GARDINER, Mont. — Plans are in motion to have Yellowstone National Park’s North Entrance open to visitors and tour concessionaires sometime this summer.
“It’s going to be a summer of adjustments,“ said park Superintendent Cam Sholly said Sunday.
Most of the park should reopen within the next two weeks — much faster than originally expected after record floods pounded the region last week and knocked out major roads, federal officials told the Associated Press.
The news came less than a week after a historic flood wiped out sections of roadway in the park’s northern half, cutting off the headquarters from the nearby community of Gardiner and temporarily isolating two gateway communities.
“This town in the next 48 hours will see … one of the best road construction companies … that is coming to work on both ends of the old Gardiner Road to make improvements,” Sholly said. “Our goal will be to improve that road substantially over the next couple of months. It’s about as fast as you can mobilize a plan for a new road.”
National Park Service Director Chuck Sams III attended the press conference where the announcement was made. He praised Yellowstone’s staff for its response to the emergency and promised federal help to speed repair work.
“I am asking the American public to be as civil as possible,” Sams said. “The staff here are under a tremendous amount of stress and they’ve done an incredible amount of work in such a short time to do the re-opening.”
The work will be fast-tracked by $50 million in emergency funds from the Federal Highway Administration and the diversion of a construction crew from work near Old Faithful.
Instead of repairing the badly damaged old road along the Gardner River that was gouged out in six places by the river, the workers will build an entirely new route between Gardiner and park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming.
Sholly said the road isn’t only important for tourists, but also provides a much-needed link for park employees, some of whom live in Gardiner or have children who attend school in the gateway community. Even when partially reopened, the northern loop will have limited services, he added.
The likely scenario is to build the new road between Gardiner and Mammoth, and at some point reopen the roads between Mammoth and Norris, Mammoth and Tower and over the newly rebuilt Dunraven Pass on to Canyon. Sholly said there would be a “hard stop “at Tower with no traffic allowed into the Lamar Valley and Slough Creek. That is also the route to Cooke City and Silver Gate.
Sholly said he understood the fix would not be perfect, and adjustments could be made along the way to improve the situation. He also stressed the need for town chambers and business people to make sure visitors know about the way to access the southern loop until repairs are completed.
On Saturday, the Park Service announced it would begin allowing access through three entrances to the southern half of the park beginning on Wednesday, June 22. Under the current plan, cars with license plates ending in even numbers are allowed into the park on even days and cars that have license plates ending in odd numbers are allowed in on odd days. Vanity plates will all be considered odd. People who can prove they have reservations at campsites or hotels will be allowed in on the day of their reservation. If this method does not work, the plan is to go to a reservation system.
Within two weeks officials plan to also open the northern loop, the Associated Press reported, after previously declaring that it would likely stay closed through the summer season. The northern loop would give visitors access to popular attractions including Tower Fall and Mammoth Hot Springs. They’d still be barred from the Lamar Valley, which is famous for its prolific wildlife including bears, wolves and bison that can often be seen from the roadside.
“That would get 75 to 80% of the park back to working,” Sams said Sunday.
What is still uncertain is when the Northeast Entrance near Cooke City and Silver Gate will reopen. The small mountain towns’ economies rely on park visitors so residents are concerned that, without access, their summer season may be lost. Sholly said the Park Service is working on a temporary solution for visitation for the northeast side until a permanent fix can be engineered, adding that details would be forthcoming.
Cooke City and Silver Gate residents also rely on the road through the park to Gardiner for access during the winter as it is the only route opened in the park year-round. Three sections of the road were damaged by the flooding. Part of the $50 million in federal highway funds will also go to reconnecting these damaged segments.
When asked about the unusual flash flood’s link to climate change, Sams said the Park Service is looking at climate adaptation and resiliency as part of the initiatives he has laid out as director. To that end, he has asked his Denver regional staff to examine the damaged Yellowstone roads to see what can possibly be moved out of the floodplain.
“We will do everything we can to ensure those roads are adaptive so that when the next event (happens) … hopefully they won’t be nearly as damaged as now,” he said.
Sholly noted park gateway towns have been through a lot lately with COVID-19 closures, and now this. He pointed specifically to Gardiner, which also suffered a downtown fire last year.
“And we got through it,” he said. “And I’m confident will get through this.”
Reporting from the Associated Press was added to this article.