Support Local Journalism


YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — Cars were lined up at the north gate well before 9 a.m. Monday, so the park started letting them in. The official opening was 10 a.m., but, as with the opening of the Wyoming entrances, park officials swung the gates early. They didn’t want a line stretching for miles.

Visitors paid for passes with card readers they could reach from their car. A gate attendant wearing a face mask offered a map and a newspaper. Then, cars were waved on through, the first legal visitors to the northern half of this park in more than two months.

After a closure because of the coronavirus, all five of the park’s entrances are now open. The south and east entrances — in Wyoming — opened in mid-May. The three Montana entrances opened Monday.

People came from all over. License plates from nearly three dozen states could be spotted. But parts of the park still seemed to lack the summertime buzz. At Mammoth Hot Springs, home of park headquarters, parking was easy. Traffic was steady, but smooth. People wandered the boardwalks that snake around the travertine terraces, but the sidewalks below weren’t overflowing.

Cam Sholly, Yellowstone superintendent, said that’s what he saw during the last two weeks, when the park’s south and east gates were open. Some places got busy, but the park wasn’t nearly as busy as normal.

He doesn’t expect the lull to last.

“I’m sure it’s going to get busier and busier,” Sholly said in his office Monday.

More people will mean more risk of COVID-19 showing up in the park or the towns just outside it, a possibility the park has tried to prepare for while reopening to visitors.

“It’s feasible that there will be some positive tests in Yellowstone at some point. I think it’s important that not everybody go into freakout mode when that happens,” Sholly said.

Sholly said about 50 employees were tested last week for a surveillance testing project, with results expected this week. Seasonal employees are in individual housing in case they need to be isolated. The park has spent more than $185,000 on personal protective equipment and signs urging visitors to take precautions.

Even with all that, the risk isn’t going away. But Sholly felt the park had to reopen, and plenty of people in the towns on the outskirts of the park pushed for reopening.

He said the two weeks of being partially open went well. Visitors were allowed in the southern half of the park via the south and east entrances. He grated against criticism of crowding at Old Faithful and elsewhere, saying it’s easy for those whose paychecks don’t depend on the park being open to criticize it. He also said it would be irresponsible for him to send staff into crowds to force people to stay 6 feet apart.

He said the park will monitor some of the most popular spots, like Old Faithful, but that limiting the spread while in the park is a “shared responsibility” between visitors and park staff.

“If the American public wants to see parks open, it’s incumbent on them to act responsibly to keep them open,” Sholly said.

People who came to the park Monday still found parts of it closed. Campgrounds are closed. So is the Boiling River — high water, in addition to the coronavirus.

Visitor centers are shuttered, too. Sholly said he wants to wait another week or more before opening them. The first one to open will likely be Old Faithful. They’ve already put up plexiglass barriers and started calculating how many people can be allowed inside safely. He also said it was possible that masks would be required in those buildings, a policy the concession company that runs stores in the park plans to use.

The Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel had masked staffers standing at the door, keeping track of the number of people who walk inside. The famous Map Room was locked up, but the gift shop was open. A few dozen cabins were open to guests Monday, but most overnight accommodations in the park remain closed.

Mike and Kelly Ray drove up to Mammoth on Monday. The Wisconsin couple had been camped near Cody for about a week and drove up to the northern part of the park as soon as it opened.

They said they came to Yellowstone because they wanted to “get away from all the mess.”

“It’s one of our favorite places to come,” Mike said.

Norris and Midway geyser basins had packed parking lots on Monday. Old Faithful saw its share of visitors, too. But plenty of cars passing through Mammoth turned east, out toward the Lamar Valley.

Though the road had been open for travel to Cooke City, people traveling through the Lamar were now allowed to stop and look for wildlife. A lot of people did, breaking out spotting scopes and binoculars.

Bison were everywhere. Bright red calves ran around the valley floor, next to the swollen and brown Lamar River. Pronghorn milled about, and there was talk of a black bear.

Wolves are always harder to spot. That’s what Ken and Connie Woren would like to see one day.

They live in Idaho Falls, meaning they’re locals. They know which times of year are better for visiting the park.

“We like to come on opening day,” Ken said.

Last year, it treated them well. They saw bears, bison elk and more. No wolves, though.

This year the gate opened later in the year, but the wait time once they got to West was much shorter.

They aren’t too worried about the virus. They think the country overreacted, and that it’s on people to take their own precautions. That’s what they do, and they felt OK walking around the park and talking to a stranger near Soda Butte Creek.

“I think this outdoor activity stuff is pretty safe,” Ken said.

Chronicle staff photographer Ryan Berry contributed to this report.

Support Local Journalism

To see what else is happening in Gallatin County subscribe to the online paper.

Michael Wright can be reached at or at 582-2638.