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West Yellowstone on the rebound following temporary park closures

Madelyn Beck

The recent flooding around Yellowstone National Park also created challenges for gateway towns like Gardner, Red Lodge and Cooke City in Montana. That includes lost homes and possibly lost livelihoods. For travelers who can no longer access the park through those towns, there’s another Montana entrance: West Yellowstone, the most popular gateway to the park.

In late June, there were big electronic signs around West Yellowstone, Montana, to let people know: Cars with license plates ending in even numbers can enter Yellowstone National Park on even days, odd numbers on odd days.

That was to control the flow of visitors as the park repaired northern areas. Utah resident Nichole Willoughby was visiting with relatives from Missouri and California. She said her group got lucky enough to get into the park, even while a big part of it was still closed.

“So it was my mom's birthday yesterday and luckily my license plate ends in a seven so I could go yesterday,” she said. Still, she said having parts of the park closed after months of planning was “kind of a bummer.”

Since then, the parkhas announcednorthern sections of the park will be reopening on July 2 to visitors after the completion of road and bridge inspections. Its odd/even number license plate system will end that same day.

Bob Jacklin owns Jacklin’s Outfitters downtown. He’s been a fishing guide around West Yellowstone for more than 50 years, and he had never seen flooding closures like this.

The entire park shut down for several days. And at first, only the southern section reopened.

“The park means everything to this town, like the other community towns. So the minute the park opens, we're open. The minute it closes, we're closed. That's how it works,” he said.

While the park closure was unprecedented, Jacklin says West Yellowstone didn’t face much flooding, just regular high water.

At the same time, some hotels had significant cancellations.

Travis Watt is the general manager of Three Bear Lodge. He had just gotten off a call with Yellowstone Park Superintendent Cameron Sholly, and Watt says that the total number of visitors coming into the park in late June was about half what it was last year.

“I think there's a small uptick in the last couple of days. We've seen that and some other folks have indicated that as well,” he said.

Watt estimates that when the park closed, his lodge had about 30 or 40% of the usual occupancy. By early July, it was up to about 75%.

Kelley McCauley owns the Timberline Cafe, just down the street. The park closure reduced the number of customers, and it was stressful, but she directed tourists to other nearby attractions, like Quake Lake.

“We have a little map over there and we showed them all the surrounding areas, Idaho and Wyoming, places that they could go. That was outside the park. Keep busy,” she said.

While the park closure and new rules have affected these businesses, everyone acknowledges others had it much worse. Like Gardiner, Red Lodge and Cooke City.

Asked what it would’ve been like if West Yellowstone had faced the same fate of washed out bridges and a closed park entrance, many residents used the word “devastating.”

Still, some in town had quite a bit of business following the short park closure.

“We had all these people and they didn't know what to do,” said Jeannette Therien, a clerk at the Yellowstone Park Village gift shop. “And so what do people do when they don't know what to do? They go shopping!”

Some days might not have had the same number of shoppers as before, but she says they stayed pretty busy.

Overall, West Yellowstone residents say they were lucky, but there could always be earthquakes or wildfires to knock them back down again.

Therien put it this way.

“I just wish that it would bring more people to the awareness of, ‘We're not in control.’”

Make sure to check all the park’s rules and closures before you plan a trip to Yellowstone. The park expects it will open its northern loop on July 2 and will suspend license plate rules then. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, 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.

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Madelyn Beck is a regional Illinois reporter, based in Galesburg. On top of her work for Harvest Public Media, she also contributes to WVIK, Tri-States Public Radio and the Illinois Newsroom collaborative.