Chief Joseph Scenic Byway

Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River
Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone

The Chief Joseph Scenic Byway runs along Wyoming Highway 296 for 47 miles between US Highway 212 (the Beartooth Highway) and Wyoming Highway 120 (about 17 miles north of Cody). This is incredible countryside in the Shoshone National Forest as the route travels beside the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone between the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains.

The byway is named for Chief Joseph, leader of the Nez Perce during the Nez Perce War in 1877. To escape from Army cavalry, Joseph led his people into and across Yellowstone country, emerging in the Absarokas and crossing this whole area before going to see their old hunting buddies on the Crow Indian Reservation to the east. The Nez Perce couldn't stay with the Crows without causing them trouble so Joseph's people continued moving north, trying to reach safety on the other side of the Canadian border. A blizzard stopped them at Bear Paw, Montana, 30 miles short of their goal. After a six-day battle, they surrendered to the Army and while being promised one thing (the right to return to their lands), they were immediately given another (rail transport to Oklahoma for several years).

Loooking down into the slot canyon where Sunlight Creek flows
Sunlight Creek

The high point of the drive, literally, is at Dead Indian Pass. The road rises through several hairpins to the summit of Dead Indian Pass before passing down several more hairpins to the more gradual slope down to Highway 120 (I traveled the road from northwest to southeast).

Dead Indian Pass got its name after the Nez Perce passed through. A wounded warrior chose to remain atop the pass to signal when the cavalry was getting near. He carried out that duty, then was killed by the soldiers as they crested the ridge and prepared to move on.

The best time to drive this beautiful stretch of road is summer and fall. Snow plows do keep the road open year-round but winter in this neighborhood can be nasty.

The first of the Wind River Mountains rise beyond a large area of wetlands
Wetlands at the foot of mountains
Dead Indian Overlook at Dead Indian Pass on the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway
Dead Indian Overlook at Dead Indian Pass
At the eastern end of the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway are the red hills that parallel the western flanks of the Bighorn Mountains
The Red Wall begins to appear north of Cody
Beartooth Highway area map

Related Pages

Map courtesy of National Geographic Topo!