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Visitors line up for Yellowstone’s partial reopening after devastating floods

Three of the national park’s five entrances have opened as the damage is still being assessed after rare and record flooding

A child hanging out of the window of a white truck raises his arms in glee in front of the log cabin shack at the entrance to Yellowstone national park.
Hundreds of visitors lined up for the reopening of Yellowstone national park after record flooding destroyed roads, bridges and buildings earlier this month. Photograph: George Frey/Getty Images
Hundreds of visitors lined up for the reopening of Yellowstone national park after record flooding destroyed roads, bridges and buildings earlier this month. Photograph: George Frey/Getty Images

Park managers raised the gates at three of Yellowstone national park’s five entrances on Wednesday, reopening part of America’s oldest park for the first time since a devastating deluge caused historic floods that destroyed roads, bridges and buildings earlier this month.

Hundreds of cars, trucks and recreational vehicles lined the open entryways in anticipation, an indication that many visitors stuck to their plans despite uncertainty last week about when the park would reopen. Before the extreme weather, park managers were already bracing for the throngs of tourists expected this summer, following its busiest year on record, which drew more than 4.8 million people.

But much of the park is still in recovery and will be for months to come. The cost and scope of the damage is still being assessed after rivers across northern Wyoming and southern Montana surged over their banks as warming weather flushed melting snow into the waterways and a torrent of rainfall dropped up to three months-worth of summer rain over the span of just a few days, according to an accounting done by CNN.

“We have made tremendous progress in a very short amount of time but have a long way to go,” said Cam Sholly, Yellowstone national park superintendent, in a statement, adding that officials have “an aggressive plan for recovery in the north and resumption of operations in the south”.

Cars, trucks and recreational vehicles line up next to a row of cones at Yellowstone’s entrance.
Vehicles line up outside one of the three open entrances at Yellowstone national park on Wednesday. Photograph: Matthew Brown/AP

An initial $50m has been dedicated to recovery in the park, announced Chuck Sams, National Park Service director, on Monday as he visited the region, and plans are in place to ensure roughly 80% of Yellowstone will open in the next two weeks.

Based on other national park disasters, full recovery could take years and carry a steep price tag. Construction season only runs from the spring thaw until the first snowfall, a narrow window that means some roads could receive only temporary fixes this year.

To keep visitor numbers down while repairs continue, park managers will use a system that only allows cars with even-numbered last digits on their license plates to enter on even days, while vehicles with odd-numbered last numbers can come on odd days. Groups of visitors traveling together in different cars are exempt from the license plate system as well as people with reservations at campgrounds and hotels in the park.

If traffic along the park’s 400 miles (644km) of roads becomes unmanageable, officials will impose a reservation system to enter the park.

“It is impossible to reopen only one loop in the summer without implementing some type of system to manage visitation,” Sholly said, thanking the gateway partners who he said helped work on the temporary solution. “As we go through the reopening process, we will monitor the system’s effectiveness and work together to make adjustments that may be necessary. We will also reopen new sections of the park as repairs continue to be made.”

Some of the premier attractions are already viewable, including the legendary geyser Old Faithful. Already, the surge in sightseers has helped some in the local recreation industry bounce back.

A bison walks past a crowd of people who have turned their backs on the Old Faithful Geyser, steaming in the background, to watch it. A wood sign in the foreground reads ‘Old Faithful geyser’.
The legendary Old Faithful geyser is open to visitors again at Yellowstone national park, although the park’s wildlife may be sparse. Photograph: George Frey/Getty Images

Yellowstone tour guide Derek Draimin said he had lost about 25 tours because of the flood but he was fully booked up on Wednesday with four groups that will be headed into the park. He expected large crowds of people hoping to be among the first inside after the rare and record flooding.

But the bears, wolves and bison that roam the wild Lamar Valley and the thermal features around Mammoth Hot Springs will remain out of reach. The wildlife-rich northern half of the park will be shuttered until at least early July, and key routes into the park remain severed near the Montana tourist towns of Gardiner, Red Lodge and Cooke City.

The destruction has turned some Montana communities into dead ends instead of being gateways to Yellowstone, a blow to their tourism-dependent economies.

In Red Lodge, one of those gateway towns cut off from the park, most businesses are open even as flood cleanup continues. The Montana department of transportation is beginning repairs to the road between Red Lodge and the scenic Beartooth highway and the National Park Service is working to restore access to some areas in the northern part of the park.

“We have to remain optimistic, but we also have to remain realistic that there’s a lot of things going on and a lot of moving pieces to make it happen,” said Tim Weamer, who does marketing for the Red Lodge Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re optimistic that we’ll survive,” he said. “We’re not going to have the summer we were hoping for.”

The Associated Press contributed reporting