What’s new about Yellowstone?
Actually, not much.
The park’s famous geological features and sweeping vistas have remained largely unchanged from the visitors’ point of view for centuries. The great flood of June 13, like the fires of 1988, did temporarily change the landscape, but it did little to alter the physical aspects of America’s first national park.
What has changed is how visitors are allowed to experience it, as the park limits access to the parts of the park that have reopened since the flood to avoid overwhelming the areas with visitors.
“Right now, the park is still 80% available within those three entrances,” said Piper Singer with the Wyoming Office of Tourism, referring to the South, East and West gates at Jackson, Cody and West Yellowstone, respectively. “So visitors will not see the impact of the flooding.”
The entirety of Yellowstone National Park was shut down on Monday, June 13, due to torrential rain and melting snowpack that caused the Yellowstone River to overflow its banks. The resulting damage to roads and water systems caused park managers to evacuate the park while the situation was assessed.
Park staff determined that the south loop of Yellowstone, from Fishing Bridge to Lake, Grant’s Thumb to Old Faithful, and Norris to Canyon, sustained no significant damage, and could be opened to visitors beginning Wednesday.
The north loop, however, from Canyon to Tower and Roosevelt, Mammoth, and back down to Norris, is currently closed to visitors. Damage to U.S. Highway 89, which crosses the north part of Yellowstone, linking the Montana communities of Mammoth and Cooke City and cutting through the wildlife haven that is the Lamar Valley, was heavily damaged by flood waters.
Because only the southern portion of Yellowstone National Park is accessible to visitors, park administrators chose to limit the number of vehicles that can enter the park on a daily basis.
“It is impossible to reopen only one loop in the summer without implementing some type of system to manage visitation,” Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said last week, citing the need to balance demand for visitor access with the protection of park resources.
To avoid overwhelming the infrastructure of the park’s southern loop, the Park Service has implemented a license plate system to limit visitors to the park, called the ALPS System (the Alternating License Plate System. That plan was put in place Wednesday morning.
Under the plan, vehicles with license plates ending in an even digit will be allowed in the park on even-numbered days while vehicles with license plates ending in an odd digit will be allowed in on odd-numbered days (see illustration below).
“Generally speaking, you’ve got a queue line, a pre-screen line at West Yellowstone,” said Sholly. “And we’ll be turning people around who don’t have the right corresponding license plate digit. So the only people going into line will be people that can get in on that particular day.”
Sholly pointed out that the burden of disseminating information on the plan falls on businesses and visitor centers at the gateway communities.
“People coming in from the east, especially because it’s a 50 mile drive, we’ve got to really push this information,” Sholly said. “That means the hotel owners, everybody, to try to ensure that people don’t drive 50 miles and realize they’ve got the wrong digit. That’s going to happen. We are going to be pretty inflexible initially, in the interest of the amount of volume that’s coming our way and trying to figure out if the system can work or not.”
Imperfect But Expeditious
Diane Shober, Director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism, said that although the system is imperfect, it is a way to expedite the opening of Yellowstone to tourists.
“Quite honestly, folks, if we were waiting for a full reservation system to be implemented, we would not have access to Yellowstone until well after the Fourth of July,” said Shober. “And I just don’t think that we can afford that kind of economic impact on all of us. I would much rather have this in place for an opening tomorrow, on the 22nd of June, than waiting for a full scale reservation system to be implemented two to three weeks down the road.”
“There’s going to be people that are upset,” Sholly acknowledged. “Most of those center on big groups that are traveling together. The problem is, that could turn into a free-for-all really quickly, and be really hard for people transactionally at the gate to sit there and go, ‘Well, these three cars behind me are with me.’ So there’s going to be some upset people.”
However, there are some exceptions to the alternating license plate rule. Current commercial use operators with active commercial use permits, including commercial tours and motorcoaches, will be allowed to enter regardless of license plate number.
Mail and delivery services, as well as employees and contractors, will also be granted access regardless of the calendar date.
Additionally, visitors with proof of overnight reservations in the park, including at hotels, campgrounds and in the park’s backcountry, will also be granted entry any day, according to the website for Xanterra Parks and Resorts, Yellowstone’s primary concessionaire.
Because internet connectivity and cell phone service can be unreliable, Xanterra officials recommend that visitors either have a printed copy of their reservation confirmation or have that confirmation saved as a screen shot on their smart phones.
Because of the level of interest and an expectation of high visitor numbers, Sholly said the three entrances that are open as of Wednesday will be well staffed, and have extended hours.
“We’re probably going to go to a 24-hour staff cycle,” said Sholly, regarding personnel manning the gates at the three entrances that are open as of Wednesday.
License Plate System “Good For the Gateways”
“This is actually going to be really good for the gateways,” Sholly said, “both the immediate primary gateways and secondary, because we’re basically guaranteeing people access to the park 50% of the time. And the in-between day they’re going to need to stay in the gateway (communities) to do things while they’re waiting for their next day to come along.”
With the exception of Canyon Lodge & Cabins, Canyon Campground and Madison Campground, all of Xanterra’s in-park operations, including lodging, campgrounds, food services, gift shops and tours, are open, according to Xanterra’s website.
Canyon Village is currently open for day use only, according to the website, but lodging there – as well as the campgrounds at Canyon and Madison – are expected to reopen on June 29.
Officials say infrastructure damage and repair work at Canyon Village has resulted in the delay of opening full operations until at least June 29.
Xanterra Parks and Resorts has a full list of in-park restaurants on its website, which details hours of operation as well.
All lodges and facilities north of Norris Junction and Canyon Village have been closed for the 2022 season, according to the park’s website, although Sholly said park officials are working to open what’s known as the “North Loop” as early as two weeks from now.
“What we’ve done is pushed all of our staff out to make sure we can handle whatever’s coming (Wednesday),” said Sholly, “and if things level off and it’s not bad, the infrastructure is ready to hold traffic on the north end. We’ve got to make sure we’ve got the staffing ready to go for that. So I think that’s very possible within the next two weeks or less, and see how that goes.”
Segments of the road between the north entrance in Gardiner, Montana, and Mammoth Hot Springs have washed away and there is a significant rockslide at Gardner Canyon as well.
A segment of the road near Soda Butte Picnic Area was washed away between Tower Junction and the northeast entrance at Cooke City, Montana as well, while mudslides and downed trees are blocking other portions of the road.
The newly-opened Dunraven Pass, which had been closed for the last two years for maintenance, is also closed due to a major mudslide.
“Yellowstone National Park is opening,” said Shober, “and that does not come without a lot of hard work, planning, and dedication from the National Park Service. And so I just feel like it’s really important that we all take that into consideration considering what could be, and where we were a week ago today and what we were dealing with.”
“There was no loss of life. It could have been really, really bad,” Sholly said. “Thanks to a lot of proactive closures the night before by our public safety staff, we didn’t have people on the road.”