formation juts out of the rolling grasslands northeast of Billings, a protected national monument thanks to a bit of graffiti explorer William Clark carved into it more than 200 years ago, the only evidence of the epic voyage of discovery he and Capt. Meriwether Lewis made, trying to find a route over the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific.

Helpful volunteer guides such as Roger Otstot will tell you the story of how Clark and his group made their way here, pointing from the top of the rock over the winding rivers and low cliffs as they paint a picture of Clark, in the wilderness for two solid years, climbing Pompeys Pillar to make the maps that would be so important for future explorers and settlers.

Lewis and Clark will put you in an adventurous mood as you head south from Billings to Red Lodge, near the edge of the Absaroka Range of the Rockies. Once a wild frontier town, it’s been revived and renovated to serve the tourists, hikers, fishermen and extreme sports fanatics drawn to the area.

We hike up into the nearby mountains with Nick Gaddy of Beartooth Mountain Guides — a “moderate” trek of just a couple of hours, past meadows full of sagebrush and into the ponderosa and lodgepole pine and our first warnings about bears. Gaddy takes us up to where the rough prairie we’ve driven through from Billings stretches out into the distance before exhaustion and altitude tells us to head back down to enjoy the craft beer and great food waiting in town.

After dinner, the group splits in two, to look for sunset views. My car ends up in the hills behind the town, where a herd of black cows congregates below looming, ominous blue-black clouds, with the state of Montana stretching out to the north and east behind us. While this is definitely God’s country, sometimes it feels like an angry God, toying with some vague vengeance.

We head out the next day for the Beartooth Highway. Originally crossed by Gen. Philip Sheridan in 1872, it opened as a highway in 1936. It’s July but there’s snow on the ground as we hit the first long meadows between the mountain peaks. Just a week earlier, a snowstorm had closed the road.

Meandering switchbacks carry you from Montana to Wyoming and back again, and we rush from rest stop to scenic lookout with our cameras, eager for the next spectacular view of the passes with their chilly lakes and ice-blue ponds between stubborn drifts of snow, the mountains blue and white behind them. For a really spectacular view, pull off the main road and head to Clay Butte Lookout Tower, where a volunteer such as David Whipple Goldenbahis will point out the peaks arrayed around this restored fire lookout and tell you about life at the top of the world.

Montana and Wyoming are among the least-populous U.S. states, but there seem to be plenty of people on the Beartooth, many of them bikers, riding big Goldwings and Harleys with luggage strapped to racks and fuel tanks. The road here is a magnet for bikers, and the bustling Harley-Davidson dealership back in Red Lodge makes much more sense now.

The Beartooth deposits you in Cooke City-Silver Gate, a former gold mining town with a year-round population of just 85, nestled in a valley between the Absaroka peaks. In his shop, Bearclaw Sales and Services, next to the Super 8 motel, “Bearclaw” Bob Smith will rent you an ATV so you can head up the rough roads to where old mining machinery rusts in the clear, cool air, near fields of wildflowers.

If you can get a bit of his time, Smith will tell you about the history of the mines all around Cooke City, carved deep into the mountain rock and now being carefully and expensively filled and remediated by the government. In the morning, his wife Terri will sell you a fantastic breakfast from Bearclaw Bakery, which she runs out of the same building, just before you head south into Yellowstone National Park.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, though at Yellowstone it puts on a fresh young face, from the uniformed ranger at the entrance who asks us if we saw the bull bison walk past our car, to the refreshed facilities at Mammoth Hot Springs, where rangers stop tourists to help stray elk cross the roads, or establish perimeters around the ones that nap on lawns between buildings.

On the way to Mammoth you’ll drive past herds of bison lolling in the dust near the river, snorting and bellowing in the sun, near the anglers sending their lines arcing over the gleaming trout streams.

The road back into Montana from the portion of the park in Wyoming will take you to Livingston, a youthful and bohemian town full of nightlife and carefully curated thrift shops, and on the way to Bozeman, with its spectacular Museum of the Rockies and the airport from which you will, sadly, fly away from all this clean air and spectacular scenery, to a place where you’ll never have to share a road with a big, solitary bison.

Rick McGinnis was hosted by the Montana Office of Tourism, which didn’t review or approve this story.

Rick McGinnis was hosted by the Montana Office of Tourism, which didn’t review or approve this story.

When you go

Get there:Delta Airlines flies into Billings and Bozeman airports.

Get around: Car rental is available at the airport in both Billings and Bozeman. EagleRider rents motorcycles from a location in Billings for anyone who wants to ride the Beartooth Highway on two wheels. You can tour Yellowstone National Park in a restored historic 1935 yellow bus on a dozen different itineraries starting at $50 (U.S.) per person.

Do your

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