It will take months, if not years, for Yellowstone National Park to recover from the cataclysmic flooding that’s ravaged it over the past two days, the park’s top official said Tuesday.
The damage will keep the northern half of Yellowstone National Park closed to tourists for the rest of the summer, Superintendent Cam Sholly told reporters. The area includes the iconic Lamar Valley, Tower Falls and Mammoth Hot Springs.
The southern loop of Yellowstone National Park may reopen to visitors in a week or less, he added, using some type of reservation system or timed entry to control entry. Travel from Jackson was already going to be hampered by road construction. Entrances that would be reopened for the southern loop include the East, South and West gates near Cody, Jackson and West Yellowstone, respectively.
“We will not know exactly what the timelines are, what the costs are or any of that information until we get teams on the ground that can actually assess what happened and what it’s going to take to repair it,” Sholly said.
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The southern loop includes Yellowstone Lake, Old Faithful, Norris Geyser Basin and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Mammoth Hot Springs, the park’s headquarters and location of a historic hotel, cannot be reopened until the water and sewer systems have been assessed.
“Trying to put normal visitation into one loop in Yellowstone is a disaster waiting to happen,” Sholly said.
All visitors have been removed from Yellowstone, Sholly said, except for a dozen backcountry campers who have been in contact with the Park Service and are making their way out. He estimated park staff urged about 15,000 people to leave Yellowstone on Monday.
Before anything else happens, park crews have to wait for flood waters to recede enough to assess the damage and develop a plan for repairs. Assessment of the damage could be complicated because a foot of snow still remains in the Beartooth and Absaroka mountains that may send more snowmelt downstream this weekend.
“We’ve kept our teams out of harm’s way,” Sholly said, although six park workers did lose their housing when a building outside the park was washed away by the Yellowstone River.
No deaths or injuries have been reported as a result of the record-setting flooding, although one park visitor did die from a cardiac arrest in an incident unrelated to the high water, Sholly said. The historic flooding is unfolding amidst the 150th anniversary of the park’s founding.
Meanwhile, park, state and county officials are scrambling to figure out what bridges and highways near the park may need repairs.
The park’s Montana border towns of Gardiner, Silver Gate and Cooke City were temporary islands, along with nearby residential areas in Cinnabar and Tom Miner basins due to roadway damage and lost bridges.
“It’s kind of hurry up and wait to see what the national park does and what kind of federal assistance comes in,” said Patrick Sipp, manager of Flying Pig Adventures and Whitewater in Gardiner, a rafting business. “Hopefully, the Highway 89 repairs come in quickly.”
The Park Service closed all five entrances as a precautionary measure on Monday to assess the damage to its network of roads and bridges. Six washouts of the road between the community of Gardiner, at the park’s North Entrance, and park headquarters in Mammoth Hot Springs – only five miles south – could be counted in a helicopter video the Park Service posted online. Whether that road will even be rebuilt is doubtful, Sholly said. Also badly damaged is the highway connecting Mammoth to Cooke City, cutting off the only route in the park that is open year-round.
Highway 89 is the main route to Gardiner from the north and the community of Livingston. The North Entrance is the second most popular in the park.
“Many bridges and roads are no longer operational,” the Park County (Montana) Office of Emergency Management reported on its website. On Monday, the Yellowstone River was flowing atop the highway in a narrow stretch known as Yankee Jim Canyon.
The river posted a record-high flow of 510,000 cubic feet per second on Monday at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Corwin Springs gauge downstream from Gardiner before dropping to 27,800 cfs by Tuesday.
Two years ago, Sipp said his company was running rafting trips down the Yellowstone River at that water level.
“I’m an optimist,” he added. “If 89 opens up we’ll have some semblance of a season.”
With little notice or fanfare, the Montana Department of Transportation and the Park County Sheriff’s Office opened Highway 89 at Yankee Jim Canyon late Tuesday morning. The route was only open to delivery and service vehicles, residents and outbound visitors. Whether it will remain open to residents is uncertain, said Park County Commissioner Bill Berg.
Rivers are also lapping at the bottoms of bridges in the southern part of the park, but so far, the damage has been much less severe.
“It’s kind of weird being here and knowing that there’s so much going on not far north of me,” said Ryan Sedgeley, who lives in Madison Junction, inside the park. Aside from the high water, it’s the quiet and the lack of traffic jams that stand out to him most.
Sedgeley — who is married to a Park Service employee — spoke very positively about the communications he’d received and the actions the agency had taken to manage the crisis so far. “It’s comforting when you see government working,” Sedgeley said.
He’s currently running for office himself. Climate change is a big part of his platform.
“When you see these events on TV, and then they start hitting closer and closer to home … It’s real, and people are seeing it,” he said. “People here in Wyoming, I think we’ve just got to start talking about it.”
It may not be possible to rebuild the stretch of road carved away by the Yellowstone River between Mammoth Hot Springs and Gardiner. It suffered more damage than any other road in the park. And even if it can be rebuilt, officials are unsure 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.
Jason Tolman had never been to Yellowstone. Neither had his sons, ages 9 and 12.
He and his wife reserved the hotels a year in advance and booked the flights in January. On Sunday, the family flew at last from Columbus, Ohio to Bozeman, Montana, ready to spend a busy week at some of the region’s biggest attractions — Old Faithful, the Tetons, the Cody Nite Rodeo.
They made it as far as their first hotel, in Gardiner, Montana, where they squeezed in some day-one sightseeing along the north loop of the park.
“Driving through that, the water was up a little bit, and it was raining all day,” Tolman said. “It didn’t seem that bad.”
By Monday morning, they were stranded. The flooded Yellowstone River had torn away chunks of the roads they’d followed into town and through the park.
Unable to reach not only the 2-million-acre park but every town they’d hoped to visit, Tolman and his family checked out Gardiner’s downtown, watched local restaurant menus shrink as supplies dwindled and became very familiar with the inside of their hotel room.
They tried to make the best of it, Tolman said, but they were all disappointed — especially his sons, who won’t get to see most of the places they’d planned to visit. They’ve already decided to come back, but scheduling everything all over again could take a few years.
As for this trip, “it’s going to be a straight shot to Bozeman no matter what day it is,” Tolman said Tuesday morning.
Within hours, northbound travel on Highway 89 reopened for stuck visitors, and the Tollmans made their escape.
Farther to the south, Teton County Fairgrounds was a landing site for a few dozen displaced Yellowstone campers Monday.
About 38 RVs parked there overnight, according to Trista Hiltbrunner, a staff member at the fairgrounds. Some of them had come from inside the park, she said. By noon Tuesday, just a couple remained.
Cities and towns located just outside of Yellowstone were busy Tuesday connecting displaced visitors with lodging, and helping them figure out next steps.
“We really do operate as one,” Rick Howe, vice president of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, said of Yellowstone’s gateway communities.
At this point, the chamber’s mostly getting calls from people who were planning to visit the park this week, and suddenly had nowhere to go, he said. The chamber extended its phone services by three hours so it could accommodate the rush of calls. It’s now live from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
Howe said Jackson is preparing to accept more displaced travelers and evacuees, but is waiting to hear more from park officials.
Earlier Tuesday, communication from park officials was limited. But Yellowstone-themed pages and groups on Facebook — some of them aimed at tourists — were exploding with activity.
Seasoned Yellowstoners spent Monday and Tuesday diligently posting updates about the park and its surrounding cities, and fielding questions from confused tourists.
One company, Yellowstone Tour Guides — based in Big Sky, Montana — is pooling resources for travelers on its Facebook page. A post Tuesday morning pointed displaced tourists to scenic destinations across Montana, Wyoming and Idaho that were open and safe for travel.
The communities next to the park are heavily dependent on Yellowstone to drive the summer tourism season, which for two years was hampered by the pandemic and COVID-19 precautions.
On Sunday, Kara Schlabach had the busiest day of the year so far at the Cooke City coffee shop she co-owns, near the park’s Northeast Entrance. Then flooding hit on Monday and now the streets are bare of tourists needed to keep her small business alive.
“It brought tears to my eyes because it’s a ghost town,” Schlabach said. “It’s really devastating.”
On Monday, Schlabach witnessed a Florida family of eight being plucked by a helicopter using a short haul line to lift them from a flooded rental after high waters stranded them. A different helicopter landed on the town’s main street, since the landing pad was underwater, to evacuate a man suffering from hypothermia after he waded floodwaters to self-rescue.
Meanwhile, Pahaska Tepee Resort — located outside Cody, just two miles from Yellowstone’s East Entrance — is shuttered through at least Thursday.
The resort boasts cabins, a restaurant, gift shop and outdoor activities. Its oldest lodge was built by William Cody (a.k.a. “Buffalo Bill”).
Pahaska was booked at about 90% capacity at the beginning of the week, said Angela Coe, who runs the resort.
But rainfall over the weekend caused the North Fork Shoshone River to swell so much, it got into the lodge’s water system, Coe said. Staff shut off the system Monday to prevent it from getting into the resort’s tap, and sent all guests home.
The river has since receded. Coe said Pahaska Tepee is currently sending water samples to the Wyoming Department of Health in Cheyenne. The water needs to test safe two days in a row before the lodge can open up again, she said.
If all goes well, the resort will reopen Friday.
Coe said she doesn’t expect Cody’s tourism business to recover until the park’s southern region reopens, too.
“It’s gonna be a ripple effect,” Coe said.
For now, the park’s future remains a big question mark. And prospective vacationers aren’t waiting for answers, Coe said. The phones at Pahaska Tepee have been ringing nonstop with cancellations.
“People are wanting to cancel in July and August,” she said.
Deby Dixon has lived in the Yellowstone area for 10 years now. She’s captivated with its wildlife — especially the wolves — and its wide-open valleys, she said.
Like thousands of others, Dixon’s livelihood depends on helping share that sense of wonder with visitors. She photographs, leads tours and writes stories about the park. She also sublets a vacation rental in Gardiner.
But with Yellowstone’s northern region out of commission, she fears that livelihood’s been dashed.
“As a tour guide, I’m completely out of business,” she said. “As a vacation rental, I’m completely out of business.”
On Monday, Dixon recorded a Gardiner house and garage for Yellowstone park staff teetering, and finally falling, into the raging waters of the Yellowstone River. She posted the footage to her Facebook page, which has since been shared thousands of times.
Housing has long been scarce in Yellowstone’s communities. A lack of affordable, quality rentals in the region has led workers to commute from far-flung places, cram into tiny apartments or even live in cars and tents.
That housing crunch could soon reverse in some places, Dixon pointed out. If infrastructure damage proves bad enough in Gardiner, for instance, people will stop coming. She’s worried about local businesses.
Dixon was supposed to renew her lease for her vacation rental on Monday, but the flooding was so bad she couldn’t meet with her landlord. She doesn’t see a point in renting it anymore — there may not be a market, she said.
Dixon isn’t sure what her future holds. She’s thinking of relocating to another part of the country, and doubling down on her writing career. She’s working on two books right now, she said.
“I’m thinking about leaving completely for a while,” she said.