Yellowstone: South loop opens Wednesday, north loop in the next two weeks

JACKSON — Barely a week after floods wiped out roads in the northern part of Yellowstone National Park, officials plan to reopen the park’s southern loop Wednesday with a license plate-based system to control the amount of visitors to the park’s southern half.

National Park Service Director Charles “Chuck” Sams III also announced Sunday that officials will likely allow access to more than 80 percent of the park’s roads shortly afterward.

“In the next two weeks, we will be opening the northern loop,” Sams told a crowd of reporters Sunday afternoon, referring to the northern portion of the park’s well-known figure eight road.

When it opens, the northern loop will only be accessible from the south, Sams said. 

Due to significant damage on Yellowstone’s north and northeast entrance roads, both of those entrances will remain closed. But Superintendent Cam Sholly said commercial permit holders like wildlife tour operators may be able to take guests into the park via the Old Gardiner Road at some point this summer.

That byway is currently being upgraded as an alternative to the north entrance road connecting Gardiner, Montana, and Mammoth Hot Springs that was largely wiped out by the Gardner River’s floodwaters. 

The destruction left Gardiner largely disconnected from Yellowstone and businesses that operate out of the northern gateway town worried about the season ahead. It also separated Yellowstone employee families who live in Mammoth from the Gardiner school system, park employees who live in Gardiner from their place of work, and the southern Montana town from the park’s supplementary fire and EMS and law enforcement resources.

“We will get there, and we will get there, I think, a lot faster than people expect,” Sholly said.

The superintendent said access to the park via the northeast entrance near Cooke City is a ways off and that access to the Lamar Valley isn’t on the table yet. The park is “not going there right now,” Sholly said.

“The road between Slough Creek and Lamar is seriously compromised,” he said. “It’s not gone. It’s not as bad as the road further up towards Cooke City. But we’ll see what happens.”

The Sunday afternoon press conference came a day after Yellowstone announced that it would open the southern loop Wednesday using a license plate-based system to limit visitation. The goal is to allow reopening and protect gateway communities’ economies while ensuring park roads, bridges and wastewater systems aren’t overwhelmed.

“We can’t fit a million people per month in half of the park,” Sholly said Thursday.

Here’s how the license plate system will work:

Public vehicle entry will be allowed based on whether the last numerical digit on a license plate is odd or even.

Entrance will be granted based on odd/even days on the calendar.

Vehicles with even-numbered last digits (including zero) on their license plates can enter on even days of the month, followed by those with odd-numbered plates on odd days.

Personalized plates (all letters, for example YLWSTNE) will fall into the “odd” category for entrance purposes.

Plates with a mix of letters and numbers but that end with a letter (for example YELL4EVR) will still use the last numerical digit on the plate to determine entrance days.

Entrance station staff will turn away vehicles attempting to enter the park when the odd/even numerical digits do not correspond to the odd/even calendar date for entrance.

There will be some exceptions to those rules:

Current commercial use operators with active commercial use permits will be permitted to enter regardless of license plate number. This includes commercial tours and stock groups.

Visitors with proof of overnight reservations in the park will be permitted to enter regardless of license plate number. This includes hotels, campgrounds and backcountry reservations.

Commercial motor coaches will be permitted to enter regardless of license plate number.

Motorcycle groups may enter on even dates only.

Essential services like mail and delivery, employees and contractors may enter regardless of license plate number.

The license plate system has been described as an interim step while Yellowstone develops a reservation system for use throughout the rest of the summer. 

However, Sholly said Thursday and reiterated Sunday that if the plate-based system works, the park might not go to a reservation system.

Roughly half of the national park — the northern entrances and loop, starting at Norris on the west and Canyon Village on the east — will be closed when gates open Wednesday.

Jackson residents who dialed into Thursday’s call were generally supportive of a plan to limit visitation, though some questioned whether a reservation system was necessary and wondered whether the Jackson Hole area would actually see tourism numbers increase as visitors originally shooting to visit the northern park diverted trips to the Tetons. 

Tourists have since emailed the Jackson Hole Daily and Jackson Hole News&Guide saying a license plate-based system would be difficult to plan around, raising that among other concerns.

Gardiner residents who spoke with the Daily on Sunday wondered whether the park would cap the number of people it lets in, even under the license plate system. 

In response, Sholly said the park hadn’t decided to implement any additional caps.

“Until we get traffic in there and see how it’s going, we’re going to just stick with the license plate system,” he said.

But he and Sams, the National Park Service director, urged patience as the park figures out its new operations.

“I’m asking the American public to be as civil as possible,” Sams said Sunday. “The staff here are under a tremendous amount of stress. And they’ve done an incredible amount of work in such a short time to do the reopening.”

In two weeks, when Yellowstone opens the entire northern loop, Sholly said it will be possible to access roads from Norris to Mammoth to Tower-Roosevelt Junction to Canyon Village. As discussed Sunday, the north entrance road and road through the Lamar Valley will be closed. Sholly said that road is expected to be closed for the season.

U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney and Sens. John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis, all Wyoming Republicans, joined together in sending a letter to the Department of Transportation requesting federal assistance, according to a release from Cheney’s office.

“The delegation specifically calls on the Biden administration to provide emergency relief funds to help begin the immediate repair of critical infrastructure needed to restore park operations,” the release states.

Sholly and Sams said Sunday that Yellowstone National Park had received $50 million in Federal Highway Administration assistance to help rebuild roads. That was the agency Wyoming’s congressional delegation had asked to fund recovery efforts.