Easy travel through Yellowstone is never a sure thing in the summer. Between grizzly bear sightings, construction projects and bison traffic jams, the time it takes to cover the 56 miles between Fishing Bridge West Yellowstone, Montana, can take two hours; it can take three.
And things could get even more complicated this year with the National Park Service’s announcement of three road improvement projects in the park this summer.
Last week, the Park Service announced it will spend about $155 million on the three projects, which are expected to cause significant traffic delays over the Lewis River Bridge, on the road from Old Faithful to West Thumb, and over the Yellowstone River Bridge. The latter two projects will include overnight closures.
“While we always strive to execute projects in the least impacting way, the Old Faithful to West Thumb and Lewis River Bridge projects will seriously disrupt travel entering and exiting the park’s south entrance,” said Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly. “Visitors should plan accordingly.”
Road closures can create hassles for the gateway communities that host visitors heading to the Park.
Tina Hoebelheinrich, the executive director for the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, told Cowboy State Daily that this will be the first summer in the last five years that there will be no significant delays on the east entrance road.
“So from our place at the table, Cody is now a really, really great place to base out of and you know, take several day trips into Yellowstone,” she said.
Sholly singled out the recently completed project to improve the road between Chittenden and Tower in the park as an example of long-overdue infrastructure repair.
“This portion of road has not been substantially improved since the 1930s,” he said. “I think the public’s going to be very pleased with what we’ve done with this project.”
Construction for two of projects beginning this year will run at the same time to shorten the duration of the resulting disruptions to two years, Sholly said.
He added park officials are aware of the negative impact of road closures and chose not to begin one of the projects after finishing the other because then the disruptions would go on for four to five years.
These infrastructure projects are necessary in order to keep up with the record-breaking visitor numbers Yellowstone Park has experienced in recent years, Sholly said.
The wear and tear caused by millions of vehicles, coupled with federal budget cuts, have resulted in a backlog of maintenance projects that are slowly being addressed.
In 2018, Yellowstone reported a conservative backlog estimate exceeding $586 million, more than half of which was related to park roads.
“We very much appreciate the funding received through the Great American Outdoors Act to complete these critical projects,” Park officials noted in a press release last week.
With the completion of these three projects, the park will reduce its deferred maintenance backlog by about $103 million.
Officials say that addressing the deferred maintenance backlog is part of the Park Service’s core mission to preserve national parks and provide a world-class visitor experience.
The park’s Road Improvement webpage will be updated as new or more detailed information is available.