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Four months after flood, Yellowstone restores full access

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Yellowstone continues to recover from devastating June flood

Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park Cam Sholly speaks about road construction and current road conditions during a tour of the construction on the Northeast Entrance Road in Yellowstone National Park on Oct. 14. The last gate shuttered by the June floods, the North Entrance, reopened Sunday. 

The North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park — the last gate left isolated by this summer’s catastrophic flooding — reopened Sunday, just over four months since the disaster and days before most other park roads shut down for the winter.

While Yellowstone’s three southern gates were closed for less than two weeks as rangers scrambled to assess the damage and repair what they could, the park remained inaccessible to the public through the harder-hit North and Northeast entrances until after the summer tourist season.

Video courtesy Yellowstone National Park

All that lost revenue — on top of local devastation from the flood itself — came as a tough blow to the tiny, tourism-reliant Montana communities north of the park.

But the economic pain won’t be nearly as severe as initially feared.

In June, as the floodwaters receded and the chunks of washed-out highway came into view, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly warned that access through the northern gates might not be restored until sometime next year.

Permanent rebuilding, including the possible relocation of those roads, may still extend through most of this decade. The National Park Service finished critical work on the Northeast Entrance Road in time for an Oct. 15 reopening, however, and upgraded an old dirt road to the North Entrance ahead of today’s deadline.

“We’re pleased to be reopening the North Entrance and reconnecting Yellowstone to Gardiner, Montana,” Sholly said in a Friday statement. “We want to thank the outstanding support and work of the Federal Highway Administration and HK Contractors, INC for getting this road built in just four months.”

Here’s how the park recovered:

June 13

After several inches of rain inundated the northernmost reaches of Yellowstone, the lingering snow that was washed off its mountains caused its rivers to swell to record heights. Floodwaters surging through the park and its northern gateway towns carried away buildings, bridges and whole stretches of road.

“We will not know timing of the park’s reopening until flood waters subside and we’re able to assess the damage throughout the park,” Sholly said in a June 13 statement. “It is likely that the northern loop will be closed for a substantial amount of time.”

Yellowstone officials evacuated the park’s more than 10,000 visitors — without a single serious injury or death reported — and closed all five entrances indefinitely.

June 14

Park officials, unable to do much more than guess about the impacts of the flood until the water came back down, tried, largely successfully, to prevent panic from spreading among staff, gateway town residents, stranded tourists or people with reservations later in the summer.

But they knew, even then, that while the southern half of the park was largely intact, the outlook for the northern gates was grim.

It wasn’t yet clear whether the existing road to the North Entrance could be rebuilt in the same place. Officials were already doubting whether it should be.

“I don’t think it’s going to be smart to invest potentially tens of millions of dollars, or however much it is, into repairing a road that may be subject to a similar flooding event in the future,” Sholly said at the time.

June 22

Yellowstone’s East, West and South gates reopened — following emergency repairs — a week and a half after they closed. Some unlucky visitors had their vacations cut short, or never made it into the park. By the end of June, however, many were able to continue with their plans largely uninterrupted.

“Right now, there is a sense of excitement to let people in, and have them enjoy the park and see what they came to see,” Rebecca Roland, the Tower Lamar subdistrict ranger for resource education and youth programs, told the Star-Tribune shortly before the East Gate opened.

With only the southern half of the park accessible, officials limited entry using an alternating license plate system: Plates that ended in an even number would be allowed in on even-numbered days of the month; vehicles with an odd plate would be allowed on odd-numbered days.

On the morning that the southern gates opened, visitors — lined up for miles in some places — knew about the plate system. There was a little confusion at the gates. But just about everybody got it right.

July 2

After success with the license plate system, the park service restored daytime access to the north loop, minus the northern entrances, and ended entry restrictions.

“We’re pleased to reopen the north loop of Yellowstone to the visiting public less than three weeks after this major flood event,” Sholly said in a statement. “We have attempted to balance major recovery efforts while reopening as much of the park as possible.”

The park service later reported that June attendance dropped 43% compared with the year before, with 536,601 visitors. The decline, caused in part by the closure, also reflected the success of the license plate system, which prevented Yellowstone’s usual number of tourists — or anything close to it — from overwhelming the open half of the park.

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July 8

By early July, 93% of park roads had reopened — almost everything except the highways linking the North and Northeast entrances.

“I think it is nothing short of miraculous that we were able to open 93% of the park within such a short amount of time,” Sholly said at a press conference with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

He announced at the press conference that the permanent rebuilding of those northern roads would likely take three to five years. But he also outlined the plan the park had come up with to reconnect the North and Northeast entrances well before that: It would repair the Northeast Entrance Road and upgrade the Old Gardiner Road for temporary public use.

“I cannot overemphasize the impacts on those two corridors, to those communities,” Sholly told the Star-Tribune later that day. “We’re happy to have 93% of the park open, but we’re very, very focused on that 7%.”

Officials still weren’t sure when those entrances might be accessible again.

Aug. 4

Nearly a month after publicizing their preliminary construction plans, park officials announced that they would reopen the northern entrances by mid-October.

“The park asks the public to understand the differences in timelines between short-term construction solutions that will reopen the North Entrance and Northeast Entrance roads to the public later this year, and the long-term reconstruction efforts that will take place over the upcoming years,” a press release said.

Specifics about longer-term repairs, including location, timing and cost, remained hazy. The park service, focused chiefly on restoring access, said it was still weighing its permanent options.

Oct. 4

The park service postponed the completion of the Old Gardiner Road to “no later than Nov. 1” due to efforts to protect the public from steep hills and unfenced drop-offs.

Officials said in a press release that the project would “be extended up to two weeks to ensure over 5,000 feet of guardrail are properly installed for traffic safety.”

“We have set incredibly aggressive time frames for these repairs and our contractors have worked at lightning speed to get this road safely reopened,” Sholly said in a statement. “It’s essential that we do not cut corners and we ensure the road meets required safety standards prior to opening. It’s also essential that we finish the job correctly, so we avoid any problems going into next year.”

Oct. 15

Essential repairs to Yellowstone’s Northeast Entrance Road were finished on schedule, and marked the reopening of 99% of the park’s roads, according to a press release.

Construction on the road would continue “for as long as weather permits” and will resume in the spring, including on one not-yet-paved section and a short single-lane stretch, the press release said.

While the highway is now passable, the park service is still finalizing plans for permanent reconstruction, taking into account factors including cost, visibility, environmental impact and resilience to natural disasters. It has not publicly set a timeline for the project.

Oct. 30

The newly paved, two-lane Old Gardiner Road — and the North Entrance — opened for normal use on Sunday, two days early. It, too, is a short-term fix. How, and where, the primary road (which is still heavily damaged) will be modified remains up for discussion.

“Steep grades and sharp curves exist” along the temporary route, the park service warned in a press release, and “speed limits range from 15-25 mph.”

North Gate entry fees were waived on Sunday and Monday.

Timothy Hess, associate administrator of federal lands for the Federal Highway Administration, said in a statement that “it’s thanks to the strong partnership between Yellowstone National Park, the Western Federal Lands Division of the Federal Highway Administration and the Intermountain Region of the National Park Service that we were able to rapidly respond to this event and re-establish access for Yellowstone visitors, employees and gateway communities.”

Yellowstone’s North Entrance is the only gate open year-round. Most park roads close today.

Hess applauded the “dozens of men and women who have worked tirelessly to plan and execute the repairs needed to open these roads before winter sets in.”

The Federal Highway Administration, he added, is “proud to be part of this effort and will continue to support ongoing work to ensure continued access to one of our nation’s most beloved parks.”

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