By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
When Chris Warren heard that Old Gardiner Road between Mammoth, Wyoming, and the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Montana, had opened, the first thing he did was drive it.
That’s because the road is more than a winter lifeline for Mammoth, it also represents the only off-season way in and out of Cooke City, Montana, at the Northeast Entrance to the park.
With Highway 212 (aka Beartooth Highway) closed east of the town, the only way out of Cooke City in wintertime is west on Highway 212 and Grand Lake Road, through Mammoth and over the Old Gardiner Road into Gardiner.
“I went down into the park, and went to Old Faithful, and drove out the east entrance and stayed in Cody, and it was awesome,” he said about having Old Gardiner Road open again after a historic flood damaged roads and closed most of the park this past summer. “And then we took a ride out to Red Lodge and drove around to Livingston and fished the Yellowstone, and then came back in through the park.”
‘Cut Off In Both Directions’
Warren is among the many residents of Cooke City, Gardiner and Mammoth celebrating the fact that what was once an old stagecoach road has been made new.
It is now a crucial lifeline for the residents of those communities, as well as the winter tourism that many hope will help them recover from this summer’s devastating floods.
The road connecting Mammoth and Cooke City to Gardiner will be the only way out during the winter for regular motorists.
“If that were closed, I mean, we would be cut off in both directions,” Warren said. “A far as emergency services, you know, groceries, gas drops — if it were to close or if something were to happen on the Gardiner way, we’d be, I mean, people would be helicoptering out.”
Historic And Important
The Old Gardiner Road was a lesser-known dirt trail that connects Mammoth and Gardiner.
Once an 1880s stagecoach route, the unadvertised route travels through the hills rather than along the Gardner River, offering hilltop views and scenery of the area. In the summer, it’s popular for hiking and Big Sky eBike Tours has used it for guided eBike trips.
The trail starts just behind Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and travels north, terminating near the North Entrance Gate.
New Life For Old Road
When the Yellowstone flooded and took out large portions of the road that had wound along the river, Yellowstone National Park turned to the historic trail as a viable and quick alternative to create safe passage before winter from Gardiner to Cooke City/Silver Gate and Mammoth, both of which are popular destinations for winter.
The old 4-mile trail has been widened and paved with guardrails installed to ensure the new section of road can handle the usual traffic for the park, which has been up to 3,000 vehicles per day. The cost was $21 million and required tons of earth to be moved.
Yellowstone National Park has asked visitors to drive slowly and cautiously on the newly opened road because of steep grades and sharp curves. The speed limit has been set at 15 to 25 mph. Oversized vehicles and those pulling trailers have also been advised to use extra caution on the road.
The steepness of the road has some living in the communities that are relying on the newly opened Old Gardiner Road anxious.
“I haven’t driven through the park yet,” Brandon Richardson with High Country Motel told Cowboy State Daily. “But I’ve talked to people that have, and they said that the road to the Lamar Valley is very passible, but that the new Gardiner Road between Gardiner and Mammoth is really steep.
“If anything should happen to a plow or, you know, one of our delivery trucks, like you said, we’re stuck. We’re hoping not to see that.”
An Economic Lifeline
High Country Motel has already had a rough year, Richardson said, and his bookings for winter are far less than what he’s used to seeing.
“I’ve got a few rooms out through December,” he said. “Just a few. When I say a few, like a couple of November and one, two, three, four reservations in December. I’ve got a few blocks at the end of January and then March or February.
“February killed it a little bit, but it’s snow dependent too. If we don’t have snow, we’re likely to get cancellations, or if we have high avalanche conditions, same thing. So, we’re trying real hard just to hang on.”
Richardson is among those in Cooke City who’d like to see the route southeast to Cody plowed out to Cooke City to give the town a second route in and out.
That, he said is controversial because snowmobilers have been using that as a prime winter path.
“A majority of us want that road open to Cody so that we can maybe diversify a little bit and not just count on people with snowmobiles,” he said. “We don’t see the park wildlife business like Gardiner does, we really don’t. We haven’t for a long time, and I think it’s just our access is so limited.”
Opposed To Plowing ‘The Plug’
Lisa Ohlinger is among Cooke City residents who would oppose opening the route to Cody in winter. She believes Cooke City’s winter tourism is very dependent on preserving “The Plug,” which is what the snowmobile access trail is called.
“Having the (Gardiner) Road open is huge in two ways for us,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “It’s access out, but then it also keeps that road to the east closed so we have a snowmobile trail, so we can have our normal winter business.”
Without that, winter tourism for Cooke City would be “decimated,” she said.
“We wouldn’t have any snowmobiling, because that’s our only trail to get out of town to our back country riding,” she said. “So, we would have not only lost our summer, but we would have lost our winter.”
Winter Tourism Picking Up
Unlike some of the other lodging business that told Cowboy State Daily their business is lower than usual, Ohlinger said her bookings for Elk Horn Lodge are above pre-pandemic levels this winter.
“Our Canadian customers can come back,” she said. “For the past two years because of COVID, they haven’t been able to come, and we’re a big destination for Canadian skiers and snowmobilers. So that’s been huge.”
Ohlinger also said Cooke City’s tourism is becoming diversified from snowmobiles with backcountry skiing.
“That has really exploded,” she said. “Last winter was a great winter for that.”
She credited Benjamin Zavora of Beartooth Powder Guides with helping build up the backcountry skiing scene.
“We even had Kobe Stevenson, the U.S. Olympic freestyle skiing silver medalist, stay with us last year,” she said. “So, I mean it’s really taking off. Ben Zavora has really put us on the map for that. We’re diversifying a little more, it’s not just snowmobiling anymore.”
With more than 60 miles of groomed snowmobile trails and easy access to backcountry areas, Cooke City has long been a popular destination for snowmobiling.
The steeper trails are white nirvana for those seeking a challenge, but there are plenty of resources and trails for beginners as well.
Zavora, like Ohslinger, says his bookings are high and his outlook for winter is very good this year now that Old Gardiner Road is open.
“Once it starts snowing, things will pick up even more,” he said. “Hopefully, people are excited to come in and do some, you know, wildlife watching in the park, and skiing and snowmobiling and all that good stuff. It’s so nice to have (Gardiner Road) open, without restrictions.”
To him, The Plug is an essential snowmobile route, but he agrees having the north entrance road closed this past summer was devastating for everyone in the community. His summer business was down about 66%, he said.
Adapt And Overcome
Zavora said the community is pulling together to create a stronger overall tourism business for everyone.
His wife, Vanessa Shaw, will have the Sinclair gas station open again this year. In years past, that has been closed, but she will offer a range of hot food options throughout the day to help beef up winter food options in the community.
Food offerings have been lean, particularly since the town’s deli changed hands and is now a rock shop.
There are also new lodging options in Silvergate, Zavora said, which adds to the options for those wanting to see wildlife, or go skiing or snowmobiling.
Others Wait And See
In Gardiner, Tami McDonald is among those of offer lodging — and many opportunities to view wildlife — who says her winter bookings are much lower than in years past.
“I think because people still have thought of the roads being closed, it’s going to be a little slower to come back,” she said. “It’s amazing, even though we all have Internet, how people still, how know, they interpret what they read differently. Everyone interprets it differently.
“So, it’s just something we’re going to have to just sit back and wait on. I don’t really know what’s going happen for sure. People don’t really know that it’s really open yet.”
McDonald owns Park Hotel, which she has recently renovated. The ground-up renovation started in 2017 and took two years to complete. She had one year of operating the renovated hotel before COVID hit.
“A lot of (businesses) had to go get loans,” she said. “Of course, we did that during COVID, so it’s like the second round of having this devastation happening. You can’t go out and get another loan again, you just have to suffer through it.”
Jay O’Connor with Big Sky eBikes, meanwhile, said he lost 90% of his summer business to the flood. With the Old Gardiner Road now no longer available for biking tours, he hopes the park plans an alternative path for his business next year.
During the winter, he has very little business, though he does sometimes get requests for arranged tours.
“The Gardiner Basin is basically the wintering ground for the northern elk herd, the antelope and bison,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “The antelope have already moved in. There’s hundreds of antelope in the basin already and there’s tons of elk and deer have arrived. We haven’t seen any bison yet, but that all depends on the snow level in the park.”
Thankful And Amazed
O’Connor and McDonald both feel the speed with which the Old Gardiner Road was completed has been amazing and are very thankful it’s available.
Not having the road open for winter would have been “a double whammy, for sure,” McDonald said. “Like, we’re so thankful, so thankful to the U.S. government for reacting.”
But it’s also been challenging to keep up with the many changes — and to keep customers apprised in turn, to try and retain as much business as possible.
Changes in the date the road would be open, for example, produced a mass scramble to reconfigure communications on websites and emails to customers.
“It takes hours, you know, to go back to all your online websites and change the wording there so it doesn’t say the roads are still closed and to go on to all of your emails that you send to people,” McDonald said. “You have to revamp all of that. It’s a lot more work than people realize.”
Still Some Uncertainty
There are also some details that McDonald is still not sure about, and O’Connor feels that uncertainties have contributed to some folks simply deciding not to go to the park this year, to wait until everything is all sorted out.
“I don’t know if they’re going to open the Boiling River, which is just like 2 or 3 miles from us, but I don’t know if they can even access it yet,” McDonald said.
She’s also been trying to find out about this year’s snowmobile lottery so she can tell her customers what to expect there.
She also fears that the word is not getting out quickly enough that Gardiner and the park will be open for winter tourism.
“We don’t have anywhere near the bookings for winter yet, like we normally do,” she said. “We’re just helping people kid of get back in the swing of it, really, and realize that they can come on the road now, and that it’s a new road.”
She said one plus for visitors this winter is that wildlife has been a little more bold and a little more noticeable than usual, probably since fewer people have been around.
“Gardiner is known as ‘Nature’s Favorite Entrance,’” she said. “We seem to have a lot more nature (and) wild animals.”