Gardner, Mont. Most of Yellowstone National Park should reopen within the next two weeks — much faster than originally expected after record flooding swept through the Yellowstone region last week and destroyed major roads, federal officials said.
The world-renowned park will be able to accommodate fewer visitors right now, and it will take more time to restore road connections with some southern Montana communities, Yellowstone Administrator Cam Scholey said.
Yellowstone will partially reopen at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, more than a week after more than 10,000 visitors were forced out of the park when Yellowstone and other rivers crossed their banks after being amplified by melting snow and several inches of rain.
Only parts of the park accessible along the “south ring” of roads will be open initially, and access to the park’s scenic back area will be for day hikers only.
Historic flooding wiped out portions of the road in the northern half of the park, cutting off the headquarters from the neighboring community of Gardiner and temporarily isolating the two communities from the gates.
Park officials said Sunday they will use $50 million in federal highway money to speed up road and bridge repairs. There is still no timetable for road repairs between the park and areas of Montana as the recovery period is expected to extend for months.
“For the next 48 hours, this city will see … one of the best road builders … that will work on both ends of the old Gardiner Road to make improvements,” Schole said. “Our goal is to significantly improve this route over the next two months. It is as fast as you can mobilize a plan for a new route.”
National Park Service Director Chuck Sams III attended the press conference at which the announcement was made. He praised Yellowstone employees for their response to the emergency and promised federal assistance to speed up repair work.
“I ask the American public to be as civil as possible,” Sams said. “The staff here is under a tremendous amount of pressure and they have done an incredible job in such a short time to reopen.”
Work will be accelerated with $50 million in emergency funds from the Federal Highway Administration and diversion of construction crews from work near Old Faithful. Instead of repairing a badly damaged old road along the Gardner River that was uprooted in six places alongside the river, workers will build an entirely new road between Gardiner and the park headquarters in Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming.
Not only is the route important to tourists, Schole said, but it also provides a much-needed link for park staff, some of whom live in Gardiner or have children who go to school in the Gateway community. He added that even when it partially reopens, services in the northern ring will be limited.
A possible scenario is the construction of the new road between Gardiner and Mammoth, and at some point reopening the roads between Mammoth and Norris, Mammoth and Tower and on the newly reconstructed Dunraven Pass into the Canyon. Schole said there would be a “hard stop” at the tower with no traffic allowed into Lamar Valley and Slope Creek. This is also the way to Cooke City and Silver Gate.
Schole said he understood that the reform would not be perfect, and adjustments could be made along the way to improve the situation. He also stressed the need for the town’s rooms and businessmen to ensure that visitors know the way to reach the southern ring until the repairs are completed.
Within two weeks, officials are also planning to open the northern loop, having previously announced that it will likely remain closed during the summer season. The North Ring will give visitors access to popular attractions including Tower Fall and Mammoth Hot Springs. They are still prohibited from entering the Lamar Valley, which is famous for its abundant wildlife including bears, wolves and bison that can often be seen from the side of the road.
“That will put 75 to 80 percent of the park back in business,” Sams said Sunday.
It would take much longer—perhaps years—to restore two severely damaged roads from the road that connects the park to Gardiner in the north and Cook City to the northeast.
During a tour of the affected areas Sunday, park officials showed reporters one of six sections of the road near Gardiner where raging floodwaters destroyed most of the road.
Muddy water is now flowing through where the road was just a week ago. Huge tree trunks litter the surrounding valley.
With no chances of an immediate repair, Shuli said 20,000 tons of materials have been moved to build a temporary alternative road along an old road that runs over the valley. That will allow employees who work at the park’s headquarters in Mammoth to access their homes in Gardiner, Schuley said. The temporary route can also be used by commercial tour companies that have permits to drive guided visits.
“We’ve accomplished a lot more than we thought a week ago,” Schole said. “It will be a summer of adjustments.”
What remains uncertain is when the Northeast Entrance near Cook City and Silver Gate will reopen. The economies of small mountain towns depend on park visitors, so residents worry that the summer season may be lost without access. Shuli said the park service is working on a temporary visitation solution for the northeast side so that a permanent repair can be designed, adding that details will be released soon.
Residents of Cooke City and Silver Gate also rely on the road through the park to Gardiner to get there during the winter since it is the only road in the park that is open year-round. Three sections of the road were damaged by the floods. A portion of the $50 million federal highway funds will go toward reconnecting these damaged parts.
When asked about the flash flood’s unusual connection to climate change, Sams said the park service is looking at climate adaptation and resilience as part of the initiatives he’s put in place as a manager. To that end, he asked his Denver regional staff to examine damaged Yellowstone roads to see what might be moved from the floodplain.
“We will do everything we can to ensure that these methods are adaptable even at the next event [happens] …I hope they are not nearly as damaged as they are now,” he said.
In Wyoming, people can still travel to Wyoming Gate communities near park entrances. The Wyoming Tribune Eagle reports that highways and byways, many of which connect the town of Cody to one of Yellowstone’s five entrances, are open. “We only closed the entrances to Yellowstone. … We had no major problems with the bridges” outside the park, said Cody Beers, of the Wyoming Department of Transportation.
Byers recounted that WYDOT officials were able to clear debris from under some bridges even as traffic continued to flow. Next week, WYDOT Bridge engineers from Cheyenne will be coming to Cody to inspect the bridges to check if the floodwaters have had any impact on the structures, he said.
Officials say many roads in Yellowstone itself are impassable. The Yellowstone Road Update Hotline is (307) 344-2117.
For cars with custom plates, they can enter the park on odd days of the month. “Boards that have a mix of letters and numbers but end in a letter (eg YELL4EVR) will still use the last digit” to enter, Yellowstone said. For boards that completely lack numbers, even if they aren’t called vanity boards, they will be accepted into the park on odd-numbered dates, a company spokesperson explained Saturday night.
“It’s impossible to reopen just one episode in the summer without implementing some kind of system for managing visits,” said Shuli.
Those with overnight reservations within the park can enter regardless of their plate number, as well as commercial buses.