By Billy Arnold
Jackson Hole Daily
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
JACKSON — Bunsen Peak, Mount Washburn, the Roaring Mountain and the beautiful road along Blacktail Deer Plateau will be ready for visitors on Saturday, when Yellowstone National Park plans to reopen its northern loop.
Yellowstone will also drop a license plate system that it used to limit visitation while only half the park was open.
All four destinations are accessible from the northern loop road, which runs from Norris Junction to Mammoth Hot Springs, Tower-Roosevelt and Canyon Junction.
The northern loop has been closed ever since historic flooding in early June wiped out the north and northeast entrance roads, leading Yellowstone officials to evacuate roughly 10,000 visitors from the park’s interior.
The south loop opened for the first time since the disaster on June 22, when the park opened three of its five entrances: the West Entrance in West Yellowstone, Montana; the South Entrance north of Jackson and Grand Teton National Park; and the East Entrance west of Cody.
National Park Service Director Charles “Chuck” Sams III said on June 20 that the northern loop would open within two weeks.
Saturday marks 13 days since Sams said as much, and 20 days since June 12 storms contributed to the flooding.
A full reopening of the northern loop has not been certain.
On Tuesday, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly told the Jackson Hole Daily he was concerned enough about overwhelming a temporary wastewater system installed in Mammoth that he was considering only a partial reopening of the northern loop. That, Sholly said, might have meant visitors traveling with commercial operators would be the only ones allowed to access the northern loop, with regular vehicle traffic allowed in at a later date.
But on Thursday afternoon, Yellowstone officials said in a press release that “temporary repairs to the wastewater systems have been evaluated and will accommodate day use on the north loop.”
“We’re pleased to reopen the north loop of Yellowstone to the visiting public less than three weeks after this major flood event,” Sholly said in the press release. “We have attempted to balance major recovery efforts while reopening as much of the park as possible.”
All visitors’ vehicles will be able to access the northern loop from the south, though lodging in the north will not open. Gas and general stores at Mammoth and Tower-Roosevelt will offer the only services.
Officials cautioned that levels remain high on the park’s waterways, and backcountry closures remain in the north because floodwaters created hazardous conditions and damaged trails and bridges.
According to the park’s backcountry situation report, backcountry trails and campsites will open to overnight use today, and trails along the northern loop will open Saturday, with a number of trails and campsites closed.
“Damage assessments and repairs are currently taking place in hopes that some closed trails may reopen later this summer,” the backcountry report said.
Sholly said he appreciated the support of the Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Federal Highway Administration, and other federal, state and local partners to make the reopening happen.
The Federal Highway Administration has authorized $50 million to help Yellowstone reconnect to Gardiner and Cooke City, Montana, its two northern gateway communities, which are still inaccessible from the park’s inner loops. Yellowstone will allow folks to walk into the park to fish and hike from both towns until they reach closed areas.
Yellowstone is also working on improving the Old Gardiner Road, a dirt road south of Gardiner, to reconnect the town to Mammoth, and to find a way to temporarily reconnect Cooke City via the northeast entrance road as well.
Sholly has said that Cooke City could be reconnected as early as the fall, ideally before winter.
Reconnecting the park to both towns “remains Yellowstone’s highest flood recovery priority,” the press release said.
The alternating license plate system will be suspended Saturday, because 93% of park roads will be open by then.
The system, operating under the assumption that half of Americans’ license plates are odd-numbered and half are even-numbered, was intended to cut visitation in half in the southern loop, when its roads were the only ones open in the park’s interior.
After a busy reopening day June 22, which saw roughly 80% of normal visitation compared with the same day in 2019, visitation dropped to about 60% of normal by the beginning of this week.
The Thursday afternoon press release said the license plate system may be reinstated in the future if Yellowstone’s roads and other infrastructure become overwhelmed.