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After catastrophic flooding in Montana, Yellowstone partially reopens


More than a week after catastrophic floods closed Yellowstone National Park, the park reopened today, at least partially. Three of the massive park's five entrances can now be used by visitors, despite some major roads still being washed out. Yellowstone Public Radio's Olivia Weitz is at the park's west entrance, located just outside the town of West Yellowstone, Mont. She joins us now. Welcome.


CHANG: Hi. OK. So during a normal summer - let me see if I get this right - the park entrance you're at is usually, like, the busiest entrance at Yellowstone, right? Like, sometimes there are these long lines of cars waiting to get in. What does it look like today?

WEITZ: It opened just this morning. And when I got here, it was gridlocked, just a line hundreds of cars long between town and the actual gate. The traffic was so bad in town that the park decided to let people in early. I ended up parking in town and walking to the entrance to talk to people. And once I got to the entrance, park rangers were checking car license plates, making sure people knew about the new entry system. They're trying to limit the number of visitors for now so that things don't get too overwhelmed. If your license plate ends in an even number, you can go in on even days, odd numbers on odd days.

CHANG: OK, there's a system. And so far, does it seem like people are just going with the flow, being cooperative with the system?

WEITZ: People I talked to, they were excited. They're really grateful to be able to go into the park. But a lot of folks were really bummed, too, that they're going to be spending less time than they usually would in the park. Pat Sparacio and Fred Berg came out to see Yellowstone for the first time from New Jersey. Pat says once they got here, their plans changed completely.

PAT SPARACIO: We started out with a tour group, and we were supposed to come to Yellowstone and stay in Yellowstone, and it was closed. So they did an alternate. But we left the group. They went to Salt Lake City. We rented a car with an even number (laughter) and we got here.

CHANG: All right. OK. So the park is limiting entries with this even versus odd license plate system. And I understand that's because a big part of the park is still closed, right? Like, the only roads open now are in the southern half.

WEITZ: Yes. Yellowstone typically sees about a million visitors a month in the summer. Yellowstone superintendent says fitting that many people onto half the park is impossible. So the plan is to open most of the northern roads in a couple of weeks. That'll make a big difference. But the two northern entrances will be closed all summer or only open on a very limited basis, which means a total loss to the tourist seasons in towns like Gardiner and Cooke City, Mont. Those two towns are almost entirely reliant on park visitors.

CHANG: But for those towns, like the one you're in that are close to the three entrances that did reopen today, I guess they're going to have a busier than normal summer, right?

WEITZ: Yes. Rachel Spence, who manages a bike shop here, told me that since the closure, they've seen a 50% increase in bike rentals, a trend she's optimistic will continue. She said in the first 15 minutes they were open today, they rented bikes to two families who had odd-numbered license plates who won't be able to get into the park today.

RACHEL SPENCE: We're hopeful that more people will use that opportunity to explore things in town, like the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, the museum, our local trails that are outside. And so we're hopeful that this will maybe allow people to see that there's more to do in West Yellowstone than just the park itself.

CHANG: So it sounds like a lot of people are just trying to make the best of things and the park is trying to accommodate the best they can.

WEITZ: For now, they're going to monitor how this license plate entry system goes. If things get overwhelmed, they said they may implement a timed entry or reservation system, so see how things go.

CHANG: That is Olivia Weitz of Yellowstone Public Radio. Thank you so much, Olivia.

WEITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Olivia Weitz