Several thousand cars, trucks and recreational vehicles were stuck in long lines at entrances to Yellowstone National Park when it partially reopened on Wednesday morning following record flooding that reshaped rivers and canyons in the park, destroyed many roads and left some areas famous for wildlife viewing. unreachable, perhaps for months to come.
Park managers lifted the gates to three of Yellowstone’s five entrances for the first time since June 13, when 10,000 visitors were ordered out after rivers in northern Wyoming and southern Montana surged on their shores following a torrent of rain that accelerated snowmelt in the spring. The cost and extent of the damage is still being assessed, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said Wednesday.
Some of the top attractions of America’s first national park will once again be on view, including Old Faithful, the legendary geyser that shoots steaming bursts of water almost like clockwork more than a dozen times a day.
But the bears, wolves and bison that roam the wild Lamar Valley and the thermal features around Mammoth Hot Springs will stay out of reach. The wildlife-rich northern half of the park will be closed until at least early July, and major roads into the park remain cut off near the Montana tourist towns of Gardiner, Red Lodge and Cooke City.
It’s unclear how many visitors will show up immediately after the flooding, but the lines indicate that many tourists stuck to their plans despite uncertainty last week about when to reopen. Sholly estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 vehicles entered in the first few hours.
License plates at the east entrance near Wapiti, Wyoming said they were from Indiana, Arkansas, Ohio, Colorado, British Columbia in Canada and others locations. The first visitors passing by did not have to deal with other vehicles, but they did have to watch out for marmots on the road.
Park managers had braced for the crowds as the park celebrated its 150th anniversary a year after recording a record 4.9 million visits.
Muris Demirovic, 43, of Miami and his 70-year-old mother arrived at the east entrance around 5:30 a.m. Wednesday and were second in a line of dozens of cars. He and his mother, originally from Bosnia, were traveling across the country visiting national parks and Yellowstone was high on their list.
However, when they arrived it was closed due to flooding. Demirovic and his mother visited Cody, Wyoming, went to a rodeo, hiked trails and visited a museum. They had planned to leave the Yellowstone area on Monday, but stayed when they learned the park would reopen this week.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip for me and my mom, so I had to make sure she saw that,” he said.
To reduce visitor numbers while repairs continue, fleet managers will use a system that only allows cars with last even digits on their license plates to enter on even days, while vehicles with last odd numbers may arrive on odd days.
Groups of visitors traveling together in different cars are exempt from the license plate system as well as people with reservations at campgrounds and park hotels.
If traffic along the park’s 400 miles (644 kilometers) of roads becomes unmanageable, Sholly said officials will impose a reservation system to enter the park.
Along the road leading to the south entrance to Yellowstone in Wyoming, a long, slow line of cars snaked along a road with a sign flashing “Yellowstone closed” for days but Wednesday alerted drivers that the park was open but with restricted access.
“We were hoping to get there at a decent hour, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen,” Kentucky’s Gracie Brennan said, pointing to the line.
Brennan and two of her friends were traveling to Yellowstone as part of a tour of various national parks. They were supposed to be on the road to the Badlands on Wednesday but changed their plans.
“Old Faithful was the main thing I wanted to see, so if we can make it happen, whichever direction we go, it doesn’t really matter,” Brennan said.
The reopening comes as Yellowstone officials are still assessing the extent of the damage. According to other disasters in national parks, reconstruction could take years and be expensive. It’s an ecologically sensitive landscape with a massive underground plumbing system that powers the park’s geysers, hot springs, and other thermal features. The construction season only extends from the spring thaw until the first snowfall, a narrow window that means some roads could only receive temporary repairs this year.
This has turned some communities in Montana into dead ends instead of gateways to Yellowstone, a blow to their tourism-dependent economies. They are also struggling to clean up damage to several hundred homes and businesses that were submerged by flooding from the Yellowstone, Stillwater and Clarks Fork rivers.
In Red Lodge, one of those gateway towns cut off from the park, most businesses are open even as flood cleanup continues. The Montana Department of Transportation is beginning repairs to the road between Red Lodge and the scenic Beartooth Highway, and the National Park Service is working to restore access to some areas in the northern part of the park.
“We have to stay optimistic, but we also have to stay realistic that there’s a lot going on and a lot of moving parts to get there,” said Tim Weamer, who does marketing for the Chamber of Red Lodge business.
“We are optimistic about our survival,” he said. “We’re not going to have the summer we were hoping for.”
For others, the rebound may be faster. Yellowstone tour guide Derek Draimin said Tuesday he was full on Wednesday with four groups heading to the park. He expected large crowds of people hoping to be among the first inside after the rare, record-breaking floods.
Draimin lost about 25 visits to the flooding, but said he and others may have a bump as tourists who cannot enter through the park’s northern entrances are routed to West Yellowstone, where his company , Yellowstone Adventure Tours, is based.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, who came under fire last week for only revealing he was out of the country until two days after flooding hit Yellowstone and parts of southern Montana, was not at the park for the reopening on Wednesday.
Spokeswoman Brooke Stroyke said Gianforte needed to meet with cabinet members and be briefed on the flood response and recovery in his condition. Flooding is also occurring in the Flathead Valley in western Montana, where a man died Tuesday in a rafting accident on the swollen Flathead River.
Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon was also not in the park, his spokesman Michael Pearlman said.
Tiffany Jahn of Kenosha, Wisconsin, who was with her husband and daughter in line at the southern entrance to Wyoming, said she was excited to see whatever was still open and especially hoped to spot some wildlife of the park.
“We were actually coming last week and we were getting messages… saying ‘Don’t come, don’t come,'” she said. “But we were already here, so we kind of changed our plans and made it work. ”
Hanson reported from Helena, Montana. Associated Press writer Rebecca Santana at South Entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming contributed to this report.