GARDINER — Nestled in the scenic Yellowstone River valley along the Montana-Wyoming border, this picturesque little town — with its Old West facades, fly shops, and whitewater outfitters — serves as a year-round gateway to Yellowstone National Park.
Its proximity to the northern entrance to the country’s oldest and arguably grandest national park fuels Gardiner’s tourism-based economy. With a year-round population of fewer than 900 people, Gardiner is almost entirely reliant on the nearly three-quarters of a million visitors who pass through Yellowstone’s north gate each year.
The summer season, the busiest and most lucrative time of year for most Gardiner businesses, was just getting into full swing this month. Seasonal workers from around the country were settling into their summer jobs. Hotels were filling up. Rafting trips were underway. Tourists were pouring in.
On Monday, everything came to a screeching halt as unprecedented flooding of the park’s namesake river destroyed roads and bridges, swallowed homes, and led to a full-scale evacuation of the park. Without a roadway, the north entrance to Yellowstone is now closed indefinitely.
According to park officials, it could take years to build a new road from Gardiner to Mammoth suitable to sustain the thousands of vehicles that traverse that entrance daily during the peak season.
Many here are now wondering whether the town can survive that long.
Richard Parks, the proprietor of Parks’ Fly Shop, moved to Montana in 1953 when his father, Merton, uprooted the family from their Cloquet, Minnesota home.
“I was baggage when my father moved us here to open the store,” Parks said.
He’s been fishing and guiding in and around Yellowstone National Park ever since, and he’s no stranger to natural disasters.
He was here in 1959 when the Hebgen Lake earthquake triggered landslides that blocked the road between Mammoth and Old Faithful, damaged bridges and the Old Faithful Inn, and led to evacuations of portions of the park.
He was here in 1988 when more than 50 wildfires burned nearly 800,000 acres of the park. At the time the fires were thought to be a huge catastrophe both for Yellowstone and the neighboring gateway communities.
Parks said the ‘88 fires — which lasted for months and led to the first-ever total closure of the park in September of that year — pale in comparison to the damage wreaked by this week’s flood in a matter of days.
“By the end of the season we all smelled like ham, but that’s not nearly the same kind of impact as having your roads disappear and simply not being able to access [the park] at all,” Parks said. “The park is 90% of the reason anybody comes to Gardiner in the first place. We’re not that big of an attraction on our own.”
Parks was busy at his shop Wednesday, but not with customers eager to buy flies or rods or sunscreen. It was around 11:15 a.m. when I walked into the store, and he said I was the first person who’d come in that day. On a glass display case was a stack of reservation forms. Parks was either fielding or making calls to clients who will not be fishing in the park this season.
As we spoke, the phone rang. Parks answered and explained to the woman on the other end of the line that there was no way into Yellowstone from Gardiner.
“Well, the basic problem is that there’s four miles of road that simply doesn’t exist anymore, and that’s our connection to the park,” Parks told the client. “The north entrance is effectively closed for probably two years, the remainder of this season and next season, because the area, at an absolute minimum, about four miles of road, has to be completely rebuilt … No, no, we’re not isolated … I can drive to Bozeman today. It’s the four-mile segment between Gardner and Mammoth Hot Springs … Yeah … Yeah … So that’s the story. I hope to see you another day.”
Parks hung up the phone with a deep sigh.
“And that’s a microcosm of my day for the continuing period of time here,” he said. “Every one of those represents close to $300 down a drain that I won’t get to spend and employees who won’t be working.”
Parks said he can probably withstand the next year or so. He doesn’t have a mortgage, most of his inventory is already paid for, and he said he has some cash reserves to fall back on.
“I think I’ll be able to survive,” he said. “Instead of having four people plus some independent contractors on the payroll, it is going to probably be down to two. So that is certainly going to be some reduction in economic activity. You’ve got to deal with what you’ve got.”
Across the river, at Mama Bear’s Armory, Chester Evitt was reeling from a double-barrelled hit to his economic future. Evitt, a retired merchant marine, moved to Gardiner in 2021 with his wife. Soon after, his son and daughter-in-law joined them. While Chester worked to open his small gun shop and gunsmithing business, he said he also worked a full-time job as a maintenance worker at the Ridgeline Hotel across the street.
“I came on board and helped them get it open last year and be in the first post-pandemic summer,” Evitt said as his two dogs wrestled on the floor of his shop. “We saw 100% occupancy all summer long. At the same time, I’d worked eight and 10 hours there and 8 hours up here trying to get this going.”
Evitt is a heavy-set bespectacled man with a scruffy white beard. He wears a Desert Storm Veteran cap and a sidearm tucked into this belt. He’s friendly, affable, and eager to tell the story of how he and his family were drawn to Gardiner. His wife worked here as a seasonal worker since 2017, and when Evitt retired in 2020, they decided to make the town their permanent home.
He said he was happy to work long days at two jobs while he started his business, which opened on Aug. 17 last year. He said it’s been slow going since. He said until this month, 90% of his business came from locals. Two weeks ago, that all changed.
“We finally started to have more warm weather and tourists came in like crazy,” Evitt said.
He said he was on track to ring up $20,000 in sales in June, which would have been his best month by a long shot. He sold 212 cans of bear spray alone. Come Monday, it all stopped.
On Tuesday the other shoe dropped.
“At about 11:55 yesterday [Tuesday] they said that the road was open. By 12:30, this town was empty, or getting there,” he said.
Many business owners in Gardiner and nearby gateway communities to Yellowstone are grappling with the loss of tourism for the foreseeable future after flooding damaged multiple roads in the park.
Evitt said once county officials opened a road to stranded tourists, visitors cleared out in a hurry. A few hours later, Evitt got word from the Ridgeline that there would be a dinner meeting at the hotel. The vice president of human resources for the hotel’s parent company, Delaware North, would be there.
“He came over and he was shaking everybody’s hand like there’s nothing wrong in the world. I walked in there and they started serving food. He cleared his throat and he said, ‘as of today, none of you have a job.’”
Evitt said the company official said the corporation believes the north entrance to the park won’t be open for at least two years, and so they are closing the hotel indefinitely. Evitt said the official apologized and offered staff the opportunity to transfer to any of the company’s other locations across the country. Some of the seasonal workers took him up on the offer, Evitt said, but that won’t work for everyone.
“You know, several of us live here. This is home now. We can’t just pick up and go,” he said.
Evitt said employees living in the hotel’s staff housing — a dormitory-like building next door — were given 48 hours to clear out.
A spokesperson for Delaware North, which operates concessions in and around Yellowstone National Park, disputed Evitt’s account of the meeting.
In an emailed statement, Derek Zwickey, chief operating officer of Delaware North’s parks and resorts division and a Bozeman resident, said the record flooding at Yellowstone National Park has presented significant challenges for Delaware North operations throughout the area.
“We are working closely with federal and local authorities, including the National Park Service, and our top priority remains the health and safety of our associates and guests,” Zwickey said.
“We have extended the offer to relocate and reassign all affected Delaware North employees to other company locations in the park and elsewhere and many have accepted.”
Zwickey added that the company is exploring ways to support the community through financial and other commitments, including an immediate $10,000 donation to the Gardiner Food Pantry.
Evitt said he’s one of the few gunsmiths in the region who works on a wide variety of firearms, so he expects he’ll continue to get some business from Livingston, Bozeman and Billings. He said he also hopes to secure contracts with the local sheriff’s office and Yellowstone Park to supply law enforcement officers with weapons and ammunition. But the uncertainty surrounding the park — whether a new road will be built and whether the tourists will return in time to save businesses like the Ridgeline Hotel and Mama Bear’s Armory — remains a dark cloud over his family’s, and his neighbors’, future.
“Is this the death of a town or is it not? It could be. We’ll have to wait and see,” he said.
Many of Gardiner’s shops and restaurants were closed Wednesday. The flood damaged the town’s water main, so a boil order was in effect, making it difficult for most restaurants, cafes and coffee shops to operate.
A sign on Bears Brew coffee shack said the shack was closed to conserve water and milk so they could continue to serve coffee each morning. According to the sign, the shack would reopen at 6 a.m. the next day.
At various locations throughout town — such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Custer Gallatin National Forest ranger district office — stacks of bottled water were piled up for residents and visitors to take and use. Officials don’t have a clear timeline for when the boil order will be lifted. Testing for contamination was scheduled to begin next week. In the meantime, officials are telling area residents to boil tap water before they use it for drinking or washing dishes.
At noon, community leaders gathered around a conference table on the second floor of the chamber to take part in a conference call with Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly, Park County officials, and area residents impacted by the flood.
In addition to folks from Gardiner, business owners and residents from Cooke City and Silver Gate were also on the call. Some wanted to know what will happen this winter if the road to Mammoth isn’t repaired. The road from Gardiner has been the only way in and out during the winter season. Roads to Red Lodge and Cody, Wyoming don’t get plowed in the winter.
Snowplowing in that portion of the park has been a contentious issue between states of Montana and Wyoming and the National Park Service for years. Sholly said longstanding discussions about year-round plowing of “the Plug” — a 10-mile section of U.S. 212 from Pilot Creek at the bottom of the Beartooth Highway across Cooke Pass into Cooke City — have resumed.
“The years of conversations we’ve had about plowing the Plug will come in handy,” Sholly said. “Obviously, if the road between Cooke City and Mammoth is not open or accessible then we’ll have no choice but to work with the state of Wyoming and Montana and the communities to work on that.”
Residents on the call had more questions than local officials could answer just 48 hours into the disaster, and Sholly urged patience. He also expressed a hint of optimism.
“If you remember, two years ago when we were closed for COVID, we had some pretty dire predictions, and we came through it together,” Sholly said on the call. “This is more challenging than that, frankly, but I think we can turn this into hopefully something at least somewhat positive and not as dire as many think it is right this second.”
On the sidewalk outside the chamber office, Heather Steighorst and her sister-in-law, Nikki Martin, tried to wrangle a troupe of young children. All 18 members of their immediate family, who hail from St. Louis, had planned to spend the week touring Yellowstone to celebrate the grandparents’ 40th wedding anniversary.
The family arrived in Gardiner on Saturday and managed to spend part of the day in the park before all hell broke loose.
“It was very, very rainy. We went in through the north entrance and we did pretty much everything on the road we could do, and now that road is demolished,” Steighorst said.
The family is staying in a rented cabin north of the park. They planned to head to Old Faithful on Monday morning, but when they drove down the driveway, half of it had washed away in the floodwaters of a nearby stream.
Despite the disappointment of not being able to explore the park as planned, Steighorst said the family intends to make the most of their trip.
“Our neighbors who live there, they brought us some like elk steaks and they have horses, so we’re going to do some horseback riding as well,” she said.
Inside Paradise Adventure Co., Katie Gale’s dog, Rory, kept her company as she answered a deluge of phone calls. Gale said she’d had only one customer that day.
Gale said even though there aren’t going to be any rafting trips any time soon, the shop’s owner, Sarah Ondrus, wanted to keep the store open.
Gardiner has had more than its fair share of calamities in the past three years, and nobody knows that better than Ondrus.
A fire on July 14, 2020 destroyed four downtown Gardiner businesses — including one owned by Ondrus — that served as community gathering spots. The historic buildings that were engulfed in the blaze, which officials later ruled an accident, also contained apartments that provided housing for locals and seasonal workers.
“Sara feels like it’s important for the community to have places to rely on and places to go,” Gale said. “I think … just maintaining that sense of normalcy as much as possible.”
Besides, Gale said, she can’t keep up with the emails and the phone calls from people canceling rafting trips.
“So if I’m doing that anyway, I might as well have the store opened,” she said.
Gale said people outside this part of the state don’t fully comprehend the extent of the destruction, or what it portends for the future of Gardiner.
“I was just talking to someone who’s hoping to come down 10 days from now,” Gale said. “I was explaining to her that, you know, one of the hurdles that we’re looking at is a lot of our put-in and take-out sites were eaten away by the flood. So now instead of, you know, a nice ramp kind of situation, there’s a sharp drop-off. So that’s going to have to be solved before anybody can run trips.”
Like many year-round residents, Gale worries that the loss of the road between Gardiner and Mammoth may be the most devastating in a string of catastrophes to befall the town in recent years.
Yet residents hope they can salvage some tourism business by getting creative. Can they entice residents from Livingston, Bozeman, Billings and beyond to make the trip here to go rafting, or hiking or fishing outside the park?
They’re going to try.
“I was talking to the girl at the shop next door a little earlier, and we were just tossing ideas of what can we do as a community to get people down here if you can’t get into the park from here?” Gale said. “She said that she was part of some conversations about maybe having some more rodeos or something like that and just creating the kinds of events to bring people down. But, yeah, I mean, without the park we’re the end of a dead-end road, so I don’t know how much that kind of thing will help.”
Gale said Gardiner’s year-round population was already in decline in the wake of the 2020 fire. Housing, which was already in short supply, got a lot harder to come by. When the river swallowed a massive housing unit used by park staff, that didn’t help matters. The full-time locals are finding it increasingly difficult to make it work.
“We’ve lost a lot of people since the fire,” Gale said. “Without people who are here for some sort of stable amount of time, you know, you don’t have a community. We just have people living in the same place.”
In-depth, independent reporting on the stories impacting your community from reporters who know your town.
Low-income families that need safety-net services, such as food and cash assistance, have become collateral damage in the bureaucratic scramble to determine whether tens of millions of people still qualify for Medicaid after a pandemic-era freeze on disenrollment ended this spring.
The decision to list wolverines under the Endangered Species Act comes nearly 30 years after conservation groups first proposed federal protections for the elusive, snow-dependent carnivores.
Cascade County officials have still not certified the results of municipal elections in three towns, prompting renewed calls for a change in who administers elections in and around Great Falls.