Mammoth, Wyo., is normally one of the most populated parts of Yellowstone. It’s home to the park’s headquarters, several hotels and restaurants, and a massive bubbling hot springs complex with pools tinged with 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 from Mammoth to the gateway town of Gardiner, Montana was washed out during historic floods in June. For local residents, their community is split in two.
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 at Mammoth, but he won’t be there then,” she said.
While the flooding largely spared Gardiner’s infrastructure, the economic fallout this summer has been brutal. The chamber surveyed area business owners and found that the city saw only about 30% of his normal seasonal activity.
“I have a good friend who is a provider. She goes to the park with horses. She was in tears about how she was going to feed her cattle through the winter,” Ondrus said. “I’ve definitely seen heartaches.”
Ondrus owns and operates a business that offers rafting, horseback riding, and other adventures, and she rents out several vacation homes. She said she had to cut her staff from around 30 employees to 13.
“We actually had our first lunchtime cancellation on the day of the flood,” she said. “That’s how people were eager to cancel.”
The park replaces the washed-out road from Mammoth to Gardiner by redeveloping an old stagecoach road built in the 1880s. It is currently open to licensed guides and other locals. But because the windows to go through are only early morning and evening on school days now last 11 hours for some students.
But that route will be open to full-time travel in the coming weeks, according to Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly. Construction crews are currently in a race against the weather.
“In October in Yellowstone, we regularly have snow storms. We regularly have very cold temperatures,” he said. “Our goal is to have this road paved and the right safety measures in place, like guardrails. We have over five thousand feet of guardrails coming.
They are targeting Nov. 1 for the opening of the revamped two-lane road. Sholly calls it a near-miracle that the project is on track to wrap up this year.
“There is no playbook here. Nobody did that, at least in the park service, that quickly,” he said.
Sholly said federal funding is a big reason for the rebuilding success. The National Park Service used $50 million in emergency relief dollars and partnered with the Federal Highway Administration to find construction crews.
Greg Jackson runs Oftedal Construction based in Casper, Wyo. The company is rebuilding the northeast entrance road, which connects the park to Cooke City, Montana. This section will reopen on Saturday October 15, which means that 99% of all roads will be accessible to vehicles.
“All of our guys are working six, seven days a week, 12 hours a day to try to achieve that,” Jackson said. “All of our crews are very passionate about the park and they want to do what’s good for the park and the people.”
Helicopter pictures the park released last month shows the amount of work needed to rebuild. Jackson said his company moved the equivalent of 50,000 truckloads of dirt to fill the washes. The new roads would be 100 times stronger than the old ones.
Supt. Sholly said next summer he hopes to focus his resources on other parts of the park that haven’t been rebuilt in over a hundred years. He worries about these facilities will not withstand the increasingly extreme weather conditions caused by climate change.
“I don’t really know what a 500-year flood really means anymore,” he said. “There’s no reason why a flood of the same situation shouldn’t happen next year, or at least in the next few 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 a million in July alone. Backcountry trails are also being rebuilt and are being prioritized based on what attracts the most traffic.
Tourists can still drive through the northern sections of Yellowstone right now to see fall colors and hundreds of bison. Jim Farfsing from Cincinnati is a recent visitor who sought solitude and wildlife in the area.
“Today we had a pretty good hike. We hiked to the top of Mount Washburn and I said, ‘You know what, as we get older, we might not be able to do this,'” a- “It’s so nice to get in a car and go to these lookouts and stuff and you can just see nature right there.”
On the way to the park, Farfsing passed through Red Lodge, Montana, one of the towns hardest hit by the floods, both structurally and economically.
“One end was still pretty devastated. I mean, kind of boulders in parking lots and washed away building facades,” he said. “We stayed at a hotel and he said their basement was still a bit moldy – I guess flood water got in and they pumped it out.”
For many businesses in Yellowstone’s gateway communities, the next year is a watershed one. They hope visitors will flock to experience what they weren’t able to do last summer in the world’s oldest national park – and frequent hotels, gift shops and rafting companies while they’re there. are.
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 throughout the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.