RED LODGE, Mont. — This week, uncertainty hung over Yellowstone National Park’s gateway, Gardiner, after unprecedented flooding that flattened one of America’s best-loved natural attractions and wiped out roads, bridges, and homes.
Gardiner himself escaped the Flood, but briefly became home to hundreds of park visitors who were stranded when the road leading to it along the churning Yellowstone River was closed. When the road reopened, the tourists disappeared.
“The city is creepy right now,” says Katie Gale, who books for a company that offers rafting and other outdoor trips. “We had all those people locked up in here, and as soon as they opened the road…it was like someone pulled the plug in a bathtub.”
The deflation of visitors has become a major concern for businesses in towns like Gardiner and Red Lodge that lead to Yellowstone’s northern entrances and depend on tourists passing through.
Officials have said the southern part of the park, where Old Faithful is located, could reopen next week. But the north end, which includes Tower Fall and the bears and wolves of Lamar Valley, could remain closed for months after portions of Yellowstone’s major roads are washed away or buried in crushed stone. Roads leading into the park also have widespread damage that can take months to repair.
Red Lodge faces a double disaster: it will have to clean up the damage the Flood has wrought on parts of the city and figure out how to survive without the summer activities that normally keep it going for the rest of the year.
“Winters are harsh in Red Lodge,” Chris Prindiville said, spraying mud off the sidewalk in front of his shuttered cafe, which had no fresh water or gas for its stoves. “You have to make your money in the summer to earn it when the bills keep coming and the visitors have stopped.”
At least 88 people were rescued by the Montana National Guard from campgrounds and small towns recently, and hundreds of homes, including nearly 150 at Red Lodge, were damaged by muddy water. A large house home to six park workers in the town of Gardiner was ripped from its foundation and floated 5 miles (8 kilometers) downriver before it sank. A Stillwater County spokeswoman said four to five more homes could plunge into the Stillwater River, which has already washed away several cabins.
No deaths or serious injuries have been reported.
Red Lodge was under a cooking advisory, and trucks delivered drinking water to half of the town with no water. Portable toilets were strategically placed for those unable to flush at home.
Once home to Finnish miners, the Yodeler Motel was closed for the first time since it began operating as a lodge in 1964. Owner Mac Dean said he must empty the lower level, where 13 rooms were flooded.
“Rock Creek seemed to run its own course,” he said. “It just jumped over the bank, and came right down Main Street, and hit us.”
Dean had expected a busy summer in connection with the park’s 150th anniversary. The Yodeler had the most bookings in the 13 years Dean, and his wife have owned the business. He hopes to get help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“The damage is catastrophic,” he said. “We are between a rock and a hard place. And if we don’t get help, we’re not going to make it.”
Yellowstone is one of the crown jewels of the park system, a popular summer playground that appeals to adventurous backpackers camping in grizzly country, casual hikers walking past steaming geothermal features, wildlife enthusiasts viewing moose, bison, bears, and wolves from the safety of their cars, and amateur photographers and artists trying to capture the pink and gold hues of the cliffs of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon and its thundering waterfall.
All 4 million visitors a year must pass through the small towns adjacent to the park’s five entrances.
The flooding — caused by torrential rains and rapid snowmelt — hit just as hotels around Yellowstone filled up with summer tourists. June is generally one of Yellowstone’s busiest months.
President Joe Biden declared disaster in Montana and ordered federal aid to be made available.
The tourist season had gotten off to a good start for Cara McGary, who leads groups through the Lamar Valley to see wolves, bison, moose, and bears. She had seen more than 20 grizzly bears on some days this year.
Now that the road from Gardiner to the north of Yellowstone has been washed away, nature is still there, but it’s out of McGary’s reach. Her guidebook company, In Our Nature, is suddenly in trouble.
“The summer we’ve been preparing for is nothing like the summer we’re going to have,” she said. “This is a loss of turnover of 80% to 100% during the high season.”
Officials and business leaders hope Gardiner, Red Lodge, and other small communities can attract visitors without access to the park.
Sarah Ondrus, the owner of Paradise Adventure Company, which rents out cabins and offers rafting, kayaking, and horseback riding tours, was frustrated that she was getting so many cancellations.
“Montana and Wyoming still exist. I don’t know how to convince these people, said Ondrus. “Once our water quality is good, and our law enforcement officers think it’s okay, we can move on. It is still a destination. You can still ride horses, go to cowboy cookouts, hike in the national forest.”
That can be a tall order for anyone from the south or east side of the park hoping to get out of the park in the north. After the southern portion of the park reopens, it would take a nearly 200-mile (320 kilometers) detour through West Yellowstone and Bozeman to reach Gardiner. It would take about 300 miles (480 kilometers) from Cody, Wyoming.
Montana Governor Greg Gianforte, a Republican, has been criticized by Democrats and members of the public for being out of the country during the disaster.
Spokesman Brooke Stroyke said the governor had left last week on a long-planned personal trip with his wife and would be back on Thursday. She wouldn’t know where he was for security reasons.
Montana’s Lieutenant Governor Kristen Juras signed an emergency disaster declaration on Tuesday in his absence.
Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press journalists Brittany Peterson in Red Lodge, Amy Beth Hanson in Helena, Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.