BILLINGS – For tourists traveling to Yellowstone National Park as it reopened its southern loop on Wednesday , here’s what they found.
For now, only three entrances will be open: the West Entrance at West Yellowstone; the South Entrance coming from Grand Teton National Park; and the East Entrance coming from Cody, Wyoming.
The North Entrance at Gardiner and Northeast Entrance near Silver Gate and Cooke City remain closed following unprecedented flooding on June 13 that consumed portions of park roadways making them impassable. All park visitors were evacuated the night of June 12.
Chuck Sams III, the National Park Service director, said in a Sunday news conference in Gardiner that his agency realizes it’s important to get the two entrances reopened as quickly as possible.
Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said officials are looking for “temporary solutions” to reconnect Cooke City and Silver Gate “as quickly as possible while we work on a permanent, long-term solution.” Within the next week, the Park Service should have timelines for the completion of all of the work, the officials said.
Some roads less severely damaged in the north loop should be reopened within the next two weeks or less, Sams announced.
“Which will give the American public 80% access to the park,” he added. “The work that they’re doing is just phenomenal. What I saw today by the staff and our partners, and to be able to announce with strong confidence that within the next two weeks that we’ll have the northern loop open, is very exciting for all of us.”
The north loop roads that will be open include the route from Norris to Mammoth, Mammoth to Roosevelt and Tower Fall. There will be limited services when these sites reopen. Mammoth Hotel has been closed for the season.
In the meantime, only license plates ending in an even number, or zero, will be admitted to Yellowstone on even numbered days. This also applies to all motorcycles. If your plate ends in an odd number, or you have a vanity plate, you can enter only on odd days.
The Park Service will make an exception if visitors have a hotel, campground or backcountry reservation for that night. Here’s another catch: Backcountry areas accessible from roads will be open to the public for day use only until July 1. From July 1 on, overnight use will be allowed from some southern loop trailheads.
All commercial tour buses can enter no matter the day, in addition to any service vehicles, like mail or food delivery, contractors and employees.
Once tourists enter the park, here’s where they can go: Madison Junction to Old Faithful; Old Faithful to Grant Village; Grant Village to Bridge Bay; Bridge Bay to Lake village; Lake to Fishing Bridge; Lake to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone; Canyon to Norris Geyser Basin and Norris back to Madison Junction. This is called the southern loop.
Even though visitors will be able to drive this loop, there are some temporary closures in effect. These include: Canyon Village Lodges & Cabins; campgrounds at Canyon, Madison, Norris and Lewis Lake; and Fishing Bridge Visitor Center and Trailside Museum.
To reconnect Gardiner to Mammoth at the North Entrance, the Park Service has shifted a contractor from another job inside the park to work on building an entirely new road. With a hurry-up goal, the road may be open in two months. The route will be away from the Gardner River and closer to an existing service road, known as the Old Gardiner Road.
“It’s about as fast as you can mobilize a plan for a new road and those kind of construction assets,” Sholly said.
Commercial operators of tours in Gardiner should be able to get up the road before it is completely finished and opened to the public, Sholly said.
Opening the old road to all visitors would make it too difficult for crews building the new route to operate, he added.
Assessments are being made to re-establish some type of access to Yellowstone at the Northeast Entrance, but the road between the gate and Tower-Roosevelt suffered damage in six places where the road may have to be rerouted away from Soda Butte Creek and the Lamar River to ensure the repairs are more resilient to any future flooding.
“We’re looking at less than 3 miles of really major damage,” Sams said, noting he had flown over the park to examine the destruction. “But it just happens to be in the most critical points within the river system that’s really going to take us a lot of time to be able to rebuild those roads in a way that they will have that resiliency and adaptation built into it.”
Sholly noted there’s no Old Gardiner Road to reconnect Tower-Roosevelt to Silver Gate and Cooke City.
“There are three sections that are majorly impacted,” Sholly said. “Some of them might be easy to bypass the damage. A couple are going to be complicated.”
Sholly stressed that even with the temporary closures up north, much of the park will be open to the public. He noted there are 1,750 acres of roads spread across the park’s vast 2.2-million acre landscape. Most people, he added, never get more than a half-mile from their vehicle during a visit.
“We are going to look very, very carefully where we reconstruct, how that looks, what’s the future look like, not making bad investments and, I can’t tell you exactly what that looks like right now, but we’ll have some good alternatives to look at moving forward,” he said.
Sams said the Park Service is “putting every effort into” reconnecting Yellowstone’s roadways. He added that the support of the region’s congressional delegations and the House and Senate appropriation arms will help direct money and personnel to the repairs.
“But we need to do those assessments so we can clearly tell them what that’s going to cost,” Sams said.
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