Many potential vacationers to Yellowstone National Park are wondering what to do with the possibility that they will be turned away at the gates, even as the park speeds up plans to reopen after unprecedented flooding.
Flash floods devastated the northern part of the park last week, with swelling rivers washing away roads and sweeping entire structures downstream.
On Monday, park officials announced that Yellowstone’s north loop, which had been expected to be closed for months, will now reopen within two weeks after a surge of funding was acquired for repairs. Over the weekend the National Park Service said the south loop, which avoided the worst of the flooding damage, will reopen on Wednesday.
To deal with crowding, the Park Service announced over the weekend a new interim entry system based on vehicle license plate numbers. That could change to a reservation or timed entry system, if warranted, in the next three to four weeks.
About 1 million visitors come to Yellowstone each month during the summer. While the park works to fully reopen quicker than expected, it’s clear that many vacationers will still be forced to change their itineraries.
But if you’ve already made your reservations or are already nearby, there are still plenty of options — especially for the outdoor enthusiasts — in the surrounding areas. Many of the towns and recreational areas outside of the park are still open for visitors looking to salvage their summer plans.
What to see east of Yellowstone
Cody, Wyo., is 50 miles outside the eastern edge of Yellowstone, founded in 1896 by western legend Col. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Visitors can learn more about Buffalo Bill, the American West and Yellowstone at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, which houses five museums and special exhibits.
Besides bars, restaurants and lodging, the town has a nightly rodeo that has been running for over 80 years.
Outside of town is the Shoshone National Forest, which offers 2.4 million acres for hiking, climbing, camping, mountain biking, fishing and more. Be aware that a few roads and campgrounds were affected by flooding; find more details here.
What to see west of Yellowstone
Nestled in the corner of southwest Montana is West Yellowstone, the western gateway community of the park. Visitors can find lodging, restaurants and bars, shopping, live theater and more in town. Hotels and short-term rentals in town are typically booked well ahead of the summer, but due to the flooding, many places have had cancellations, said Kristy Coffin, administrator for the West Yellow Business Improvement District.
“Yes, Yellowstone is closed, but West Yellowstone is open and there is still lots to do here,” Coffin said.
The town is surrounded by National Forest land on three sides, with an abundance of camping, hiking and fishing options. Just outside of town is Hebgen Lake, where visitors can rent motorboats and kayaks. The lake is fed by the mighty Madison River, a legendary fly-fishing destination for anglers across the globe.
Just downstream is Earthquake Lake, perhaps one of the area’s best kept secrets. The lake was formed when a powerful quake rocked the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem on Aug. 17, 1959, killing 28 people.
The 7.5 magnitude earthquake triggered an enormous landslide that dammed the Madison River, creating Quake Lake. Over 80 million tons of rock came over the river and across the valley in less than a minute. Tourists can learn more at the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center, about a 30-minute drive from West Yellowstone.
Travelers looking to beat the heat can head to Cliff and Wade Lakes, less than an hour from West Yellowstone and a mere 12 miles from the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center. Visitors can fish, swim and boat around the turquoise lakes.
For those who don’t mind a little further of a drive, you can visit Nevada City and Virginia City, two former mining ghost towns with modern amenities including bars, restaurants and shops. Virginia City is home to one of Montana’s first breweries, formerly the H.S. Gilbert Brewery. It has since become Brewery Follies, a contemporary comedy cabaret, said associate director and performer Don Fuhrmann. The venue is relatively small, and the shows often fill up fast, Fuhrmann said, so it’s best to book tickets ahead of time.
What to see south of Yellowstone
Grand Teton National Park borders Yellowstone to the south and offers plenty of options for hiking, kayaking, sightseeing and more in the picturesque Teton Range, part of the Rocky Mountains.
Continue south to nearby Jackson, Wyo., home to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Jackson offers everything from upscale eateries and live music to guided white water rafting, hiking and fly-fishing.
Will Dornan, owner of Snake River Anglers, was born and raised in the Jackson area and has been an avid fly fisherman for over 50 years. Summers in Jackson are always busy, he said, but that shouldn’t deter would-be visitors. Grand Teton National Park encompasses approximately 310,000 acres, according to the park service, while the surrounding Bridger-Teton National Forest is more than 10 times larger.
“There’s so much variety, even with Yellowstone National Park closed, there’s so much to play with. It’s huge,” Dornan said. “We still have an outrageous amount of fishing and places to float and [recreate].”
There are over 125 major water systems within two hours of Jackson, Dornan said, home to multiple species of trout. Dornan said those looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the national parks should consider taking a walk in the woods, rod in hand.
“You become so much more tuned into the environment when you’re fly-fishing, what’s happening under the water and on the banks,” Dornan said. “Sometimes it’s just sitting on the river and being out in nature, you know. Sometimes it’s not even about catching a fish. You take a hike and it takes you to places you’d never go, to see what’s around the next bend.”
Thinking outside the park
Visitors with their sights set on Yellowstone are often unaware of everything else the area has to offer, Hebgen Lake District Ranger Jason Brey said. Brey recommends visitors consider exploring National Forest lands around the park, part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Be aware, however, that large areas north of Yellowstone in Montana were affected by flooding and are closed; check with the Forest Service for the latest.
Visitors should check out Big Sky, which has popular hiking like Ousel Falls, Beehive Basin and Lava Lake. And up in Bozeman there’s Hyalite Canyon and Grotto Falls, both of which have incredible hiking, biking and camping opportunities. And much of the wildlife Yellowstone fans are looking for can be found outside the park, Brey said.
“There’s a lot of uncapped hiking and mountain biking opportunities in the national forest around West Yellowstone and the areas up to Big Sky,” Brey said. “I know people come to visit Yellowstone National Park, but I think a lot of people miss out on opportunities on their National Forest because they don’t know or understand that those opportunities are there.”