About 10,000 people enter Yellowstone on its first day back post-floods

JACKSON — When Yellowstone National Park officials evacuated visitors last week after historic floods, Julie Miller, 64, was discouraged.

After taking a buyout from her employer, Miller had taken off from Fort Myers, Florida, in a van with her husband. The goal: a months-long road trip, knocking off “bucket list” items like visiting Yellowstone on the way. The floods derailed her plans to get into Yellowstone last week, but she holed up in Jackson with friends at Colter Bay.

“I’d rather have it shut down and be safe, and wait for it to reopen,” Miller said.

And that’s exactly what she did, waking up at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, driving to Yellowstone’s South Entrance and nabbing what looked like a second-place spot in line to enter the park. That, she said, was “all right,” even though Miller had wanted to get there first for the “nostalgia of it.”

She and others waiting in line at the South Entrance before gates opened around 7:45 a.m. Wednesday drove some of the 5,000-odd cars that entered the park, carrying an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 people, according to Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly.

Sholly said 5,000 vehicles entering the park in one day is about half of normal for this time of year, which is the goal of the license-plate-based admission system officials cooked up to limit visitation as Yellowstone repairs damage in its northern half.

When gates opened Wednesday morning, officials opened only the 200 or so miles of roads in the south loop — about half of the roads in the park. The north loop and north and northeast entrance roads, which floodwaters destroyed, were inaccessible.

By allowing only vehicles with even-numbered plates to enter Wednesday — under the new system, vehicles with even-numbered plates will be able to enter on even days of the month, and those with odd-numbered plates can enter on odd days — officials aimed to cut visitation. 

The goal was to allow visitors in and bolster gateway communities’ economies while minimizing stress on Yellowstone’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

On Wednesday afternoon, Sholly was optimistic about the first day.

“So far I’m pleasantly surprised,” he told the Jackson Hole Daily. “At least on the first day, the system did what it was supposed to do, which is cut the traffic in half from normal numbers.”

Though long lines of cars snaked out of the West, South and East entrances early in the morning before the park officially opened, Sholly said the lines had mostly cleared by noon, including in West Yellowstone, which is notorious for long wait times to enter the park.

“By midday at 12:30, there were only 20 cars in line at West Yellowstone,” he said.

Sholly also said that visitors largely complied with the new license plate system, which officials have said could be a temporary fix while they develop a more formal reservation system.

The superintendent told the Daily that the reservation system is “on the shelf.” He has previously said that, if the license plate system works, he may not spring for the more formal reservation system.

By 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sholly said, the park had turned away only 50 cars out of roughly 5,000 for having incorrect license plates.

“That’s an astronomically high compliance rate,” he said. “So we really appreciate the public for being informed and paying attention.”

Sholly did, however, say that there had been some incidents, including one group of people switching license plates from an even-numbered car to an odd-numbered car, trying to game the system. Those people got a verbal warning, he said, but he cautioned others against doing so.

“That is a crime, and if it happens we will ticket them and impound their vehicles,” Sholly told the Daily.

The 10 groups of people that spoke with the Daily on Wednesday in Yellowstone said they were largely happy with the system.

Other potential visitors have emailed the Daily worrying that it’s too difficult to plan around, among other concerns.

Still, Don Hauser, 60, of Superior, Wisconsin, was pleased with the system when he chatted with a reporter while hanging out by the Grand Prismatic Spring. Hauser said he thought it was much better than a reservation system because it avoided the digital world.

“You don’t have to fight online,” he said.

Sholly, for his part, acknowledged that “simplicity and predictability” was a benefit of the license plate system.

“That’s the thing with a reservation system,” he said. “You might be able to get one, you might not.”

Traffic and crowds were relatively moderate throughout the southern loop Wednesday. While the Old Faithful parking lot filled up shortly before noon and a line of traffic heading south toward the famous geyser from Norris shortly after, the northern parts of the south loop were relatively quiet. 

There was a line at the pit toilet near Gibbon Falls but, around 12:30 p.m., there were no cars in the overflow lot near Norris Geyser Basin. About an hour later, staff at the Canyon Lodge in Canyon Village were joking about how quiet their cafeteria was compared with the grill across the street.

Sholly said there had been some problems. 

Some people who made reservations at the Madison Campground, which is closed, were allowed to enter the park, but not stay. The Daily watched a bison approach Old Faithful and visitors get chased away by park rangers, avoiding any dangerous human-horn contact. 

And one person had a heart attack and later died, Sholly said.

“We have 700 to 1,000 medical calls every year in the park,” Sholly said, describing the death as “very tragic.

“But that’s part of running the operation,” the superintendent said. “Any time you’re bringing tens of thousands of people into a place, thousands of people anyway, you’re going to have law enforcement incidents and EMS incidents.”

Chris Cafiero, 40, was one of the 10,000 or so people who entered Yellowstone on Wednesday.  He was visiting from France and catching up with his friends, Mike and Charlotte Moulager, both 40, who now live in Utah. 

The three friends and the Moulagers’ daughter, Celie, 11, were waiting in line around 7 a.m. Wednesday, excited to enter the park for the first time. Cafiero said they were expecting “some beautiful landscapes, maybe some wildlife as well.”

“We know that north of the park is closed,” he said. “But the south is good enough.”