The southern half of Yellowstone National Park reopened to the public as planned at 8 am Wednesday, a week and a half after it closed due to severe flooding.
Cars were backed up half a mile from the East Gate, outside Cody, an hour before the park opened. The first RV to arrive at that gate — driven from Michigan by a family of six — had been parked in front of the gate since 10 the night before.
“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,” said Rebecca Roland, one of the rangers stationed at the East Gate as cars entered.
“I would like people to know not to cancel their reservations,” Roland said. “We’re so excited to welcome them into the southern loop. They can still see everything that makes Yellowstone Yellowstone.”
The National Park Service closed all five entrances to Yellowstone on June 13 as floodwaters washed out roads, damaged bridges and isolated gateway communities near the northern edges of the park. Tourists who’d driven across the country to visit the US’s first national park instead found themselves stranded at its gates.
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Only the southern loop will be open to tourists in the coming weeks. Repairs along the park’s northern loop, which suffered the worst damage, will take longer, though they could be completed before summer ends.
Workers “have covered immense ground and met enormous challenges to get that northern loop reopened within a couple of weeks,” Roland said. “They’ve been working day and night.”
Separated by license plate
Park officials announced on Saturday they would reopen three of the park’s five entrances — the East, South and West gates — starting Wednesday, and would limit access to the park using license plates. Because part of the park remains closed, officials are worried about capacity issues.
Plates ending in an even number are allowed inside only on even-numbered days, and odd plates only on odd-numbered days, unless they have reservations inside the park on the opposite day.
Linda Vela and four family members drove a truck and a motorcycle to Yellowstone from Louisiana. They knew when they left their home last week that the park was closed. But they, like many other families, didn’t want to cancel all the reservations they’d made.
“We were thinking… that surely by Monday or Tuesday it would open,” Vela said.
“Once they said they were going to open on Wednesday,” she added, and the family realized their car had an even-numbered license plate, “we said, ‘Well, we’ll just stay another night in Cody.’”
So far, the license plate system, which was suggested by one of Yellowstone’s gateway communities, seems like a success.
Fewer than 5,000 vehicles entered the southern loop on Wednesday, compared with 10,000 or more on a typical summer day, the park said that afternoon. Fewer than 50 of those vehicles were turned away at the gate for having the wrong license plate for the opening day.
But Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly cautioned that it’s still too early to say.
The National Park Service will continue to evaluate its approach and will “make adjustments if necessary,” Sholly said in a statement.
“We’re happy to have visitors back in Yellowstone and appreciate the patience of the public and community partners as we continue working through this difficult situation,” he said.
A grand reopening
Yellowstone was busy on Wednesday — the parking lots near Old Faithful filled within hours — but its most popular spots were nowhere near as crowded as usual.
“I feel like it’s quieter,” said Beth Mohan, a tour manager at Vacations by Rail who said she’s a fan of the license plate system. She thinks requiring timed entrances, even after the full park reopens, would make visiting more enjoyable for everyone.
“Even though (many tourists) got literature on keeping distance from wild animals, just general behaviors… they’re not paying attention to it,” Mohan said. “I think if you keep the crowds down and have less of that kind of energy, it protects you overall.”
Mohan said it took her 40-person tour group 37 minutes to enter through the West Gate. One family that left a little later in the day said they waited two hours to reach the same gate. And a school group from Missouri had a similar experience at the South gate.
Park staff said there were “major backups” — as expected — when the three accessible entrances reopened, but those traffic jams cleared by early afternoon.
It was barely above freezing near the entrances early morning Wednesday. Some tourists meandered near the lines, clad in winter coats or clutching blankets around their shoulders. Others huddled in their cars, turning them off to conserve gas and on again when it got too cold.
A nervous tension hung over the entrances until the barriers lifted, right on time, and excited shouts — “It’s moving!” — traveled through the crowd. Tourists who had come from across the country and beyond to see Yellowstone seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Progress was slow, but steady, as the thousands of waiting cars and RVs filtered, at last, into the oldest US national park.