Yellowstone National Park – the vast recreational park that spans over three US states – will partly reopen after record flooding and rockslides following a burst of heavy rains that led the park to be closed for the first time in 34 years.
Officials said the world-renowned park that extends over Wyoming, Montana and Idaho will partially reopen at 8am [14:00GMT] on Wednesday, more than a week after more than 10,000 visitors were forced out of the park when the Yellowstone and other rivers went over their banks after being swelled by melting snow and several inches of rainfall.
Only portions of Yellowstone that can be accessed along its “southern loop” of roads will be opened initially, and access to the park’s scenic back country will be for day hikers only.
They would still be barred from the Lamar Valley, which is famous for its prolific wildlife including bears, wolves and bison that can often be seen from the roadside.
“That would get 75 to 80 percent of the park back to working,” National Park Service Director Charles “Chuck” Sams said Sunday during a visit to Yellowstone to gauge the flood’s effects.
It will take much longer — possibly years — to fully restore two badly-damaged stretches of road that link the park with Gardiner to the north and Cooke City to the northeast.
The closure came as Yellowstone was gearing up to celebrate its 150th anniversary year, and as local communities heavily dependent on tourism were counting on a rebound following COVID-19 travel restrictions over the past two summers.
All five entrances were closed last week to inbound traffic for the first summer since a series of devastating wildfires in 1988.
Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said that the park will be able to accommodate fewer visitors for the time being, and it will take more time to restore road connections with some southern Montana communities.
Park officials said Sunday they will use $50m in federal highway money to speed up road and bridge repairs.
Yellowstone's south loop will reopen to the public June 22; Visitors traveling to park in coming weeks must stay informed about new interim visitor entry system. View more info: https://t.co/zzoA8IuDee pic.twitter.com/yyWXpwmOzv
— Yellowstone National Park (@YellowstoneNPS) June 18, 2022
Within two weeks officials plan to also open the northern loop, after previously declaring that it would likely stay closed through the summer season. The northern loop would give visitors access to popular attractions including Tower Fall and Mammoth Hot Springs.
During a tour of damaged areas on Sunday, park officials showed reporters one of six sections of road near Gardiner where the raging floodwaters obliterated most of the roadway.
Muddy water now courses through where the roadbed had been only a week ago. Trunks of huge trees litter the surrounding canyon.
With no chances for an immediate fix, park Superintendent Sholly said 20,000 tonnes of material were being hauled in to construct a temporary, alternate route along an old road that runs above the canyon. That would let employees who work at the park headquarters in Mammoth, Wyoming get to their homes in Gardiner, Montana, Sholly said. The temporary route also could be used by commercial tour companies that have permits to lead guided visits.
“We’ve gotten a lot more done than we thought we would a week ago,” Sholly said. “It’s going to be a summer of adjustments.” The south loop includes the Old Faithful geyser and Yellowstone Lake and is accessed via the south, east and west entrances of the park. Some of its parts will remain closed.
The flooding and slides that led to the park’s closure were triggered by days of torrential showers in the park and steady rains across much of the wider Intermountain West following one of the region’s wettest springs in many years.
The park service characterised the rainfall and floods sweeping the park as unprecedented, with the Yellowstone River topping its banks beyond record levels.