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As tourism season comes to a close, towns on the Beartooth Highway reflect on summer floods

Beartooth gate.jpg
Kay Erickson
Yellowstone Public Radio
Red Lodge Chamber of Commerce executive director Sherry Weimer stands in front of the gate to the Beartooth Highway the morning it opened on May 27, 2022.

As of Friday morning, forecasted early snowfall has temporarily closed a section of the historic Beartooth Highway, the link between south central Montana and Yellowstone National Park.

The close of the highway also marks a close of a summer season that, after opening with much promise for two communities on either end of the iconic highway, was marred by intensive flooding this spring.

At 8 a.m. on Friday, May 27, the gate across the Beartooth Highway — U.S. Highway 212 some 11 miles south of Red Lodge — swung open, signaling the start of the summer tourism season.

Nine hours later the gate was closed because of 2 to 3 feet of wet snow — a harbinger of June weather that would have a devastating impact on the tourist-dependent region.

The closure of Yellowstone National Park and the Beartooth Highway hit the Cooke City and Red Lodge economies hard — not surprising in an area that sees more than $50 million in tourism dollars shared by Red Lodge, Cooke City and Cody, Wyoming, according to a study on the Beartooth Highway conducted a decade ago.

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Nadya Faulx
Yellowstone Public Radio
A view along the Beartooth Highway

When the Beartooth Highway opened back up in July after extensive flooding repairs, Red Lodge Chamber of Commerce executive director Sherry Weamer says things started to turn around.

“Once the highway opened up and we realized how critical it was to keeping our town hopping, things really did pick back up,” she said.

Weamer says they don’t have hard numbers but the 2022 summer season was down about 30%.

Reopening the Beartooth Highway was not the same boost for Cooke City. Troy Wilson, Cooke City fire chief and owner of the Cooke City Store, says business is down about 70%. Tourists just aren’t coming.

“Most of them from my experience that did come over the Beartooth hypothetically from Red Lodge when they come to the junction with 296 that goes to Cody they would go on to Cody,” Wilson said. ”They did not come the 15 miles from the junction on into Cooke City because basically it’s a dead end.”

Cooke City has been cut off from Yellowstone National Park since the June flood destroyed the road between the northeast entrance at Cooke City-Silver Gate and the north entrance at Gardiner.

Park officials have set a goal of having a new road completed between the Cooke City-Silver Gate and Gardiner by mid-October, in time to bring in the winter tourists.

cooke city store nf.jpg
Nadya Faulx
Yellowstone Public Radio
Cooke City Fire Chief and store owner Troy Wilson says business this summer was down 70%, even after the Beartooth reopened.

“I’m pretty confident that this entrance will be open sometime in the middle or late October and we’ll be ready to get on to our winter business that can welcome the snowmobilers and skiers into town," Wilson said. "Hopefully with a good winter amount of snow that will help pick up some the business that really struggled this summer."

If early snow is just temporary and does not close down the Beartooth Highway for the season, Sherry Weamer with the Red Lodge chamber of commerce has a suggestion on making the Beartooth Highway a destination.

“Drive up to Cooke City. Have lunch, experience the highway and circle around and head back to Red Lodge or on to Billings," she said.

"Make a great day trip."

Kay Erickson has been working in broadcasting in Billings for more than 20 years. She spent well over a decade as news assignment editor at KTVQ-TV before joining the staff at YPR. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University, with a degree in broadcast journalism. Shortly after graduation she worked in Great Falls where she was one of the first female sports anchor and reporter in Montana.