Visitors will return to a changed landscape in Yellowstone National Park on Wednesday as record floods reshaped the park’s rivers and canyons, obliterating numerous roads and leaving some areas famous for wildlife viewing potentially inaccessible for months to come. partially reopened.
Park managers are raising the gates at 8 a.m. Wednesday at three of Yellowstone’s five entrances for the first time since June 13, when 10,000 visitors were ordered out after rivers in northern Wyoming and southern Montana flooded after a downpour damaged the river accelerated spring snowmelt poured over its banks.
Some of America’s first national park’s top attractions will return, including Old Faithful – the legendary geyser that erupts like clockwork in massive plumes of steaming water more than a dozen times a day.
But the bears, wolves and bison that roam the wild Lamar Valley and the hot springs around Mammoth Hot Springs remain unreachable. The wildlife-rich northern half of the park will be closed until at least early July, and major routes into the park remain closed near the Montana tourist towns of Gardiner, Red Lodge and Cooke City.
It is not known how many visitors will turn up immediately after the flooding. Park managers braced themselves for crowds as the park celebrated its 150th anniversary, a year after a record 4.9 million visitors.
“We have a million people in Yellowstone every month in July and August,” said Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly. “You can’t get a full visitation in half the park.”
To keep attendance down while repairs continue, park managers will use a system that only allows cars with even last digits on their license plates to enter on even days, while vehicles with odd last numbers can come on odd days.
Groups of visitors traveling together in different cars and people with reservations at campsites and hotels in the park are exempt from the license plate requirement.
When traffic on the park’s 400 miles (644 kilometers) of roads can no longer be handled, officials will implement a reservation system for park access, according to Sholly.
The reopening comes as officials in Yellowstone are still calculating the extent of the damage. Based on other national park disasters, rebuilding could take years and come at a hefty price. It is an environmentally sensitive landscape with a vast underground pipeline system that empties into the park’s geysers, hot springs, and other thermal springs. The construction season lasts only from the spring thaw to the first snowfall, a narrow window that means some roads could only be temporarily repaired this year.
That has turned some Montana communities into cul-de-sacs rather than gateways to Yellowstone, a blow to their tourism-dependent economies. They are also still struggling to clean up damage to several hundred homes and businesses that were inundated by flooding on the Yellowstone, Stillwater and Clarks Fork rivers.
In Red Lodge, one of those gate towns cut off from the park, most shops are open even as flood cleaning continues. The Montana Department of Transportation begins repairing the road between Red Lodge and the scenic Beartooth Highway, and the National Park Service is working to restore access to some areas in the northern portion of the park.
“We have to remain optimistic, but we also have to remain realistic that a lot of things are happening and a lot of things need to move to make this happen,” said Tim Weamer, Marketing Director for the Red Lodge Chamber of Commerce.
“We are optimistic that we will survive,” he said. “We won’t have the summer we were hoping for.”
For others, recovery may come faster. Yellowstone tour guide Derek Draimin said he was fully booked Wednesday with four groups going to the park.
“I think there will be cars stacked up trying to get in to be the first people to enter the park after the millennial flood,” he said.
Draimin lost about 25 tours because of the flood and says fewer visitors could come because they believe the park is badly damaged. But with most of the park expected to be accessible within weeks, Draimin said it’s also possible business could take a hit as tourists who can’t get through the park’s northern entrances are routed through West Yellowstone , where his company, Yellowstone Adventure Tours, is based.
“I have no idea what to expect,” he said. “I could see both things happening.”
Hanson reported from Helena, Montana.