WAPITI, Wyo. (AP) – Visitors will return Wednesday to an altered landscape in Yellowstone National Park as it partially reopens following record flooding that reshaped the park’s rivers and canyons, destroyed many roads and made some areas inaccessible famous for their wildlife viewing. , perhaps for the next few months.
Park managers are lifting 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 the rivers in northern Wyoming and southern Montana swept over their shores as a torrent of rain accelerated spring snowmelt.
Some of the top attractions of America’s first national park will once again be on view, including Old Faithful, the legendary geyser that shoots steaming bursts of water almost like clockwork more than a dozen times a day.
But the bears, wolves and bison that roam the wild Lamar Valley and the thermal features around Mammoth Hot Springs will stay out of reach. The wildlife-rich northern half of the park will be closed until at least early July, and major roads into the park remain cut off near the Montana tourist towns of Gardiner, Red Lodge and Cooke City.
It is not known how many visitors will show up immediately after the flooding. Park managers had braced for the crowds as the park celebrated its 150th anniversary a year after recording a record 4.9 million visits.
“We welcome one million people a month to Yellowstone in July and August,” Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said. “You can’t get a full tour in half the park.”
To reduce visitor numbers while repairs continue, fleet managers will use a system that only allows cars with last even digits on their license plates to enter on even days, while vehicles with last odd numbers may arrive on odd days.
Groups of visitors traveling together in different cars are exempt from the license plate system as well as people with reservations at campgrounds and park hotels.
If traffic along the park’s 400 miles (644 kilometers) of roads becomes unmanageable, Sholly said officials will impose a reservation system to enter the park.
The reopening comes as Yellowstone officials are still assessing the extent of the damage. According to other disasters in national parks, reconstruction could take years and be expensive. It’s an ecologically sensitive landscape with a massive underground plumbing system that powers the park’s geysers, hot springs, and other thermal features. The construction season only extends from the spring thaw until the first snowfall, a narrow window that means some roads could only receive temporary repairs this year.
This has turned some communities in Montana into dead ends instead of gateways to Yellowstone, a blow to their tourism-dependent economies. They are also struggling to clean up damage to several hundred homes and businesses that were submerged by flooding from the Yellowstone, Stillwater and Clarks Fork rivers.
In Red Lodge, one of those gateway towns cut off from the park, most businesses are open even as flood cleanup continues. The Montana Department of Transportation is beginning repairs to 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 part of the park.
“We have to stay optimistic, but we also have to stay realistic that there’s a lot going on and a lot of moving parts to get there,” said Tim Weamer, who does marketing for the Chamber of Red Lodge business.
“We are optimistic about our survival,” he said. “We’re not going to have the summer we were hoping for.”
For others, the rebound may be faster. Yellowstone tour guide Derek Draimin said it was full Wednesday with four groups heading into the park.
“I think there will be cars piled up trying to get in, to be the first people to enter the park after the millennial flood,” he said.
Draimin lost about 25 visits to the flooding and says fewer visitors might come thinking the park is badly damaged. But with most of the park expected to be accessible within weeks, Draimin said it was also possible business could take a hit, as tourists who cannot enter through the park’s northern entrances are routed to West Yellowstone, where his company, Yellowstone Adventure Tours, is based.
“I don’t know what to expect,” he said. “I could see both things happening.”
Hanson reported from Helena, Montana.