From near and far, visitors return to Yellowstone National Park

JACKSON — At 71, Mike Newman had lived in Europe and China but never visited America’s first national park.

His wife, however, had been to Yellowstone National Park before and her husband’s oversight had become a source of “ridicule,” the retired Virginia professor said with a laugh. 

He was waiting at the park’s southern gate just before it reopened June 22. The park had been closed for a week and a half due to historic flooding that wiped out roads in the northern part of the park and led to the evacuation of 10,000 visitors.

Newman wasn’t so upset that the southern part of Yellowstone was the only part reopening. In fact, he was a bit excited, hoping to photograph some of the geothermal features.

“The southern part is where all the gee-whiz, by-golly-by-gosh things are, right?” Newman said.

When park officials swung the southern gate open, he and other waiting visitors flooded into the park, quickly heading for Old Faithful, whose boardwalks filled by roughly 9:30 a.m. 

Some, like Newman, had gotten up at 3:30 a.m. and driven from Victor, Idaho, to get in line. 

Others, like Utahans Kevin Day, 60, and his wife, CristiAnn Day, had spent the night in the pullout next to the South Entrance. 

They made it into the park first, beating out Julie Miller, 64, a Floridian on a months-long road trip who said visiting Yellowstone for the first time was a “bucket list” item. She’d wanted to be first “for the nostalgia of it.” But the Days and a few others beat her to it.

“I’m all right,” she said a bit dejectedly, when the News&Guide asked about where she’d placed in the lineup.

Still, the Florida resident had a handful of places to visit marked on maps she’d collected from friends who worked at Colter Bay in Grand Teton National Park: geysers, mudpots and the buffalo-filled Hayden Valley.

As people filtered in last Wednesday there were some incidents, like a heart attack that led to a fatality. 

One group of travelers also got off with a written warning after trying to juke the new license-plate system, which officials are using to curtail visitation and avoid overwhelming the infrastructure in the southern part of the park. The system allows vehicles with even-numbered plates on even-numbered days of the month, and cars with odd-numbered plates on odd days. The visitors in question had tried to switch the plates on their cars.

But others, like Don Hauser, 60, who was visiting from Wisconsin to celebrate his son’s college graduation, said they liked the system. It gave them certainty that they’d get in the park, so long as they had the right license plate.

“You don’t have to fight online,” Hauser said.

Critics of using license plates have said the approach makes it hard to plan around tight schedules and could prevent traveling across the park from gateway to gateway, like from Cody to West Yellowstone, Montana.

But Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly is a fan.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with how the alternating license plate system has worked,” he said, adding that he doesn’t see a reason to further cap visitation. “We think it’s doing its job, and it’s giving us a very appropriate amount of traffic in the south loop.”

On Tuesday Sholly cited preliminary numbers from the last week and said that the number of recreational vehicles that entered the park on June 22, the first day it reopened, was about 82% of normal for all of Yellowstone, using the same day in 2019 as a base year. Through the weekend, Sholly said, crowds dropped, eventually hovering around 60% of normal.

The park, he said, was not trying to get to 100% of normal, especially with the north loop closed. 

While the number of cars was still exceeding that number, Sholly said he was comfortable with how it was working. Plus, he was waiting to see how visitation changes, pointing to the last time the park closed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

When Yellowstone reopened then, Sholly said, it took a while for reservations in and around the park to build back up. Then it had a record-breaking summer.

“So I don’t want to make a judgment too quickly,” Sholly said.

He was referring to both whether the new admission system would continue to hold down visitation as the summer goes on and how gateway economies surrounding Yellowstone will be affected.

Lodging outfits in West Yellowstone told the News&Guide last week they were optimistic about the summer season after visitors began extending trips to make it back into the park. 

The Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce and managers of a Jackson RV park said they were waiting to see how the rest of the summer would play out after a raft of cancellations, extended stays and re-bookings. 

Gardiner, Montana, meanwhile, has restored drinking water and reopened highways into town. It remains cut off from Yellowstone, but park officials are working on a temporary solution to connect the community to Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone’s administrative headquarters where Gardiner residents live and work — and vice versa.

In the park Wednesday, the busiest day in the week since the park reopened, some parts of the southern loop — like Firehole Canyon Drive, a detour that allows drivers to make their way through the tight Firehole River Canyon — were closed.

Other destinations, like the Midway Geyser Basin, were packed to capacity around midday. 

Further north overflow parking for the Norris Geyser Basin wasn’t full, while there was a line at the pit toilet near Gibbon Falls. 

About an hour later, staff at the Canyon Lodge in Canyon Village were joking about how quiet their cafeteria was compared with the grill across the street. At Old Faithful crowds showed up by 9 a.m., barely an hour after the park opened, and the first visitors were waiting for one of the first eruptions after entrance gates swung open.

Tanner Mitchell, 27, the assistant cafeteria manager at Old Faithful Lodge, said things had been a bit busier than expected.

“It’s promising today,” Mitchell said. “I’m surprised about how many people have turned out.”

Outside on the boardwalks, when tantalizing spouts of water vapor burst from the geyser’s cone, the crowds hushed and raised their phones to grab pictures.

In the background, park rangers tried to keep tourists away from a bison.

“See that tail?” one ranger shouted as she shooed guests back onto the boardwalk away from the animal. “That means he’s not happy with us. Get back!”

The crisis was averted and nobody was gored while the News&Guide was in the area. But on Monday, a 34-year-old Colorado Springs, Colorado, man was gored by a bull bison near Giant Geyser at Old Faithful, park officials said. The man was walking with his family on a boardwalk when the bull charged the group.

“Family members did not leave the area, and the bull bison continued to charge and gored the male,” park officials said in a press release.

The man sustained an injury to his arm in the park’s second reported bison goring of the year. Park officials stress that visitors should stay more than 25 yards away from large animals — bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose, and coyotes — and at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves. If need be, turn around and go the other way to avoid a wild animal, park officials said.

Matthew Hines, 17, a Boy Scout from the Portland, Oregon, area, watched last Wednesday as the ranger shooed visitors away from the bison.

“Everyone’s crowding around it and they’re moving us,” he said. “But I think it’s really cool that bison can just come wherever.”

Hines had never seen a bison before — or a geyser. On Wednesday he got a two-for-one.

“It’s really cool,” he said.

Visitors like Newman said they’d spent the week before the park opened sightseeing in and around Jackson Hole. Newman and his family made it up to Yellowstone only on the last day of their visit. But Newman wasn’t so bummed about the alternative.

“That’s been wonderful,” he said. “When you get old enough, you kind of say, ‘Any plan that’s not flexible is a bad plan.’ So we just kind of adjusted.”

And he wasn’t alone.

Another couple, Pearl and Leland Bishop, had driven to visit Yellowstone from California, part of a road vacation. They got to West Yellowstone the Saturday before the park closed, but didn’t make it inside before visitors were evacuated. They detoured to Jackson, and friends they were traveling with left because their time off expired. 

But the Bishops, who had a full two weeks for vacation, stayed in the Buffalo Valley area, ate at Handfire Pizza and made the trek to Dubois, spotting grizzly bear 863, known as “Felicia,” and her cubs along the way.

“We waited a week and a half to get in,” said Pearl Bishop, 55, after Old Faithful erupted.

Her husband Leland, 54, said they stuck it out because they’d “always wanted to do it.”

His wife said she was trying to convince her son, Solomon, 10, who was tired of driving, and thought Old Faithful could have been bigger, that they were “blessed” to be there.

Solomon, for his part, knew what his favorite part of the trip was.

“Our campsite now, because I get to play pool with my dad,” he said.

After a week of waiting, the Bishops and other visitors seemed relieved to get into the park. Newman, the retired professor from Virginia, was excited, shifting camera gear around before the gate opened.

“I’ve been all over the world. But I haven’t been to Yellowstone,” Newman said. “Now I can actually say I’ve been.

“Well,” he said, rethinking his answer. “Part of it.”