Parts of Yellowstone National Park are set to reopen to a limited number of visitors on Wednesday, officials said, a week after historic flooding prompted the evacuation of thousands of people and the park’s closure at the start of the summer tourist season.
The National Park Service announced on Saturday that it would reopen the eastern, southern and western entrances to the park, which encompasses more than two million acres, mostly in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. The reopening will allow visitors to access the south loop of the park, which includes the Old Faithful geyser. The northern section of the park and its entrances, which were damaged more severely by flooding, will remain closed indefinitely.
“We have made tremendous progress in a very short amount of time but have a long way to go,” the park’s superintendent, Cam Sholly, said in a statement.
This week would ordinarily have seen tens of thousands of visitors kick off their summer vacations in the park, which turns 150 years old this year. Instead, officials are still sifting through the destruction that began the weekend of June 11, when two to three inches of rain combined with warming temperatures to melt up to five inches of snow, causing flooding that destroyed roads and bridges throughout the park.
By the afternoon of June 13, citing “extremely hazardous conditions” and “unprecedented” rainfall, park officials had announced that all entrances to the park would be closed, and that they would begin evacuating people who were inside.
Much of the worst damage is in the park’s northern section, and officials have provided no timeline for when it might fully reopen. Portions of a key road along the Gardiner River in Montana were washed away entirely, leaving communities and businesses cut off from the rest of the park. Other roads remain closed because of mudslides, missing bridges or downed trees, officials said.
Under the new entry system, visitors will be allowed to enter the park based on the last digit of their vehicle’s license plate. Odd numbers will be allowed in on odd dates, and even numbers will be allowed in on even dates. Visitors with reservations will be allowed in regardless of their license plate number.
The park service said it had worked with local businesses and residents to manage the demand for access against the damage caused by the rain and floodwaters. The license plate system was suggested by people who live near the park, it said, and its efficacy would be reviewed within a month.
Last year was the busiest on record for Yellowstone, as visitors flocked to outdoor recreation amid the coronavirus pandemic. Last July, it saw more than one million visitors, a monthly record.
While it is difficult to directly connect this month’s damage at Yellowstone to climate change, scientists have warned that the changing environment will significantly reshape U.S. national parks in the coming years. Last year’s federal infrastructure bill included $1.7 billion in funding for national parks, meant in part for climate mitigation projects like relocating trails from flood zones.