By Leo Wolfson, Cowboy State Daily
Yellowstone National Park will reopen on Wednesday to visitors with even-numbered last digits on their vehicle license plates, a new system that some fear may put a wrench in some visitors’ travel plans.
And while a former Department of Interior official believes the system might be the best way to keep the park from being overwhelmed by crowds while officials work to repair damage done by last week’s floods, others believe it is too restrictive.
“It sucks,” said Richard Jones, who owns an Airbnb 27 miles east of the park’s east entrance. “It’s really screwing up people’s plans.”
Under the system devised with the assistance of gateway community residents, those who have license plates that end with even numbers can enter on even-numbered days of the month, while cars with odd-numbered plates can enter on odd-numbered days.
Vanity plates will be treated as if they end with an odd-numbered digit, unless there is a digit on the plate, in which case the number will determine what day that person can enter.
Those with reservations for overnight accommodations or backcountry stays in the park will not need to follow the license plate system.
“I can see how it’s effective and how it’s the least intrusive solution for visitors,” said Rob Wallace, a former assistant secretary for the Department of Interior who oversaw the National Park Service. “It will be a minor readjustment. I’m hopeful it will work.”
Wallace said the recent Yellowstone flooding, which forced the park’s closure and evacuation on June 13, was the most significant he has ever encountered in a national park.
Although the park’s southern loop is set to open Wednesday, its northern loop is not scheduled to open in about two weeks.
The license plate system was designed to control access to keep the southern loop from becoming overwhelmed by tourists.
However, Jones said he has already lost two reservations at his Airbnb property this week because of the restrictions on park entry, costing him a few thousand dollars.
The license plate system is designed to alleviate pressures on the park infrastructure and make sure the west, south and east entrances of the park are being treated equally.
However, fewer visitors enter the park through the east entrance outside Cody than the other two gates, so that community’s customer base is already smaller and may shrink even further, Jones said.
Jones added he is concerned many people will cancel their Yellowstone trips completely because of a perception that most of the park was decimated by the flood and not worth visiting.
As a result, the the pressures Yellowstone National Superintendent Cam Sholly is trying to mitigate with the license plate system will not exist because of a decline in overall traffic, he said.
“The premise is wrong,” he said. “The premise they will be overrun is false.”
Basing entry on license plates is similar to the system former President Jimmy Carter initiated in 1979 to respond to gasoline shortages.
“It’s always some agenda to control something,” Jones said.
This year was set to be the first in about five years that all of the park’s roads were be open.
Even after opening the northern loop in about two weeks, extensive damage caused to the park’s northern loop roads will limit access to the park to about 80%.
However, the vast majority of the park’s roads remain undamaged and some of its most popular attractions such as Old Faithful, Lake Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone are still accessible.
For tourists who planned their Yellowstone vacations months in advance, it may be a setback, but the license plate rule only applies to those who don’t have overnight reservations to stay in the park and does not affect outside tour groups.
Corey Field, manager for Hertz Car Rental at Yellowstone Regional Airport in Cody, said he has already had customers request certain license plate numbers. He worries if too many requests come in for certain plates, it will lead to complications and unfulfilled demands.
Field also brought up the scenario of someone who wants to rent a car with a license plate that will allow them to travel to West Yellowstone through the park and then return the next day to Cody, which will not be allowed under the current license system.
“There are concerns,” he said. “We have to start looking at all the factorial numbers.”
The new system may also put a damper on visitation by those already in the area who only want to or are only able to visit the park for a single day.
Jones sees this part of the new rule as elitist and solely catering to high-dollar customers who can afford to stay in the park. He also pointed out the local travelers who may want to visit the park or travel through it to get to another destination and as being unfairly impacted.
“It affects the little people the most,” he said.
Rick Hoeninghausen, director, sales & marketing for Xanterra, the park’s concessionaire, said the Old Faithful Inn, Lodge and Snow Lodge, Lake Hotel and Lake Lodge, Grant Village, Fishing Bridge RV Park, Bridge Bay Campground, Grant Campground will all open on Wednesday, offering lodging, food service, gift shops and tours.
Canyon Village will be open for day use only through June 28. On June 29 Canyon Lodge, Canyon Campground and Madison Campground will open their overnight accommodations and campsites.
Reservations Or Timed-Entry
Yellowstone said in a Saturday press release it will adjust or implement a reservation or timed entry system, if necessary, after three to four weeks of using the license plate system.
Reservation systems are not a new concept within the national parks system. Initiated in response to COVID-19 concerns and record visitation in 2021, many parks had reservation systems in place entering this summer season, but Yellowstone did not enact such measures.
Arches National Park in Utah, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and Yosemite National Park in California all started the summer with time entry reservations for daytime visits, while several other parks started or already have reservation systems for certain hikes and drives within their respective parks.
Sholly has not expressed enthusiasm about instituting reservations at Yellowstone but has said certain parts of the park may install booking systems in 5 to 10 years from now.
Wallace is not aware of any national parks employing a license plate reservation system in the past. He said Yellowstone’s license plate system may prove to be revolutionary within the National Parks Service.
“Yellowstone may come up with the answer,” he said.
Jones, meanwhile, questioned why the park is having problems dealing with tourism when it faced two record visitation years in a row.
“We had two record years of visitation in a row and now big problems,” Jones said.
Jones, who worked for the U.S. Park Service for 25 years and spent time as the chief ranger at the Virgin Islands National Park, said if he were Yellowstone’s superintendent, he would have fully opened the park on Monday and allowed entry through all three gates.
“If a problem develops you can always shut it down,” he said.