Yellowstone National Park will open its Wyoming entrances on Monday, May 18, at noon, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly announced today.
The park will be limited to day-use only via the Cody and Jackson entrances. Only the park’s lower loop — which includes Lake, Canyon, Norris, Old Faithful, West Thumb, and Grant Village — will be open. No commercial tour buses will be allowed to enter the park. The opening comes at the request of Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, Sholly said.
Montana’s gates to Yellowstone National Park will not open before June 1, Gov. Steve Bullock said during a press briefing Wednesday afternoon. The Montana entrances in West Yellowstone, Gardiner and Cooke City account for about 70% of Yellowstone’s annual visitors, Sholly said.
Bullock said he has had no conversations in the past week with Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow about that park opening, and that he is under the impression Glacier will not open until at least June 15.
Bullock acknowledged the state economy’s reliance on tourism, but said he wants to make sure tourists don’t spread COVID-19 and overwhelm health care systems in gateway communities. The state currently has a 14-day quarantine in effect for all non-essential travelers entering or returning to the state. That two-week period will be reassessed in the coming weeks, Bullock said.
“We want to ensure those visitors don’t bring problems — meaning infections — from their home state to our state,” Bullock said.
Public health experts say infections will likely increase as the parks reopen, just as infections are expected to increase as the state economy at large reopens.
Bullock said the state wants Yellowstone to have increased testing capability and quarantine protocols in place before opening the Montana entrances. Increased testing capacity would include surveillance testing of park employees, as well as in gateway communities in Park and Gallatin counties, he said. Public health officials in those counties are working with their counterparts in neighboring Wyoming counties to put those protocols in place, Bullock said.
“Frankly, it will benefit the park’s efforts if they can figure out the wrinkles of reopening [before the Montana gates open],” Bullock said.
The three-phase plan to open the park is “evolving,” Sholly said. Yellowstone is implementing new safety measures and working to ensure employee safety by keeping facilities like campgrounds closed.
“I don’t think you could have seen all five entrances open next week and have us be ready and prepared,” Sholly said.
Out-of-state travelers spend $1 billion annually in communities within 60 miles of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Grand Teton is also reopening on a limited basis effective Monday. Reopening the parks will helps gateway communities that rely on those travelers, Sholly said.
“We still have some of the best months in front of us,” Sholly said. “If we do it right, we can still have a very good year economically.”
Sholly said he hopes to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in the park so that Yellowstone can remain open throughout July, August and September, which are Yellowstone’s busiest months.
The park is hiring only about 25% percent of its typical seasonal employee staff, and scheduled construction projects are continuing as normal.
Sholly said it will be up to the public to adhere to social distancing guidelines, and visitors will need to be prepared to lodge outside of the park during the day-use-only period. People who are sick should not come to Yellowstone, Sholly said.
“There is no faster way for us to go backwards than the public not being responsible when they visit,” Sholly said.
Norma Nickerson, director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana, said it’s unclear how much visitation Yellowstone and Glacier should anticipate this summer.
Several factors feed into the calculation, Nickerson said. On one hand, many travelers will likely want to avoid urban areas, which could lead more visitors to Montana. At the same time, many travelers may continue to avoid air travel.
“We are expecting mostly just road-trip visitors to Montana,” Nickerson said. “I honestly do not think this will surpass the numbers that usually come by car [or] RV, as the hesitation to travel at all is still out there.”
Sholly said small outfitters including fishing guides and wildlife-watching tours will now be able to operate in the park, but large buses won’t be allowed until the third phase of reopening, which won’t be considered until late June at earliest.
Nickerson said she expects many businesses like fishing guides and whitewater rafting companies to continue having a hard time conducting business with social distancing guidelines in place.
Sholly said it’s unclear what threshold of COVID-19 outbreaks would spark new limits on visitation to Yellowstone, and that local health officials need to continue being alert to testing and hospitalization numbers. He said he expects there to be an increase in testing at the park.
“I realize many of you have different opinions on this,” Sholly said to local health officials and chambers of commerce on the call announcing the opening. “We’ve tried to do the best job we can to be cautious and phase this.”
This story was updated Wednesday, May 13, 2020, to include information from Gov. Steve Bullock.