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Many would-be Yellowstone National Park vacationers are wondering what to do with the possibility of being turned away at the gates, even as the park accelerates plans to reopen after unprecedented flooding.
Flash floods devastated the northern part of the park last week, swelling rivers washed away streets and swept entire buildings downstream.
On Monday, park officials announced that Yellowstone’s North Loop, which was expected to be closed for months, will now reopen within two weeks after a spate of funds was raised for repairs. Over the weekend, the National Park Service said the South Loop, which avoided the worst of the flood damage, will reopen on Wednesday.
To deal with overcrowding, the parking service announced a new temporary entry system based on vehicle license plates over the weekend. That could change to a reservation or time tracking system in the next three to four weeks if warranted.
About 1 million visitors come to Yellowstone every month in the summer. While the park is working towards full reopening faster than expected, it’s clear many vacationers will still be forced to change their itineraries.
But if you’ve already made reservations or are already in the area, there are still plenty of options in the area – especially for outdoor enthusiasts. Many of the towns and recreation areas outside of the park are still open to visitors looking to save their summer plans.
What is there to see east of Yellowstone?
Cody, Wyo. is 50 miles off the eastern edge of Yellowstone, which was 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.
As well as bars, restaurants and lodging, the town has a nightly rodeo that has been held for over 80 years.
Outside of town is the Shoshone National Forest, which offers 2.4 million acres for hiking, rock climbing, camping, mountain biking, fishing and more. Note that some roads and campsites were affected by flooding. More details can be found here.
What to see west of Yellowstone
Nestled in the corner of southwest Montana lies West Yellowstone, the park’s western entrance community. Visitors will find lodging, restaurants and bars, shopping, live theater and more in town. Hotels and short-term rentals in the city tend to be booked well before the summer, but many places have been canceled due to the flooding, said Kristy Coffin, administrator of the West Yellow Business Improvement District.
“Yes, Yellowstone is closed, but West Yellowstone is open and there is still work to be done here,” Coffin said.
The town is surrounded on three sides by National Forest land, with an abundance of camping, hiking and fishing opportunities. Just outside of town is Lake Hebgen, where visitors can rent motor boats and kayaks. The lake is fed by the mighty Madison River, a legendary fly fishing destination for anglers around the world.
Just downstream is Earthquake Lake, perhaps one of the area’s best kept secrets. The lake was formed when a powerful earthquake struck the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem on August 17, 1959, killing 28 people.
The 7.5 magnitude earthquake triggered a massive landslide that dammed the Madison River and formed Quake Lake. Over 80 million tons of rock came across the river and down the valley in less than a minute. Tourists can learn more at the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center, about 30 minutes’ drive from West Yellowstone.
Travelers looking to beat the heat can head to the Cliff and Wade Lakes, less than an hour from West Yellowstone and just 12 miles from the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center. Visitors can fish, swim, and boat around the turquoise lakes.
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For those who don’t mind a slightly longer drive, you can visit Nevada City and Virginia City, two former mining ghost towns with modern amenities like bars, restaurants, and shops. Virginia City is home to one of Montana’s earliest breweries, formerly the HS Gilbert Brewery. It’s now become Brewery Follies, a contemporary comedy cabaret, said associate director and performer Don Fuhrmann. The venue is relatively small and shows often fill up quickly, Fuhrmann said, so it’s best to book tickets in advance.
What to see south of Yellowstone
Bordering Yellowstone to the south, Grand Teton National Park offers numerous opportunities for hiking, kayaking, sightseeing and more in the scenic Teton Range, part of the Rocky Mountains.
Continue south to nearby Jackson, Wyo. where Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is located. Jackson offers everything from fine dining and live music to guided whitewater 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. Jackson’s summers are always busy, he said, but that shouldn’t deter potential visitors. Grand Teton National Park covers about 310,000 acres, according to the park service, while the surrounding Bridger-Teton National Forest is more than 10 times larger.
National Park Service
“There is so much variety, even with Yellowstone National Park closed, there is so much to play. It’s huge,” Dornan said. “We still have an outrageous amount of fish and places to swim and swim [recreate].”
There are over 125 major water systems within two hours of Jackson, Dornan said, that harbor multiple species of trout. Dornan said those looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the national parks should consider walking in the woods, rod in hand.
“With fly fishing you become so much more attuned to your surroundings, what’s happening underwater and on the banks,” Dornan said. “Sometimes you just sit by the river and you’re out in nature, you know. Sometimes it’s not even about catching a fish. You take a hike and it takes you places you would never go to see what’s around the next bend. “
Think outside the park
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Visitors set their sights on Yellowstone are often unaware of what else the area has to offer, said Hebgen Lake District ranger Jason Brey. Brey encourages visitors to explore the areas of National Forest surrounding the park that are part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Note, however, that large areas north of Yellowstone in Montana are affected by flooding and are closed. Check with the forest service for the latest.
Visitors should check out Big Sky, which features popular hiking trails such as Ousel Falls, Beehive Basin, and Lava Lake. And up in Bozeman, there’s Hyalite Canyon and Grotto Falls, both of which offer incredible hiking, biking, and camping opportunities. And many of the wildlife that Yellowstone fans seek can be found outside of the park, Brey said.
“In the National Forest around West Yellowstone and in the areas up to the Big Sky, there are many opportunities for hiking and mountain biking without limitation,” said Brey. “I know people come to visit Yellowstone National Park, but I think a lot of people miss opportunities in their national forest because they don’t know or understand those opportunities are there.”