Sholly: Southern Yellowstone loop could reopen next week with reservation system, northern section likely closed for season

CODY — Parts of Yellowstone National Park, including the East Entrance, could reopen as early as this week following historic flooding, while the northern portion is likely closed for the season.

Park superintendent Cam Sholly said Tuesday during a press conference, 30 hours after disastrous flooding washed out roads and other infrastructure mostly on the northern half of the park, that discussions are underway to determine when and how the east, west and south gates can reopen to provide visitors access to the southern loop of the park.

Sholly also said staff are looking at how best to ensure the lower section of the park isn’t overwhelmed, which he said could mean timed entry or reservations.

“When we open the southern loop, we’ll open the West, South and East entrances,” he said. “The southern loop we feel like we can open relatively quickly. We’re shooting for a week or less to open the southern loop. That’s contingent on an appropriate visitor use plan.”

He said park staff have been talking with gateway communities about what a visitor-use plan would look like, as he said those communities agree that letting the normal level of visitation into just half the park would be a “disaster waiting to happen.”

The northern loop will be closed off at Canyon – similar to the last two years when work was being done on Dunraven Pass – and at Norris.

Sholly said 2-3 inches of rain and roughly 5 inches of snowmelt led to rising waters that decimated large sections of the North Entrance road between Gardiner and Mammoth and sections of Northeast Entrance road connecting to Cooke City.

“We will likely not reopen the road between Gardiner and Cooke City the rest of this season,” he said. “That will likely stay closed… We’ve engaged with gateway communities: How do we take an appropriate amount of visitation and, when safe to do so, reopen the southern loop? Half the park cannot support all of the visitation.”

He said while the park is moving to a new phase after initially responding to the emergency of evacuating roughly 10,000 visitors in 24 hours, there’s a chance of more rain and warming weather next weekend that could lead to another flood event.

“This is not going to be an easy rebuild,” Sholly said of the North Entrance road. “We’ll assess whether it makes sense to build (over washed-out sections) in the future. There are multiple places where the river has changed course, potentially permanently.”

Once water levels have receded, he said the park will have teams from all over the country assessing the damage and how long and how much it will be to fix it. 

While most employees remain in the park. Sholly said they will have plenty of work to do. All visitors aside from a few known groups of backcountry campers are out of the park. 

He said Tuesday afternoon that power had been out at Mammoth and at other parts of the park for 30 hours, but power was close to being brought back to large parts of the park. 

WYDOT cleared wood that had piled up along a bridge over the Clarks Fork along the Chief Joseph Highway on Monday to relieve pressure on the bridge near Crandall after the river rose to the highest level in recorded history. 

WYDOT spokesman Cody Beers said Monday the river had risen to 8-10 feet, with water nearly flowing over the bridge itself and piling up debris along its length.

In Clark, the river flooded over a handful of low-lying county roads.

Area resident Ron Tryon, who regularly posts updates about WYDOT projects in the area, said workers had cleared a pile of wood from under the Crandall Bridge on Monday. Tuesday morning he said cold temperatures and light snow had helped drop the river flow several feet. 

Beers said Wednesday that the bridges in the area were again open.

The Clarks Fork River, which flows through Crandall and down the canyon to Clark and then on into Montana, hit historic high levels.

Even after 3 p.m. Tuesday afternoon the U.S. Geological Survey still had the Clarks Fork above flood stage at Belfry. The river rose to the highest level ever recorded by the department, according to USGS data.