JACKSON — Sheila Lee and her family were hiking Monday in Yellowstone National Park when their phones pinged with alerts about the park’s entrances closing.
“We finished what we were doing for the day, and we didn’t think too much about it, but it felt a little weird,” Lee said.
Then the Indiana resident, who was visiting the park with her husband, Ronald, and daughter, Kristina, returned to the family’s camper, parked at the Fishing Bridge RV Park on the edge of Yellowstone Lake.
“There was a note on our camper saying ‘The National Park Service has closed Yellowstone,’” Lee said. “‘You have to evacuate.’”
So they did, joining a stream of other visitors who made their way out of the park Monday afternoon, after catastrophic flooding ripped apart roads in the northern stretches of the park, took out bridges beyond its northern border, and isolated gateway communities in Montana. Some, like Lee, ended up traveling out the South Gate through Jackson Hole, where they were slated to go five days later. Without campground reservations they were out of luck. But they found their way to the Teton County Fairgrounds, which the county, town of Jackson and local law enforcement decided to open for people evacuated from the park. Dubois also opened two places within city limits for displaced campers.
In Teton County it wasn’t all that glamorous. Around 9 p.m. Monday about 20 cars and RVs had pulled in, the majority being trucks pulling travel trailers. There weren’t showers or running water. Ditto sewer or electric hookups. Campfires weren’t allowed. And people were expected to pick up after themselves for what was expected to be a one-night-only offer that came as hotels around town quickly filled up. Late Tuesday the county once again made the fairgrounds available.
For the people who stayed there, it was a lifeline.
“We are so grateful the city has opened this up to us,” Rick Gilmore said.
Gilmore is a Coloradan traveling with his wife and 6-year-old granddaughter, who would have been visiting Yellowstone for the first time. She’s one of eight grandchildren who Gilmore and his wife take on a special trip when they graduate kindergarten.
“We’ve been talking up the bears and the bison, she’s a big animal lover,” Gilmore said.
But they were unable to enter the park Monday.
Gilmore said her granddaughter is disappointed at the change of plans.
The trio was supposed to camp at the north end of Yellowstone Lake. But for now they’ll stay in Jackson for three nights before heading south and back to Colorado.
Some campers told the News&Guide that, as they were leaving Yellowstone and coming through the south entrance, they passed a line of cars waiting to get back in.
“There’s probably 20 cars parked there and they all have like the yellow sticker that indicates they have a trailer inside the park,” said Carrie Downing, who also had been staying in Fishing Bridge with her family when they received a notice to evacuate.
“I’m sure that those are people that came out into the Tetons for the day and were going to go back in there,” Downing said. “That would really stink. I feel for those people.”
Those who left the park didn’t say it was all that chaotic, at least coming down from the South Entrance. Sarah Schmall, who was visiting from Minnesota with her family, said the exit was relatively smooth, despite rumors Monday afternoon that the south entrance was closed.
“You could go out,” she said, “but you couldn’t go in.”
The kids had been relatively nonplussed by the trip, Schmall said.
Her daughter, Hayley, confirmed that: “It looked like a bunch of rocks.”
“Now they definitely have a story,” the elder Schmall said, laughing from the door of her trailer.
Other people did too.
Lucien LaPierre had driven all the way from South Carolina to see Yellowstone for the first time, timing his trip to coincide with the park’s 150th anniversary. He’s now retired from his work in nuclear power plants and made his way up to the national park from Colorado, putting 4,000 miles on his blue GMC truck, which towed his Winnebago. He spent time in the park Sunday — and got a collectable stamp — before camping 40 miles from the park’s East Entrance.
On Monday LaPierre was turned away before entering around 10 a.m.
“I got my stamp Sunday but Monday, the rain was really pouring down,” LaPierre said. “It was kind of ugly driving out there. I’m from the East Coast so I’m used to it, but you could tell people were terrified, driving 20 miles an hour.
“We were driving through sleet, and I could see trees freshly broken off that the road crews had already cleared to the side.”
The Southern tourist came out West with no reservations so he had nothing to alter or change other than his expectations.
“Now I’m just going with the flow, I’m going to spend more time in Grand Teton National Park and go down some side roads,” LaPierre said. “It just adds to the adventure.”
Others also decided they’d stay in the Jackson area, like Orlando Utc, an Argentinian native who now lives outside Los Angeles.
“It’s our fifth time in this area,” Utc said. “We’re not really going to change anything, we decided to do some hiking here, and we may bike to Jenny Lake.”
For the Lees, their three-week vacation, something they’d been planning for years, was in jeopardy of being cut two weeks short.
“I mean, not stressed, I’m a little disappointed,” Sheila Lee said. “You can’t help weather, but I’m just disappointed.”
But watching a video of a house in Gardiner, Montana, being swept away Monday by the flooding Yellowstone River put things in perspective.
“Somebody just lost their house,” she said. “We just lost a little trip.”
Utc was disappointed with the lack of camping options inside the national park after he and his wife were turned away from the South Entrance on Monday morning.
“There’s so many more people, but no new facilities or campgrounds,” Utc said. “We tried to find a place tonight but everywhere was taken. But this option is wonderful, I really congratulate the city. You can see they appreciate the tourist.”
Visiting from Lancaster, New York, Marie Synrod and her husband, Jerry, were on their first trip to Yellowstone but were turned away before entering through the West Gate. It wasn’t their first extreme weather event since setting off on their trip, and she joked that they were the cause.
“I think it’s us,” Synrod said. “We had a tornado in Hardin, Montana. We were driving and it was about 30 minutes in front of us on Saturday. We could feel the wind and see the signs twisting up and the power went out in Hardin.”
She said they’re “practicing” for retirement and were similarly effusive with gratitude.
“I feel so blessed” were the first words out of Marie’s mouth. “We feel really welcome and safe.”
The Synrods camped 40 miles north of Yellowstone’s West Gate on Sunday night, alongside the Gallatin River.
“The Gallatin River was gushing,” Synrod said. “I was scared to drive next to it. It was thundering. The camp host said he’d never seen it like that and he’s been there for 12 years.”
Synrod said they planned to stick around for a few days to see if they could get into the lower end of the park. But Tuesday evening, park officials announced all gates would remain closed at least through the weekend.