Road work that’s meant to restore access between Yellowstone National Park and the gateway towns to its north and northeast is expected to wrap up by mid-October, officials announced last week.
After a 500-year flood event damaged roads and infrastructure around the park in mid-June, crews have been repairing sections of the Northeast Entrance Road and conducting major improvements along Old Gardiner Road.
The work is intended to temporarily restore vehicle access between Gardiner, Cooke City/Silver Gate and Yellowstone’s interior while park officials look toward long-term solutions.
Along the Northeast Entrance Road, there are approximately five damaged road segments between Slough Creek and Barronette Meadow, and construction along them is about to accelerate, park officials wrote in a news release.
Park staff are predicting that regular vehicle traffic will be able to use the route by Oct. 15, though the road work will likely continue beyond that date, depending on the weather.
At the same time, crews are making progress on a project to widen Old Gardiner Road near the north entrance of Yellowstone. The project is intended to provide a temporary alternative route connecting Mammoth Hot Springs and Gardiner.
About 1.5 miles of the 4-mile route have already been expanded to two lanes, and crews are conducting substantial culvert work, slope stabilization and retainment, according to the National Park Service.
Officials expect that regular traffic will be able to use the road by Oct. 15. They wrote in the release that the road will serve as a primary access route until a permanent route is established in upcoming years.
Along with the temporary solutions, the park service is looking toward long-term reconstruction options along the North Entrance and Northeast Entrance roads — a process that will likely take multiple years.
The agency is working with the Federal Highway Administration to come up with a range of options that are “least environmentally impacting, least visually impacting, most resilient to future natural disasters,” most expeditious and cost effective,” staff wrote.
“Timelines for long-term reconstruction will be predicated on which alternative is selected,” they wrote. “The public will have ample opportunities to comment as this planning process proceeds.”
People can still access the park from Gardiner and Cooke City/Silver Gate by foot, bicycle and horseback in approved areas. About 94% of Yellowstone’s backcountry is open and 93% of park roadways have reopened.
Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said he has a high degree of confidence that crews will hit the Oct. 15 target along both road corridors, and traffic will be able to pass through them before the snow sets in.
Half of the work along Old Gardiner Road has been completed, and while the winter season sometimes arrives early, Sholly said there’s a good chance that the weather will be conducive between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15.
On the off chance that snow accumulates early or crews can’t complete the road work in time, contingency plans are in place. Park staff are working with Montana and Wyoming to ensure that people in Cooke City and Silver Gate can access Cody, regardless of when the repairs are finished, Sholly said.
“Under no circumstances will Cooke City and Silver Gate be cut off,” he said. “They will have access one way or another, and we’ve got the plans and partnerships in place to do that.”
Over the last several weeks, Northeast Entrance Road project contractors have consulted with the Federal Highway Administration to figure out how much material they’ll need and what construction techniques they’ll use.
There was no version of “Old Gardiner Road” at the northeast end of the park, so there were no temporary routes that crews could immediately start to work on, Sholly said. For every washed-out road segment, they had to analyze how to conduct a safe repair.
“The last thing we want to do is go in there and fix it too hastily and then have another big section wash out in the spring,” Sholly said. “It’s important we get it done quickly, but we get it done right.”
There are seven wastewater systems in the park, but before the floods, there wasn’t one in Mammoth. Sewage was piped down to Gardiner for treatment. During the June flood, that pipe was severed in several places.
Right now, a diversion is in place, and a temporary treatment plant is expected to arrive soon — likely in the next six weeks, Sholly said. That should help to get the Mammoth hotel back open, but in the long-term, officials want to run a new line down to Gardiner.
The park service is also working with the school system in Gardiner to figure out how to get kids in Mammoth down to the town. School will be starting around the end of August, and the children will need to travel down Old Gardiner Road in traffic windows for six to eight weeks, according to Sholly.
“It’s definitely not ideal, but it’s a lot more ideal than us not getting the road done and not having access over the winter,” he said. “It’s imperative that we maintain as much access as we can and at the same time, give these contractors the time they need to get the road done before Oct. 15.”
In a statement on Twitter, Montana’s Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines celebrated the news that the park’s North Entrance and Northeast Entrance roads are projected to reopen in October. Daines is the co-chair of the National Parks Subcommittee in the Senate.
“This recovery couldn’t have been possible without the hard work of (Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte), the entire MT Delegation and YNP Superintendent Cam Sholly,” he wrote in the post. “We’re open for business!”
Helena Dore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 582-2628.