GARDINER, Mont. — The ominous gray clouds have vanished after deluging Yellowstone National Park with floodwaters over the weekend, leaving sunshine and blue skies as the park’s eponymous river and its tributaries recede. The weather would have been perfect for the tens of thousands of tourists who normally kick off their summer vacations this week in the country’s oldest national park.
But the storm has left residents in Yellowstone tourist towns like Gardiner, Mont., suddenly wondering if they can still scratch out a living now that the park’s popular north entrance is closed indefinitely. Days ago, such thoughts were unfathomable, coming off a pandemic boom in nature tourism that saw Yellowstone set a record for visits in 2021.
Lined with fishing guide companies, restaurants, motels and stores that cater to the millions of thousands who throng here each summer, the only road between this town and the park headquarters was obliterated by raging floodwaters. The timetable for rebuilding remains unclear; as of now, the National Park Service has said the north entrance will probably remain closed until around Halloween.
That has local business owners fearing the worst.
“There will be no fishing in northern Yellowstone this year and next year and hopefully not stretching into a third year,” said Richard Parks, owner of Parks’ Fly Shop, a longtime Yellowstone fixture situated a couple of hundred yards from the entrance station to the park. “Seventy-five percent of my business has been cut off at the knees.”
As visitors leave Gardiner to head toward the park’s interior, they drive on a five-mile, two-lane road that winds along the Gardner River — spelled differently from the town, though derived from the name of the same fur trapper. Bison, bighorn sheep, elk and pronghorn are often seen on this stretch.
Heavy rain fell on melting snow in Yellowstone’s high country last weekend, the result of unusually warm temperatures and an atmospheric river that swept through with a fury that locals said they had never before seen. The Gardner River—usually small enough to easily toss a stone across—became a torrent, turning rocks and logs into wrecking balls that ripped out large sections of road.
Severe Weather in the US
Yellowstone officials have not said definitively how long road replacement might take and were unavailable for comment Thursday. Scientists have warned that climate change will cause similar destruction for years to come in US national parks.
That road was Gardiner’s economic lifeline. While the town has access to Bozeman and other communities to the north, the park is its raison d’être.
Living intimately with the extremes of nature—many feet of snow one winter and drought the next; wildfires that threaten homes; and grizzly and bison attacks — has bred a roll-with-the-punches philosophy here.
Mr. Parks, whose business has survived the vagaries of Yellowstone conditions since 1953 when his father opened the shop, said he thought some places might not survive the road closure.
The West is replete with boom-bust tales, from the Gold Rush in California to cattle ranching in Wyoming. Business operators here have experienced their own mini cycle in recent years. When Covid-19 forced shutdowns in March 2020, many struggled to survive.
“Then July rolled around and people realized they could be outside and boom, things took off,” said Sami Gortmaker, manager of Flying Pig Adventures, a whitewater rafting company in Gardiner. “So you never know. We have learned to take each month like its own season.”
On Wednesday, the streets of Gardiner were deserted, and Stacey Orsted was locking the door of the Wonderland Cafe and Lodge before climbing into an RV. The county shut down her business because the town lacked drinking water after flooding closed the water plant.
For the time being, she saw the forced closure as bit of flood-induced serendipity and was taking advantage of the time off — a 180-degree reversal just as she was gearing up for the summer onslaught.
“This is great,” she said. “We never get two days in a row off in the summer.”
She said she would reopen when allowed. “We thought that Covid was the worst that could happen,” she said, “but the road closure is potentially the scariest.”
Native Americans, including members of the Crow tribe, lived here until they were forced onto reservations in the mid-to late 1800s. After Yellowstone was declared the country’s first national park in 1872, a hotel, restaurant and other amenities were built in view of Yellowstone’s towering peaks. The railroad reached here in 1902 and Gardiner became a jumping off point for expeditions.
Gardiner is clustered at the mountain-ringed entrance to the park, an unincorporated area with many streets that run only one or two blocks long. The Yellowstone River flows through the middle of town.
For a long time, Gardiner felt like a wind-scoured outpost with faded buildings and poor roads. But in the last couple of decades, new businesses have opened, and the town has a more prosperous feel. Wild bison sometimes congregate on the football field at the new high school.
At the Flying Pig, several river guides and other employees were lounging in the log cabin office or on brightly colored rubber rafts outside. Others were petting the company dog or tossing beanbags in a rousing game of cornhole.
Its owner, Patrick Sipp, said the floodwaters had also torn apart and rebuilt the Yellowstone River in a different way. “It’s a whole new river,” Mr. Sipp said. “We are going to have to relearn it.”
Despite the current respite, the damage may not be over. The forecast calls for warmer temperatures and rain this weekend, which could send water gushing through the region again.
“If there’s one thing we’ve learned its resilience,” Mr. Sipp said, vowing to continue his business. “This is the best career I have ever been part of.”