Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks opened their gates midday Monday, kicking off what promises to be an unusual summer season due to operational changes based on the global novel coronavirus pandemic.
At 11:45 a.m. today, Grand Teton National Park's interior gates opened for day-use activities, inviting visitors into the heart of the park about two and a half weeks later than the typical May 1 scheduled opening date. By noon, several hundred cars sporting license plates from around the nation had passed through the Moran gate.
Yellowstone National Park’s east and south gates, both located in Wyoming, also swung open around the noon-hour on Monday. For now, the park is keeping its three Montana gates closed. The south entrance opening took place a week later than usual; in 2019, Yellowstone's south entrance opened on May 10.
In Grand Teton, park officials are advising that, for now, recreational access with limited services are available to the public. Those services include: primary road access, some public restrooms, day hikes that are seasonally accessible, riverbank and lakeshore fishing, multi-use pathway system (where free from snow), limited commercial-use authorization tours, and several viewpoints along US Highway 89/26/191.
"You can hike, you can bike, but you can't stay the night... at least for now," according to Teton Park messaging. "It is anticipated that expanded recreational access and visitor services will be available as the park continues with a phased-opening approach, conditions permitting."
Teton Park Road, Moose-Wilson Road and North Park Road are all open.
The Colter Bay convenience store and gas station are expected to open by the end of the week. The campground, cabins and RV Park plan to open for business on June 5, according to Colter Bay's website.
Riverbank and lakeshore fishing will be available to the public early on, but boat ramps for now will be off limits because the National Park Service doesn’t yet have the personnel to staff aquatic invasive species check stations, Grand Teton acting Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail said during last week's call.
Yellowstone officials will also conduct a phased opening.
“What I’m going to announce is out of the box,” Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said in a phone call with regional business leaders last Wednesday. “It’s different. It’s not exactly going to be incredibly popular with some of you.”
Wyoming lifted out-of-state travel restrictions and requested that the state’s entrances be opened this week. Montana and Idaho are different, with out-of-state restrictions still in place, and conversations for reopening the three remaining entrances are ongoing, Sholly said.
The reopening plan in Yellowstone is initially restricted to the lower driving loop, which includes Lake, Canyon, Norris, Old Faithful, West Thumb and Grant Village. Restrooms, self-service gas stations, trails and boardwalks will be accessible, but that’s about it.
Once summer operations have fully ramped up, services in the parks will not be what they normally are because of coronavirus-related housing orders that are severely restricting staffing. Places like Jackson and Jenny Lake lodges and the Old Faithful Inn won’t open in 2020 as a result. Yellowstone and its concessionaires are bringing on only about 25% of their normal 4,000-person seasonal workforce, and some of the 1,000 workers who will come won’t arrive until later in the summer, Sholly said.
Both Wyoming parks are adopting “mitigation actions” aimed at combating the spread of the coronavirus. They plan to bring on more seasonal custodians to bolster efforts to disinfect high-use areas, and add Plexiglas panels to separate visitors from entrance station and visitor center staff. The use of masks or facial coverings in high-density areas will be encouraged, but not required. In some instances, Yellowstone may meter visitor access in certain locations or use barricades.
During the first phase, no large commercial tour buses will be allowed in either park.
The second phase of reopening in Yellowstone will bring campgrounds, the backcountry, visitor cabins, stores, takeout food services, boating and fishing, and eventually visitor centers, back online.
“Those facilities will open, when safe, over a period of time,” Sholly said.
Dates have not been announced, but Sholly anticipated staying at a phase one/two level of operation “well into June.”
Phase three will be the new normal mode of operation in the parks, and all bets are off as to when that will kick in. The timing will be influenced by how the limited operations go, he said.
The Park Service will defer to the states to determine when gates at Gardiner, West Yellowstone and Cooke City, Montana, reopen. Yellowstone’s superintendent said he thinks they’re “not too far behind,” but he did not take a guess as to a specific date.
“Once I receive a letter recommending opening from [Montana] Gov. [Steve] Bullock,” Sholly said, “I will set the dates for reopening of the Montana gates.”
See the Jackson Hole News&Guide’s upcoming Wednesday edition for a story showcasing the parks’ first wave of visitors.