WAPITI, Wyoming ( Associated Press) — Several thousand cars, trucks and recreational vehicles lined up at the entrances to Yellowstone National Park, which partially reopened Wednesday morning after record flooding that reshaped the park’s rivers and canyons, wiped out lands numerous roads and left some areas known for wildlife sightings inaccessible for perhaps months.
Park managers have opened gates at three of Yellowstone’s five entrances for the first time since June 13, when 10,000 visitors were sent out after rivers through northern Wyoming and southern Montana burst their banks after heavy rains hastened spring snowmelt. The cost and extent of the damage is still being assessed, Yellowstone superintendent Cam Scholley said Wednesday.
Some of the top attractions in America’s first national park will once again be viewable, including the Old Faithful, a legendary geyser that shoots high streams of steaming water almost like clockwork over a dozen times a day.
But the bears, wolves and bison roaming the wild Lamar Valley and the thermal features around the Mammoth Hot Springs will remain out of reach. The wildlife-rich northern half of the park will remain closed until at least early July, with key routes to the park remaining closed near the Montana tourist towns of Gardiner, Red Lodge and Cook City.
It is not known how many visitors will turn up immediately after the flood, but the queues show that many tourists stuck to their plans, despite uncertainty last week about when it would reopen. Scholley estimated that 2,000–3,000 cars entered in the first few hours.
READ MORE: Yellowstone’s recovery from floods could take years
License plates at the eastern entrance near Wapiti, Wyoming indicated they were from Indiana, Arkansas, Ohio, Colorado, British Columbia in Canada, and elsewhere. The first passing visitors didn’t have to contend with other traffic, but they did have to watch out for marmots on the road.
Park managers prepared for the crowds as the park celebrated its 150th anniversary a year after it racked up a record 4.9 million visits.
Muris Demirovich, 43, from Miami, and his 70-year-old mother arrived at the east entrance around 5:30 a.m. Wednesday and were second in line of dozens of cars. He and his mother from Bosnia traveled the country visiting national parks, and Yellowstone was at the top of their list.
However, when they arrived, it was closed due to flooding. Demirovich and his mother toured Cody, Wyoming, visited a rodeo, walked several trails, and visited a museum. They planned to leave the Yellowstone area on Monday but stayed when they learned the park would reopen this week.
“This trip is a once in a lifetime experience for me and my mom, so I had to make sure she saw it,” he said.
To reduce visitor numbers while renovations continue, park managers will use a system that only allows cars with even last digits on their license plates to enter on even days, while cars with odd last numbers can enter on odd days.
Groups of visitors traveling together in different vehicles are exempt from the license plate system, as are people who have made reservations at campsites and hotels in the park.
If traffic on the park’s 400-mile (644-kilometer) roads becomes unmanageable, officials will introduce a reservation system to enter the park, Scholley said.
Along the road to the south entrance of Yellowstone in Wyoming, a long and slow-moving line of cars snaked down the road with a sign that flashed “Yellowstone Closed” for several days, but on Wednesday warned drivers that the park was open but access was restricted. .
“We were hoping to arrive at the right time, but it doesn’t look like it will,” Gracie Brennan of Kentucky said, pointing to the queue.
Brennan and two of her friends were going to Yellowstone as part of a tour of various national parks. On Wednesday, they were supposed to leave for the Badlands, but changed their plans.
“Old Faithful was the main thing I wanted to see, so if we can get there, whichever way we go, it doesn’t really matter,” Brennan said.
The discovery comes as officials at Yellowstone are still calculating damages. Judging by other disasters in national parks, recovery can take years and be costly. It is an ecologically sensitive landscape with a huge underground plumbing system that feeds the geysers, hot springs, and other thermal features of the park. The construction season only lasts from the spring thaw to the first snowfall, meaning some roads may only receive temporary repairs this year.
This has turned some Montana communities into dead ends instead of gateways to Yellowstone, hurting their tourism-dependent economies. They are also still trying to repair damage to several hundred homes and businesses that were flooded along the Yellowstone, Stillwater and Clarks Fork rivers.
In Red Lodge, one of those towns cut off from the park, most businesses are open even as flood relief efforts continue. The Montana Department of Transportation is beginning road repairs between Red Lodge and the Bear Tooth Scenic Highway, and the National Park Service is working to restore access to some areas in the northern part of the park.
READ MORE: Climate change is ‘fundamentally’ changing Yellowstone’s ecosystem
“We have to stay optimistic, but we also have to stay realistic that there are a lot of things going on and a lot of moving parts to make it happen,” said Tim Wymer, who is marketing at the Red Lodge Chamber of Commerce.
“We believe we will survive,” he said. “We won’t have the summer we were hoping for.”
For others, the rebound may come faster. Yellowstone tour guide Derek Drymin said on Tuesday he was fully booked on Wednesday with the four groups that will be heading to the park. He expected a large crowd in the hope of being among the first after a rare and record-breaking flood.
Drymin lost about 25 tours to the flooding, but said he and others could take a hit as tourists who can’t get through the park’s northern entrances head through West Yellowstone, where his company Yellowstone Adventure Tours is based.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, who was criticized last week for not revealing he was out of the country until two days after flooding in Yellowstone and parts of southern Montana, was not in the park for Wednesday’s reopening.
Spokeswoman Brooke Stroyke said Gianforte was to meet with cabinet ministers and receive information on flood response and recovery in his state. Some flooding is also occurring in western Montana’s Flathead Valley, where a man died in a rafting accident on the flooded Flathead River Tuesday.
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon was also not in the park, spokesman Michael Perlman said.
Tiffany Jan of Kenosha, Wisconsin, who lined up with her husband and daughter at Wyoming’s south entrance, said she was thrilled to see everything that was still open and especially looked forward to catching a glimpse of the park’s wildlife.
“Actually, we came over last week and we got messages… that said, ‘Don’t come, don’t come,’” she said. “But we were already here, so we just changed our plans and made them work. ”
Hanson reported from Helena, Montana. Associated Press writer Rebecca Santana at the south entrance of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming contributed to this report.