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Travelers Flock to Yellowstone

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By Ruffin Provost, Yellowstone Gate

OLD FAITHFUL, WYO. — Grand Prismatic Spring is a favorite attraction in Yellowstone National Park.

The largest hot spring in the U.S., its rainbow colors are a natural wonder that draws such large summer crowds that the parking lot overflows onto the road, and tourists stand three rows deep along the boardwalk, straining for a glimpse.

On Tuesday morning, Jeremiah and Ashley Meyer had Grand Prismatic Spring all to themselves.

The Star Valley, Wyo. couple are Yellowstone regulars, and like many other locals, have made a tradition of trekking to the park when it first opens each summer, often staying at the Old Faithful Inn.

The Inn was the site of one of their first dates, and they have returned several times over the last dozen years, often staying in the same room, where they can watch Old Faithful Geyser erupt from their window.

But in all their trips to Yellowstone, they had never had a private view of Grand Prismatic Springs.

“For nearly a half an hour, we were the only ones there. It was amazing,” Jeremiah said. “We were just blown away.”

Only the South and East gates into Yellowstone were open Tuesday, the first full day the park has been open this season, as Montana continues to quarantine out-of-state arrivals.

So crowds, while sizable in some places, were at times limited compared to a normal spring opening, which usually falls on a weekend and sees visitors streaming in through five gates.

That put some pressure on the Wyoming gates serving Jackson and Cody, where new, minimal-contact payment processing systems were in place as part of efforts to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Only restrooms and self-service gas stations are open, and public traffic is allowed only on the lower loop of the Grand Loop Road.

The limited access didn’t seem to bother many visitors, including Jill Craig and her boyfriend, Nate Kieffer, who were traveling from California with Craig’s father on a road trip that included stops in Utah, Colorado and Idaho.

The group had seen a moose in Grand Teton National Park and were hoping to next see a grizzly bear as they were leaving Artist Point in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.

Craig’s father, who declined to give his name out of concern his employer might require him to quarantine upon return, jokingly said the view of the Lower Falls “was worth risking my life for. That’s a bucket list view, and this is my third time here.”

The trip to Yellowstone was Kieffer and Craig’s first, and was during what was scheduled to have been Craig’s graduation from nursing school. But her classes were closed after the viral outbreak, and she must now repeat her final semester in the fall. The trip was a chance to get outside after a long time in lockdown.

Like most visitors in the park Tuesday, the three weren’t wearing masks, but took what they called common-sense precautions, including keeping their distance from other visitors.

“We have never felt like we’ve put ourselves in jeopardy,” while traveling, Kieffer said. “We’ve been doing a lot of things outdoors and staying away from crowds.”

Whether the normal summer crowds will show up in Yellowstone this summer remains a matter of concern in gateway towns that rely on tourist spending for a major portion of the local economy.

If Tuesday is any indication, a strong contingent of out-of-state visitors are eager to visit Yellowstone, as evidenced by a majority of license plates from far-flung destinations.

The Wyoming towns of Cody and Jackson stand to see a short-term boost to their tourism economies, as overnight lodging is not yet available in the park, and the Montana gates remain closed.

Park managers have said they will coordinate with Montana officials on when to open gates in Gardiner, West Yellowstone and Cooke City.

Meanwhile, some locals and regular visitors sheepishly confess they wouldn’t mind a quieter, scaled-back summer in Yellowstone, which hosts 4 million annual visitors, most arriving between June and September.

“We always have a picnic basket and a blanket, and it’s more fun to be here when it’s not so crowded,” said Kathryn McFarlane, who made the trip from Tennessee to visit her mother, Mildred Haynie, for Mother’s Day. Jim Wildman, Haynie’s son, joined his sister and mother in Yellowstone on Tuesday after traveling from Ohio.

“Coming from Ohio, I’m less concerned about being here because there are less people and they’re farther apart,” Wildman said. “Plus, I’ve never been here this early, so it’s fun to see the lake still frozen and all the snow.”

Haynie, 99, lives south of Cody and for years has been the driver and tour guide. This year, she was content to let the kids take the wheel.

McFarlane said she wasn’t worried about being limited to the lower loop, and was confident their day in the park would yield wonders without too much planning or worrying.

“Yellowstone will provide. It always has something wonderful,” she said. “You just have to be aware of it all.”

For more great Yellowstone coverage, visit our friends at Yellowstone Gate. All photos courtesy of Ruffin Provost at Yellowstone Gate.

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Tourist Forgets to Social Distance From Bison — Gets Head-Butted in Yellowstone

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Coronavirus or not, tourists at Yellowstone continue to act like tourists.

This incident is a little bit more surprising considering all of the social distancing people — across the globe — have supposed to have been doing.

Not many details are known about this latest incident in Yellowstone except a woman was approaching a bison in the Old Faithful Upper Geyser Basin area and it didn’t like it.

The bison let the woman know by head-butting her to the ground.

Thankfully for the woman, her injuries were not significant enough to be taken to the hospital.

This is the first incident between a human and a bison in 2020 and with the Park only open for three days, it could be a banner year. Perhaps records will be broken.

The Old Faithful area has seen a lot of action so far this year. Just last week a woman — who entered the Park illegally — fell backwards into a thermal feature in the area sustaining burns.

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Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Parks To Reopen With Restrictions on Monday

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

After almost two months, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks will start opening to the public in phases beginning Monday.

“I want to thank both of these National Park Superintendents for their collaborative and cooperative, phased approach to safely reopen these iconic destinations to visitors,” Gov. Mark Gordon said in a news release Tuesday. “Their direct and consistent communication with interested parties has resulted in plans that will help protect employees, visitors and neighboring communities.”

The decision to reopen both parks to in phases was reached after numerous conversations involving governors of nearby states, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly, Grand Teton National Park Acting Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail and local officials.

Gordon and park officials contacted officials in Park, Fremont and Teton counties, and all expressed support for the opening strategy

“These targeted reopenings will provide valuable experience as we look ahead to expanding operations in both parks,” Gordon said. “They will also help reawaken Wyoming’s tourism industry and help get America’s economy up and going again.”

Phase one of Yellowstone’s reopening will begin Monday with the opening of the South and East entrances in Wyoming only. Visitors will be able to access the lower loop of the Grand Loop Road, as well as restrooms, self-service gas stations, trails and boardwalks. Yellowstone has also released a detailed, three-phase COVID-19 Reopening Plan.

“I commend Gov. Gordon for his leadership and partnership as we’ve developed this plan to reopen,” Sholly said in a news release. “Reopening is not something we can do alone and the governor’s actions and support have been greatly appreciated during this challenging period.”

In Grand Teton National Park, primary road access on the Teton Park Road, Moose-Wilson Road and North Park Road will be available. In addition, public restrooms will be open and day hiking on seasonally-accessible trails will be allowed.

Neither park will offer overnight lodging or food service, and visitor centers will remain closed.

“I extend my sincere appreciation to Gov. Gordon for the state’s support in working with us to increase access to the national parks while prioritizing everyone’s safety,” Noojibail said. “Grand Teton National Park is part of the iconic Wyoming character that makes the state special, and through our cooperative partnerships we will continue to provide a safe visitor experience for all.”

“This is really good news,” Gordon said of the announcement. “But it is important for the public to follow local-area health guidance, use common sense, practice good hygiene principles, maintain social distancing and avoid crowding. Only you can prevent the spread of COVID.”

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Woman Falls Into Old Faithful Thermal Feature After Entering Yellowstone Illegally

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A woman was seriously injured Tuesday morning when she entered Yellowstone National Park illegally and fell into a thermal feature at Old Faithful.

Park Public Information Officer Linda Veress confirmed the incident in an email to Cowboy State Daily.

Yellowstone National Park is still closed to the public because of the coronavirus.

According to reports, the woman was at the Old Faithful Geyser area of the park taking photos when she stepped backwards and fell into a thermal feature. It is not known which thermal feature the woman fell into.

The woman suffered burns after falling into the feature. She then drove north through the park and was contacted by park rangers 1 mile south of Mammoth Hot Springs.

Due to her injuries, she was life-flighted to the Burn Center at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center.

The incident is under investigation. No further information was provided about the woman or the extent of her injuries.

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Yellowstone to Open in Phases

in Coronavirus/News/Yellowstone

By Ruffin Prevost, Yellowstone Gate

CODY, WYO. — The first Friday in May has traditionally marked the opening of the East Gate to Yellowstone National Park, drawing a mix of locals and hearty travelers anxious to experience spring in a park still thawing out from a long winter.

But with Yellowstone still closed to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, tourism industry insiders are grappling with a plan for what summer might look like in the park and the gateway towns that rely on a steady stream of visitors to fill restaurants, hotels and attractions.

Park manages still haven’t announced an opening date. But they have said that Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks will see staged openings that start small and rely on fewer seasonal employees, with reduced services and a focus on visitor and worker safety.

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Xanterra Travel Collection, Yellowstone’s primary concessioner and operator of most hotels and campgrounds in the park, is planning on starting operations in mid-June. 

Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra, said Thursday that guest lodging will be limited at first to campgrounds and cabins that include bathrooms. Hotels will not open in June, Hoeninghausen said, but managers will assess options throughout the summer as public health conditions and National Park Service guidance allows.

Speaking to members of the Park County Travel Council, Hoeninghausen said he expects the campgrounds run by Xanterra to operate as they usually have, with a special focus on cleaning at shared restroom facilities. The Fishing Bridge recreational vehicle campground will not open, as road construction there continues this summer, concluding in the fall.

Hoeninghausen said Mammoth Hot Springs facilities will open June 15, with Yellowstone Lake area opening June 17 and Canyon opening June 19. Lodging will be limited to cabins and cottages at first, he said, “but if conditions change down the road and we’re in a position to open more or make additional services available, we’ll look at doing that.”

Grand Teton is following a similar strategy, focusing on cabin rentals, with no current plans to open Jackson Lake Lodge or Jenny Lake Lodge.

While Xanterra will likely continue boat rentals at Lake, bicycle rentals at Mammoth and other options that allow for social distancing, group tours in enclosed vehicles are not on the early summer agenda.

Hoeninghausen said he expects the Park Service to offer guidance to visitors on social distancing, particularly at places like the boardwalks around Old Faithful Geyser, but that practical limitations make enforcing any guidelines difficult and unlikely. The Park Service has not yet publicly discussed final details, but visitor centers, clinics and other key facilities are expected to be in operation when the park opens. 

Though no final decisions have been made on restaurants, sit-down dining is not expected to be an option in early summer, with grab-and-go food likely to be offered instead. 

Travel industry insiders are unsure what to expect of this year’s summer tourism season around Yellowstone and Grand Teton, but most say they anticipate a slow start as travel restrictions ease. 

Adventure travel fueled by regional auto traffic is likely to fare better than segments like theme parks, cruises or other venues where social distancing is difficult. 

Camping and fishing are seeing a “huge spike” in Internet search interest, said Andy Maclellan, president of Verb Interactive, a digital marketing agency that specializes in the travel Industry, and works with the Park County Travel Council.

Hotels in the park typically provide a sizable chunk of lodging taxes that gateway communities rely on to market themselves to travelers. But with those major facilities closed, and other hotels expecting significant cancellations, poor lodging tax collections this year will make it tougher to market the region next year.

Some gateway operators have also said they fear a lack of lodging may lead to clogged campgrounds and lodging in small communities nearest the parks. 

Some locals worry that tourists from foreign and major metropolitan markets may cause a spike in virus cases, taxing rural health care systems. Travel marketers in Park County and across the region are being cautious in their messaging, with a current focus on reminding visitors that travel should only happen when the time is right. 

But for many locals who have typically streamed into Yellowstone on the first Friday in May—as well as those who rely on visitors to provide jobs and pay the rent—that time can’t come soon enough.

Disclosure: Reporter Ruffin Prevost is a member of the Park County Travel Council. Contact him at 307-213-9818 or

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When Will Yellowstone Open This Year? No One Knows.

in Coronavirus/News/Yellowstone

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By Mark Davis and CJ Baker, Powell Tribune

When will Yellowstone National Park reopen? That will likely depend on the recommendations and actions of health officials and leaders in the areas surrounding the park, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly says.

While Sholly does not know when reopening will come, “I’m not naive to the fact that this will happen sooner than later — that the economic impacts of this [pandemic], as time goes, will be in the forefront of people’s minds even more so than they are now,” he told Park County commissioners on Tuesday.

Yellowstone closed its gates to the public on March 24 as part of efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19. Sholly said there was unanimous support from area leaders to shut down. However, he predicted that deciding when to reopen the international destination will probably be more difficult.

Sholly said he’s asked all four health officers from the counties surrounding the park — Park and Teton County, Wyoming, and Park and Gallatin County, Montana — to try to make a unified recommendation.

“I think a worst case scenario for us, for me here, is to get two county health officers saying it’s safe to open and two county health officers saying, ‘stay closed,’” he said, adding, “We may not be able to gain consensus, but I think the more that we’re talking about it and the more that we’re in agreement, the easier that’s going to be.”

Sholly also indicated that the park would likely look to follow area communities when they ease COVID-19-related restrictions.

The superintendent said the park could potentially “ramp up” to a full opening, perhaps allowing day use of the park prior to opening visitors centers, bathrooms and allowing vendors to open stores, restaurants and lodging.

“Then, as time goes on, you know, we would open more and more of those facilities, once it is safe to do so,” he said.

Xanterra Travel Collection, the operator of lodges and retail locations in the park, restaurants and other facilities, previously announced it was suspending its operations through at least May 22.

Before the pandemic, Yellowstone had expected to have all of its gates open by May 8, with the East Entrance opening May 1. Sholly reiterated that Park Service workers are continuing to get ready to open so that they’re ready when the time comes.

Asking for a constituent, Commissioner Dossie Overfield inquired about local “foot” use, but Sholly said that, “for right now … closed is closed.”

That means no bike traffic or hiking in the backcountry for local residents — even after roads have been plowed for the summer season.

“You get into this real slippery slope, as you can imagine, in what defines local,” Sholly said. “You know, people in Bozeman think they’re local. But people in Gardiner think they’re the real locals.”

And the superintendent — who’s already fielded multiple requests to allow locals in — indicated he wasn’t going to entertain that kind of decision making process about where to draw the local line.

“Generally speaking, until we open, we’re not going to make exceptions,” he said.

The North Gate is open to those traveling to Cooke City, Montana, but traffic is being closely monitored, Sholly said. Otherwise, nobody will enter the park “unless they’re on official business.”

The National Park Service has had inconsistent policies from park to park, saying it is “modifying its operations on a park-by-park basis in accordance with the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local public health authorities.”

While most facilities and events are closed or canceled, many properties remain accessible to the public. For example: Yellowstone is closed to all visitors. Meanwhile, the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area has closed its facilities, but the trail system and water access is still open.

The superintendent was quick to point out the economic impact of having the park closed when Commissioner Jake Fulkerson, on behalf of a constituent, asked for an update on park employees and vendors registering their vehicles in Wyoming.

Xanterra paid $3.7 million in payroll, sales and lodging taxes last year. Other concessionaires pay millions more in taxes from sales and gas taxes. But Sholly said many of the problem plates have been changed and are now registered in Park County.

“There are probably more serious conversations to have right now than whether a few people in Park County have Montana license plates,” he said.

While not dismissing the concern, “I think right now … our focus really needs to be squarely on getting the park open when it’s safe and being prepared to do so,” Sholly said, “ultimately getting visitors into these communities and businesses back on their feet as quickly as possible.”

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