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Travelers Allowed Through Yellowstone To Reach Cooke City

Cooke City, Montana
Kevin Baird/FLICKR (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Cooke City, Montana

Several days after Yellowstone National Park reopened its two Wyoming entrances to visitors, the park lifted the gates at its north and northeastern Montana entrances for through-traffic only. It may provide relief for some business owners during Memorial Day weekend.

While Yellowstone’s entrances at Gardiner and Cooke City-Silver Gate technically remain closed to visitors, cars this week were allowed through to reach the remote towns that rely on summer tourism.

People are not allowed to stop and recreate in the park on their way to the gateway communities. Those who do, may be cited.

“I was a little worried about the park being closed because people couldn’t get here,” Scott Denniston, owner of Beartooth Cafe in Cooke City, said.

Denniston reopens his seasonal business each year on the Friday before Memorial Day. Despite the uncertainty brought on by COVID-19, he said he decided to hope for the best and stick to his planned reopening date.

“We just had quite a few tables come in just between 12 and 1 [pm] so about standard for this time of year.”

Denniston said he has a positive outlook for the months ahead but may have to cut back on employees if the cafe doesn’t get its normal summer traffic.

Some businesses, like the Elk Horn Lodge, will remain closed until Yellowstone allows visitation in the northern part of the park. Yellowstone officials say they are working with Montana Governor Steve Bullock to determine when that might be. Bullock has said he wouldn’t consider reopening until June 1.

While Wyoming recently lifted a two-week self-quarantine order for out-of-state visitors, Montana’s traveler restrictions remain in effect until June 1 when the state is slated to move into phase two of the governor’s reopening plan.

After a nearly two-month closure due to COVID-19, Yellowstone reopened its two Wyoming entrances on May 18th for day-use only. Visitation has been limited to the southern loop of the park, which includes Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake and Hayden Valley. Public restrooms, self-service gas stations, medical clinics, trails and boardwalks are open. But overnight lodging, food service and visitor centers remain closed.

Superintendent Cam Sholly said during a conference call May 13 that only 30 percent of visitors pass through the eastern and southern Wyoming entrances in a typical year. He said waiting to open Yellowstone’s busiest gates would help the park test the waters rather than open the flood gates.

A Yellowstone press release Thursday said the traffic volume during the first three days of the partial reopening was less than 20 percent of the normal volume this time of year. Visitation was 90 percent of the normal volume through the east entrance near Cody, Wyoming and approximately 60 percent of normal volume through the south entrance near Jackson.

Sholly said in the press release he expects visitation to go up significantly in the coming weeks.

The Montana Department of Transportation said the Beartooth Highway, a scenic stretch of U.S. Route 212 between Red Lodge and Cooke City, opened Friday. The Beartooth Highway is closed off each winter due to high levels of snow and adverse winter conditions.

Crews with the Montana Department of Transportation and Yellowstone National Park spend weeks plowing each spring to reopen the Beartooth Highway, typically by the Friday of Memorial Day weekend.