YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — With massive flooding in the northern part of Yellowstone National Park (YNP), officials have evacuated thousands of visitors, closed all entrances and are bracing for a potential second high-water event this weekend.
In a press briefing on Tuesday, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said heavy rains over the weekend, warming temperatures and a melting snowpack combined to create a major flood event in the northern part of the park. The Lamar and Yellowstone rivers, as well as their tributaries, swelled with water and took out several roads, buildings and bridges. The most serious damage happened between Gardiner and Cooke City, Montana, with the five-mile stretch of road from Mammoth Hot Springs to Gardiner taking the biggest hit.
Sholly said there are “conflicting predictions” as to whether another flood might happen, but with 12 inches of snowpack left in the region and forecasted temperatures in the low-80s at the end of this week, it’s possible.
While many sections of road are completely washed away, the parts that are still there might be compromised and must be assessed. In addition, hundreds of backcountry bridges need to be evaluated, water and sewer lines must be repaired and debris from mudslides and downed trees must be cleared. None of this can happen until the water goes down and it’s safe for officials to enter the park and check the damage. When rebuilding starts, some of the roads might be re-routed permanently based on the flood plain.
Sholly estimates that the north and northeast entrances will be closed for the rest of the season. Park officials are aiming to have the southern part of the park, which includes the west, south and east entrances, open in a week or less, but the situation is dynamic.
“The water is still raging. We haven’t done damage assessments, and without those, it’s hard to come up with a timeline,” Sholly said in the Tuesday press briefing. “It’s complicated and contingent upon us developing a visitor-use plan. We’re doing everything possible to come up with the right framework, but even gateway communities agree that [putting all] normal visitation in the southern loop is a disaster waiting to happen.”
The average daily visitation in June is between 15,000 and 20,000 people. Sholly says more than 10,000 visitors were evacuated from the park on Monday and several thousand were stranded in Gardiner. All backcountry users were contacted and found to be safe, with approximately 12 backcountry campers still making their way out of the park as of 4 p.m. on Tuesday. There were no injuries or fatalities related to the flooding.
Bill Berg, Commissioner of District 2 in Park County, Montana, where Cooke City and Gardiner are located, said that once roads are open, businesses in those areas will need visitors and other support, like purchasing gift certificates. As the situation develops, county and park officials will release updates on what the public can do to help these gateway communities.
“Businesses that rely on physically going into the park, like tour companies, are dreading the months and possibly years to come without access to the park,” said Nathan Varley, owner of Yellowstone Wolf Tracker, a wildlife guide service based in Gardiner.
2022 marks the 150th anniversary of YNP, and millions of people visit the park every summer. With the busy season just getting started, many of those visitors will be forced to change their plans. Berg and Sholly suggest checking out the multitude of things to do in the gateway communities and not cancelling any upcoming trips. The Wyoming Office of Tourism and Montana Office of Tourism have resources for visitors diverted from the park.
“Business projections are shot, seasonal employees are being let go, reservations are being cancelled and folks want refunds,” Berg says. “We’re trying to figure out how to hold things together. We gotta make hay while the sun shines.”