After a more than month-long delay, Yellowstone National Park is open. At midday Monday, cars could begin passing through the East Entrance near Cody as well as the South Entrance near Grand Teton National Park and Jackson.
In contrast to Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, Montana Gov. Mark Bullock did not give a recommendation to open any of Montana’s gates accessing Yellowstone.
“It helps us respond to the requests of one state and other states that might not be quite ready for opening,” said Cam Sholly, Yellowstone superintendent, of the delayed openings. “We are working through what that looks like and how to increase confidence in our communities and our parks here that we can take on that much people all at once.
“There will be a point the governor of Montana recommends having those three entrances open and we will have that conversation about timing, and I’ll defer to him and his team to articulate when that might be.”
But Sholly did say during a Wednesday conference call with leaders of gateway communities in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, he “doesn’t think the Montana entrances will be far behind.” Yellowstone is working with Bullock’s staff on “mitigation measures” before opening all five entrances.
“This gives the opportunity to work with the Park Service team with a lighter amount of visitation initially,” he said. “(It) can help us understand what visitors returning to the Park and some of the gateways in Wyoming will have as far as impact.”
The west and north gates that enter from West Yellowstone and Gardiner in Montana, experience the most traffic into Yellowstone when it comes to total yearly attendance, hosting around 70% of total visitors. But the South Entrance, only open seven months of the year, actually has a higher average monthly attendance total than the north gate.
“These targeted reopenings will provide valuable experience as we look ahead to expanding operations in both parks,” Gordon said. “They will also help reawaken Wyoming’s tourism industry and help get America’s economy up and going again.”
Teton County has had one of the highest rates of COVID-19 infection in Wyoming, with 62 confirmed cases, but none of these cases are active at this time. Park County has had one of the lowest rates of infection in the state with only one case which recovered, making it only one of four other Wyoming counties to have one or fewer cases.
Gallatin County, home of the west gate, has had 149 cases, three of which are active, and two of which were announced Saturday. Park County, Mont., which houses the north and northeast gates, has had eight cases that all recovered.
What’s open and when?
Park access will be limited to day-use, and to the lower loop of roads that includes Lake, Canyon, Norris, Madison, Grant Village and Old Faithful. The northern section of roads in the Park will be closed. This includes Mammoth Hot Springs, Tower-Roosevelt and the Lamar Valley. It is not clear when these roads could be opened, but reopening materials state it may occur before the Montana gates open.
Restrooms throughout the Park and gas stations at Fishing Bridge, Canyon and Old Faithful are open. Trails and boardwalks are open, medical clinics will be soon. Smaller-scale tours for operations like fly fishing, backcountry guiding and wildlife watching will be allowed immediately, as long as groups are 10 or smaller in size.
No large commercial tour buses or camping are allowed.
Sholly said the Park will open up in a series of phases, with Monday marking the start of a “phase one” of initial services. Next, a “phase two” will be introduced, featuring campgrounds, backcountry access, stores, takeout food services, boating and fishing, limited overnight accommodations and cabins, but still no hotels.
Sholly said these two phases will last well into June, and will not be altered by the opening of the Montana gates. He did not specify when the second phase could occur but reopening documents mention it occurring either in May or June.
According to its website, Xanterra Travel Collection, the Park’s largest concessionaire, still plans to begin operations at Yellowstone on June 15, but documents related to Yellowstone’s reopening state that it will start operations during “phase two.” Concessionaire Delaware North is also listed as starting in “phase two.”
A “phase three” will include full service hotels, full service dining, large commercial tour buses, additional services and facilities. Sholly said he won’t even discuss when these liberties will be restored until later in June. He said when local and Centers for Disease Control recommendations on large gatherings are lifted and public health officials approve shared housing allowing Yellowstone to hire more staff, the conversation can happen.
“Everybody wants to get the economy moving, but we don’t want to do it recklessly,” he said.
Grand Teton National Park Acting Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail also spoke on the call, and said his park will enact similar regulations.
The Park will hire only 25% of its typical allotment of employees to start – roughly 1,000 of the 4,000 it usually hires seasonally. This will allow for self-isolation of sick employees in employee housing.
Sholly said heightened sanitation and safety measures, as well as COVID-19 signage are placed throughout the Park. Staff is at certain locations to help manage crowds.
He said the Park could consider reducing services and areas of Yellowstone if conditions warrant it.
“I will not put my staff at risk by having them attempt to socially distance large groups of visitors who decide to not adhere to social distancing guidance,” Sholly said. “I put an enormous responsibility on the public.”
On March 24, the entire Park was closed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which Sholly said he found “a considerable amount of consensus” to do.
Sholly said he worked with local public health officials, state governors and county commissioners to organize an opening that takes into consideration local input and current social distancing guidelines.
“It’s not necessarily going to be incredibly popular maybe with some of you,” Sholly said. “We’re doing the best job we can to reconcile some of that divergent opinion with our local partners. It’s important you know our goal is to be as transparent as possible.”
Sholly received approval from the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior David Bernhardt, Vice President Mike Pence and National Park Service Deputy Director David Vela to make his decision to open the Park, independently from what is occurring at national parks across the nation.
Sholly said Yellowstone still has the potential for very strong visitation mid to late summer, and pointed out September has been historically busier than May for visitors.
“We still have some of the best months ahead of us, and let’s figure out how to safely and conservatively not put ourselves in a position where we’re putting July or August or September in jeopardy because of decisions we’re making right now,” he said.
To learn more about Yellowstone’s reopening plan, visit nps.gov/yell/learn/news/upload/Yellowstone-COVID-19-Reopening-Plan-2020.pdf.