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Yellowstone to reopen northeast entrance 4 months after record floods

National park officials expect it will still take years to fully recover from devastating summer flooding

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly shows National Park Service Director Chuck Sams damage to North Entrance Road. (Jacob W. Frank/NPS)
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Yellowstone National Park will fully reopen Northeast Entrance Road to vehicle traffic Saturday, four months after devastating floods cut off one of the park’s main arteries and isolated the small towns that serve as gateways into a northern section full of wildlife.

The northeast gate near Cooke City and Silver Gate, Mont., will open to vehicle traffic at 8 a.m. Saturday for the first time since the massive flooding in June, the National Park Service said Thursday. Other than a small section near Trout Lake, all flood-damaged sections of the Northeast Entrance Road, which leads from the gate to Tower Junction, have been repaved and will operate without restrictions.

With the Northeast Entrance Road reopened, 99 percent of the park’s roads are now open, the agency said. However, the latest repairs are temporary measures ahead of long-term reconstruction.

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The park’s north gate, near Mammoth Hot Springs, is expected to reopen to vehicles by Nov. 1, when the Park Service opens a newly paved Old Gardiner Road. With the former North Entrance Road completely swept away in places, the Park Service chose instead to pave and expand Old Gardiner Road as a temporary entrance to reconnect the park to Gardiner, Mont.

Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly on Thursday commended crews for restoring access from the northeast in just four months, calling it a “monumental task in such a short amount of time.”

Crews are working at “lightning speed” to complete the upgrades to Old Gardiner Road ahead of winter, Sholly said earlier in October, which include adding a second lane along its length and installing more than 5,000 feet of guardrail on what was originally a single-lane, dirt route.

The new approach road will be capable of handling the 2,000 to 3,000 vehicles per day that typically come through the North Entrance until the former road can be reconstructed, a process that is expected to take years.

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The 500-year flood event devastated parts of the park’s infrastructure just as its peak summer season was beginning in June. More than 10,000 visitors were evacuated and roads, bridges and homes were swept away by rivers swelling from snowmelt and heavy rainfall.

After briefly closing all five entrances, the park service quickly reopened southern access to the park, but the northern section took the brunt of the damage. The tourist towns of Gardiner, outside the north entrance, and Cooke City and Silver Gate, near the northeast entrance, became dead ends.

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Restoring the roads will be a years-long effort, especially in the inhospitable and environmentally sensitive conditions of Yellowstone. The Northeast Entrance Road was damaged in five sections between Slough Creek and Barronette Meadows, with a section near Soda Butte Picnic Area washed away.

The North Entrance Road, meanwhile, was washed away in multiple places and damaged by a major rockslide in Gardner Canyon.

(Video: NPS)

Park officials determined it would be impossible to repair before winter, so they chose to upgrade Old Gardiner Road, which was established in the 1880s as a stagecoach route. To make the road passable, crews had to pave the full four-mile length and build an entirely new ¼-mile section where it enters Mammoth Hot Springs because the previous road had a 12 to 15 percent grade. Those upgrades are expected to be complete by Nov. 1 at the latest.

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In the meantime, limited access to hikers, bikes and commercial tours is available through the north gate. Park officials said in August that 94 percent of Yellowstone’s backcountry had been reopened.

Restoring vehicle access between the north and northeast entrances before winter was vital because the road linking them is the only one in the park that remains open year-round. As part of the park’s regular winter closures, all other roads close on Nov. 1 and will remain closed until April or May, except for a snowmobile and snowcoach season from December to March.