GARDINER — Plans are underway to have the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park open to visitors and tour concessionaires this summer.
“It will be a summer of adjustments,” park superintendent Cam Sholly said Sunday.
The news came less than a week after historic flooding destroyed sections of road in the northern half of the park, cutting off the seat of the neighboring community of Gardiner and temporarily isolating two gateway communities.
“This town will see in the next 48 hours… one of the best road construction companies… coming to work on both ends of the old Gardiner Road making improvements,” Sholly said. “Our goal will be to significantly improve this route over the next two months. That’s about as fast as you can muster a plan for a new route.
National Park Service Director Chuck Sams III attended the press conference where the announcement was made. He praised Yellowstone personnel for their response to the emergency and pledged federal assistance to expedite repair work.
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“I ask the American public to be as civil as possible,” Sams said. “Staff here are under enormous stress and they’ve done an incredible amount of work in such a short time to get the reopening done.”
Work will be expedited thanks to a $50 million emergency fund 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 carved out in six places by the river, workers will build an all-new road between Gardiner and park headquarters in Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming.
Sholly said the road is not only important for tourists, but also provides a much-needed connection for park employees, some of whom live in Gardiner or have children who attend school in the community of the front door. Even partially reopened, the North 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 reconstructed Dunraven Pass to Canyon. Sholly said there would be a “hard stop” at Tower with no traffic allowed in the Lamar Valley and Slough Creek. It is also the route to Cooke City and Silver Gate.
Sholly said he understands the solution won’t be perfect and adjustments could be made along the way to improve the situation. He also stressed the need for city chambers and business people to ensure visitors know how to access the South Loop until repairs are complete.
On Saturday, the park service announced that it would begin allowing access through three entrances to the southern half of the park starting Wednesday, June 22. Under the current plan, cars with license plates ending in even numbers are allowed in the park on even days. and cars with license plates ending in odd numbers are allowed on odd days. Vanity plates will all be considered odd. People with proof of reservations in campsites or hotels will be admitted on the day of their reservation. If this method doesn’t work, the plan is to go to a reservation system.
What is still uncertain is when the northeast entrance near Cooke City and Silver Gate will reopen. The economies of small mountain towns depend on park visitors, so residents fear that without access their summer season could be lost. Sholly said the Park Service is working on a temporary solution for northeast side tours until a permanent solution can be devised, adding that details are forthcoming.
Residents of Cooke City and Silver Gate also rely on the road through the park to Gardiner for winter access, as it is the only road open in the park year-round. Three sections of the road were damaged by flooding. A portion of the $50 million in federal highway funds will also be used to reconnect these damaged sections.
Asked about the unusual link between flash flooding and climate change, Sams said the Park Service is looking at climate adaptation and resilience as part of the initiatives he’s put in place as director. To that end, he’s had his regional team in Denver survey Yellowstone’s damaged roads to see what can possibly be moved out of the floodplain.
“We will do everything we can to make sure these routes are adaptive so that at the next event [happens] … hopefully they won’t be as damaged as they are now,” he said.
Sholly noted that park entrance towns have been through a lot lately with COVID closures, and now this. He specifically pointed to Gardiner, which also suffered a downtown fire last year.
“And we got away with it,” he said. “And I’m confident I’ll pull through.”