Flooded Yellowstone roads to reopen – and gateway towns to reconnect – following reconstruction
Mammoth, Wyo., is normally one of the most crowded parts of Yellowstone. It’s home to the park’s headquarters, several hotels and restaurants, and a massive, bubbling hot springs complex with pools tinted blue, red, green and orange.
But on a recent Friday, there were almost more elk than tourists in the area. That’s largely because the six-mile road connecting Mammoth to the gateway town of Gardiner, Mont., was washed out during historic floods in June. For local residents, their community is split in half.
Sarah Ondrus, vice president of the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce, said she hasn’t been able to get into Yellowstone all season.
“My son usually goes to pre-K up in Mammoth, but he won't be attending at this time,” she said.
While the flood largely spared Gardiner's infrastructure, the economic fallout this summer was brutal. The chamber surveyed area business owners and found that the town saw only about 30 percent of its normal seasonal business.
“I have a good friend who is an outfitter. She goes into the park with horses. She was in tears of how she's going to feed her livestock throughout the winter,” Ondrus said. “I have definitely seen some heartbreak.”
Ondrus owns and operates a company that offers rafting, horseback riding and other adventures, and she rents out several vacation homes. She said she had to cut her staff from about 30 employees to 13.
“We actually had our first cancellation at lunchtime the day of the flood,” she said. “That's how eager people were to cancel.”
The park is replacing the washed out route from Mammoth to Gardiner by revamping an old stagecoach road built in the 1880s. It’s currently open for guides and other approved locals. But because the windows to pass through are only in the early mornings and evenings, school days are now 11 hours long for some students.
But that road will be open for full-time travel within the next few weeks, according to Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly. Construction crews are currently in a race against the weather.
“In October in Yellowstone, we regularly get snow storms. We regularly get very cold temperatures,” he said. “Our goal is to have that road paved and the right safety measures in place, like guardrails. We have over five thousand feet of guardrail coming.”
They're targeting Nov. 1 for opening the revamped two-lane road. Sholly calls it a near miracle that the project is on-track to finish this year.
“There's no playbook here. No one's done this, at least in the park service, this quickly,” he said.
Sholly said federal funding is a major reason for the successful rebuild. The National Park Service used $50 million in emergency relief dollars and partnered with the Federal Highway Administration to find construction crews.
Greg Jackson heads Oftedal Construction based in Casper, Wyo. The company is rebuilding the Northeast Entrance Road, which connects the park to Cooke City, Mont. That stretch will reopen Saturday, Oct. 15, meaning 99 percent of all roadways will be accessible to vehicles.
“All our guys are working six, seven days a week, 12-hour days trying to get this done,” Jackson said. “All our crews are very passionate about the park and they want to do what's right for the park and the people.”
Helicopter footage the park released last month shows the sheer amount of labor that went into rebuilding. Jackson said his company has moved the equivalent of 50,000 pickup truck loads of dirt to fill in washouts. The new roads are said to be 100 times stronger than the old ones.
Supt. Sholly said next summer he hopes to focus resources on other parts of the park that haven’t been rebuilt in over a hundred years. He’s worried those facilities won’t hold up to increasingly extreme weather caused by climate change.
“I don't really know what a 500-year flood event actually means anymore,” he said. “There's no reason that a flood of the same situation couldn't happen next year, or at least in the next several years.”
Still, Sholly said the entire park is on track to be accessible in time for next year's summer tourists, which last year numbered more than 1 million in July alone. Backcountry trails are also currently being rebuilt and are prioritized by what gets the most traffic.
Tourists can still drive right now through the northern sections of Yellowstone to see fall colors and hundreds of bison. Jim Farfsing from Cincinnati is a visitor who recently sought solitude and wildlife in the area.
“Today, we did a pretty good hike. We walked up to the top of Mount Washburn and I said, ‘You know what, as we get older we may not be able to do this,”’ he said. “It's just so nice to get in a car and go to these viewing overlooks and stuff and you can just see nature right there.”
On his way to the park, Farfsing drove through Red Lodge, Mont., one of the towns most affected by the flooding both structurally and economically.
“One end of it was still pretty devastated. I mean, kind of rocks in parking lots and fronts of buildings washed out,” he said. “We stayed at a hotel and he said their basement still was a little musty – I guess the floodwater got in and they pumped it out.”
For many businesses in Yellowstone’s gateway communities, next year is make or break. They’re hoping visitors will flock to experience what they couldn't last summer at the world’s oldest national park – and patronize hotels, gift shops and rafting companies while they're at it.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.