SILVER GATE, Mont. – Last July, more than 81,000 people rolled through Yellowstone National Park’s Northeast Entrance – more than 2,600 each day.
This year, on July 22, 14 people were walking or biking down a 6-mile stretch of road from the entrance.
Cars have not been allowed on the route since historic flooding in mid-June washed away large sections of the 29-mile route that connects the gate to the park’s Lamar Valley, onto Tower Junction and eventually the park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs.
Riding a bike or walking are the only ways to enter a small slice of this vast national park.
“I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned it would be neat if this could always be like this. Always. Because it is so incredible,” said Kathryn Iverson, a Minneapolis resident with a summer home in Silver Gate.
Iverson and Mike Menzel were loading up their fishing gear after wetting a fly in Soda Butte Creek. It’s a section of water with which they are familiar because they’ve been coming to the area since 1989. But this summer there was none of the traffic noise they’ve always heard roar past.
“Once the park opened for bicycles it was like, ‘Wow, we’ve got to bike in,’ ” Iverson said. “As we were biking we were like, ‘Ah, look at that fishing hole! Look at that fishing hole!’ And normally you could never pull over for those.”
The roar of construction trucks rolling down the roadway will soon begin as the National Park Service has contracted for the route to be temporarily repaired. The roadway is a lifeline for this remote section of Park County, normally more than 100 miles from its county seat in Livingston. With the road washed out in several places, that distance is more than doubled, and visitation to the communities of Silver Gate, Cooke City and Gardiner has dwindled. One smiling veteran park visitor said it reminded him of earlier times when Yellowstone was less popular.
Tom Wolf, who with his wife Cheryl operates Stop the Car Trading Post in Silver Gate, said his business this summer is down 95% compared to the past 12 years. The 5% of customers stopping in for ice cream are mostly locals, he added, with maybe 1% out-of-state visitors.
“During summer when it’s this hot, customers are usually backed up out the door,” he said.
“We’re tired of seeing each other,” joked Jill Warren, who was behind the counter serving the day’s few customers scoops of ice cream at the Trading Post.
With the road out, Cheryl Wolf has to drive the 80 miles to Cody, Wyoming, to meet her ice cream supplier, since they won’t drive the longer route to Silver Gate.
“It’s like a drug deal, meeting in the parking lot in Albertsons,” Warren said.
She noted packages ordered online to be delivered to Silver Gate have also gone haywire since the route through the park closed. Tracking showed one package she ordered going back and forth between Bozeman and Billings, miles away from her mountain residence. When she complained to Amazon, thinking maybe the business could pressure the package delivery companies, the marketer offered to send her another item.
“It’s just frustrating that a global company … can’t figure out how to make a shift,” she said.
A bartender in the nearby town of Cooke City said he was nearly out of beverages before his distributor finally arrived. He couldn’t go to the nearest town in Wyoming to stock up because his liquor license is in Montana.
Wolf said people repairing flood damaged homes haven’t been able to dump their building waste because garbage is going to Cody, which wouldn’t accept the extra trash.
Don Taylor, pastor of the Mount Republic Chapel of Peace, said despite the difficult times, his parishioners have remained upbeat.
“The resilience of people up here has been beneficial,” he said. “But I think the moteliers are just not seeing what they need to get through the summer.”
At first, motel owners were hopeful that road construction crews would rent out their rooms, but it appears most of them will camp rather than rent rooms, one motel owner said.
The Minneapolis branch of the Federal Reserve conducted an electronic survey of businesses across the flood-affected regions of southwest Montana and found that slightly more than half of the respondents expected to see their summer income cut in half compared with last year.
The report also noted, “Many Park County businesses voluntarily cited losses of 80%, 90%, and even 100%.”
One Gardiner restaurant and boutique hotel owner said she is facing $300,000 in refund requests. “Several businesses reported threats of legal action over refunds.”
The Fed survey also found that some businesses had made new investments or “bulked up on inventory,” expecting the season to be busy as Yellowstone celebrates its 150th anniversary.
“New loan programs are likely to have few takers unless they offer particularly generous terms,” the Fed found. “Dozens of businesses said they simply can’t take on more loans to get through the season because they already have loans they can’t pay, given little or no daily income.”
According to the National Park Service, in 2021 Yellowstone’s 4.9 million visitors spent an estimated $630 million in gateway regions. Lodging accounted for about a quarter of that spending with restaurants seeing 12% of the overall expenditures. Recreation industries, like whitewater rafting businesses, saw about 8% of the total.
With the flooding causing temporary closures and reducing travel through three of the park’s five entrances that remain open, visitation in June was down 43% compared to last June as wary vacationers simply avoided Yellowstone in what is typically one of its busiest months.
Park Superintendent Cam Sholly told residents at both ends of the damaged roadway he hopes temporary repairs can be completed by October so the road can reopen. A permanent fix will take three to five years.
If not, Silver Gate and Cooke City will have to confront the idea of “plowing the plug.”
The section of Highway 212 between Cooke City and the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway is normally left unplowed in the winter, allowing snowmobilers to ride directly from town into the surrounding mountain trails. If the plug is plowed, that trail would go away and may turn snowmobilers off, some residents fear.
“It will have to be discussed eventually,” Tom Wolf said. “That will be the next big battle.”
On July 22, it didn’t appear Silver Gate was struggling as the community hosted visitors for the 2022 International Hemingway Conference. Henry Johnston and Alec Kissoondyal drove all the way from Florida to attend the gathering and give a presentation. During their down time, they decided to walk along the deserted Yellowstone roadway from the park’s Northeast Entrance, clocking almost 10 miles round trip.
“Sometimes you just want to walk and reflect and be on your own, and this is just a good place to do it,” Kissoondyal said.
He admitted having no reference for what it would normally be like with 2,600 people a day streaming down the roadway, but said it must be strange for locals.
“I guess I didn’t really think about it, but we’re not having to move out of the way for cars,” Johnston said.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.