Crowds flock to Yellowstone as park reopens after flooding

Crowds of tourists watched in delight as the legendary Old Faithful geyser fired towering bursts of steaming water while others got stuck in ‘buffalo jam’ on the scenic valley roads as visitors returned Wednesday for the partial reopening of Yellowstone National Park after destructive flooding.

Park managers lifted the gates to three of Yellowstone’s five entrances for the first time since June 13, when 10,000 visitors were ordered out after rivers in northern Wyoming and southern Montana surged on their shores following a torrent of rain that accelerated snowmelt in the spring. The cost and extent of the damage is still being assessed, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said Wednesday.

Empty roads and parking lots quickly became busier mid-morning as around 5,000 vehicles entered the park after crossing long queues that stretched for miles (kilometres) at an early gate the morning. However, the backups had disappeared by early afternoon and the number of visits was lower than on a normal summer day which attracts around 10,000 vehicles, park officials said in a press release.

Paul Nithyanand from Chennai, India gathered around Old Faithful with 1,500 people in the afternoon to see it burst. Nithyanand was touring the western United States with his brother and had seen the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas before, but said nothing about his trip to Old Faithful.

“It’s awesome,” said Nithyanand, who was so impressed he waited about 80 minutes to see it burst again. “I’ve seen it in movies and on YouTube, but seeing it live is amazing.”

A bison walks past people watching the eruption of Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park, closed for more than a week, June 22, 2022 in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Lonnie and Graham Macmillan from Vancouver, Canada, were among those who witnessed a so-called “buffalo jam” where a group of burly animals crossed the road. The bison sighting capped off a successful morning during which they had already seen two moose and numerous deer.

They showed up at the park last week, only to be turned away as it was being evacuated. They diverted to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota for a few days, then to the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming before returning to Yellowstone as soon as the opportunity arose.

“The purpose of our trip was to come here,” said Lonnie Macmillan. “We weren’t going to go home until we got here.”

The record flooding reshaped the park’s rivers and canyons, wiped out many roads and left some areas famous for their wildlife viewing inaccessible, perhaps for months to come. It struck just as a summer tourist season that draws millions of visitors intensified as the park celebrated its 150th anniversary a year after recording a record 4.9 million visits.

RELATED: Scale of catastrophic damage along Yellowstone River emerges as historic floodwaters recede

Some of the top attractions of America’s first national park were once again on view, including Old Faithful, which shoots steaming bursts of water almost like clockwork more than a dozen times a day.

But the bears, wolves and bison that roam the wild Lamar Valley and the thermal features around Mammoth Hot Springs will stay out of reach. The wildlife-rich northern half of the park will be closed until at least early July, and major roads into the park remain cut off near the Montana tourist towns of Gardiner, Red Lodge and Cooke City.

Muris Demirovic, 43, of Miami and his 70-year-old mother arrived at the east entrance around 5:30 a.m. and were second in a line of dozens of cars. He and his mother, originally from Bosnia, were traveling across the country visiting national parks and Yellowstone was high on their list.

However, when they arrived it was closed due to flooding. Demirovic and his mother visited Cody, Wyoming, went to a rodeo, hiked trails and visited a museum. They had planned to leave the Yellowstone area on Monday, but stayed when they learned the park would reopen.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip for me and my mom, so I had to make sure she saw that,” he said.

In this photo provided by the National Park Service, North Entrance Road is washed away by flooding in Yellowstone National Park June 15, 2022 in Gardiner, Montana. (Photo by Kyle Stone/National Park Service via Getty Images)

To limit the number of visitors while repairs continue, park managers use a system that, with few exceptions, only allows cars with last even digits on their license plates to enter on even days, while vehicles with odd last numbers may arrive odd. days.

Park rangers had to turn away less than 1% of people lined up due to license plate issues, and they turned them away before they stood in long lines to enter the park, Sholly said.

If traffic along the park’s 400 miles (644 kilometers) of roads becomes unmanageable, Sholly said officials could switch to a reservation system.

The reopening comes as Yellowstone officials are still assessing the extent of the damage. Based on other national park disasters, it could take years and be expensive to rebuild. It’s an ecologically sensitive landscape with a huge underground plumbing system that powers the park’s geysers, hot springs, and other thermal features. The construction season only extends from the spring thaw until the first snowfall, a narrow window that means some roads could only receive temporary repairs this year.

This has turned some communities in Montana into dead ends instead of gateways to Yellowstone, a blow to their tourism-dependent economies. They are also struggling to clean up damage to several hundred homes and businesses that have been submerged by the floods.

Sholly said he initially thought the damage was worse than it actually is, but stressed it was still severe in some areas of the park. This includes what he called “catastrophic” damage to a road near Gardiner, Montana, which cannot be rebuilt in the same canyon.

RELATED: Yellowstone Peak renamed: ‘offensive’ old name, says park service

“It could have been a lot worse,” Sholly said. “But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t super bad and that doesn’t mean it’s not going to take a long time to get over it.”

Montana Governor Greg Gianforte, who was criticized last week for not revealing he was out of the country until two days after the flood, was not at the park for Wednesday’s reopening. Spokeswoman Brooke Stroyke said Gianforte needed to meet with cabinet members and be briefed on the flood response and recovery.

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon was also not in the park, his spokesman Michael Pearlman said.

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Tiffany Jahn of Kenosha, Wisconsin, who was with her husband and daughter in line at the southern entrance to Wyoming, said she was excited to see whatever was still open and especially hoped to spot some wildlife of the park.

“We were actually coming last week and we were getting messages… saying ‘Don’t come, don’t come,'” she said. “But we were already there, so we kind of changed our plans and made it work.”

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