Yellowstone National Park is still working to repair damage caused by record flooding in June of 2022. While there is a lot that is new, much work still needs to be finished to restore what was lost.
A video shot by a park ranger last June showed the immense power of the flood waters that swept through Yellowstone. In the short clip, released by the Park Service, you can see a wall of muddy water sweeping down the Lamar River knocking over 50-foot-tall trees in seconds, shooting streams of water into the air, and slicing off huge segments of the river bank.
You can still see a demonstration of that destruction, just a short walk off the north entrance road. It’s only about a quarter mile down the old, now abandoned Gardiner Canyon Road. Just after passing a parking lot along the Gardiner River, the pavement drops away, eroded by the force of the water last June. Now, a new road snakes its way up to Mammoth, avoiding the old Gardiner Canyon route while offering sharp turns and stunning views.
“We made the best out of one of the worst possible situations," said Park Superintendent Cam Sholly in an interview with MTN News.
He ticked off the recovery efforts in just the past year; “A park that’s reopened on the north end, communities that had a crushing impact from the flood last summer, Gardiner, Silver Gate, and Cooke City especially, reconnected.”
Large parts of the northeast entrance road are now rebuilt but some is still under construction.
Sholly said of the road through the Lamar Canyon, “That continues to see erosion from the river down below. A contractor will be blasting next week to get that road moved in.”
Just a couple of miles east of the heavy equipment working in the canyon, Marsha Dolan of Maysville Missouri watched an eagle nest, holding a young bird. She stepped away from her spotting scope and said, “I think they’ve done a tremendous job of fixing this so people can still come.”
Sholly told us that work wasn’t easy. He said, “We set very aggressive goals last year and if we hadn’t gotten them done, we’d still be closed.”
A hillside, a bit farther along the Lamar now sports new pavement. A hillside was pushed back so that the road could be moved away from the eroded edge of the river. Last fall, that hillside was just covered with heavy equipment working to beat the onset of winter snow. Now, the work is finished and the newly seeded dirt is just waiting for the grass to start growing.
Marsha Dolan remarked, “The amount of work that has gone on since last July to maybe October is just unbelievable.”
Then of course, there’s that new road with the wide-open views connecting Gardiner with Mammoth. It’s a slow, winding trip, leading some to complain that it’s difficult to drive.
Hearing that, Sholly shows some rare irritation. He said, “For those that don’t like it, I guarantee they like it better than having no road.”
Towards the northeast corner of Yellowstone where that construction work continues, there are sometimes long waits at the construction zones. In spite of that, Sholly said complaints are few.
Gary Dolan, Marsha’s husband said he didn’t mind waiting to get into the Lamar Valley. He said, “We’d be glad to do that just for the privilege. It’s all better than them closing it completely down and we couldn’t come this year.”
Sholly said the park is making an effort to accommodate visitors. He added, “[We’re] trying to minimize those impacts on visitors to the best degree possible but, you know, this park isn’t going to fix itself and we’ve got to, that Lamar Canyon project, has got to get done quickly. We’ve got to get that pushed in.”
There are construction waits just outside Mammoth on the Gardiner River until the end of June. Also on the Yellowstone River bridge just east of Roosevelt Junction, and in the Lamar Canyon. Work is set to finish soon on a sewage treatment system for Mammoth so the hotel and restaurants there may reopen.
Mike Keller, General Manager of Yellowstone National Park Lodges suffered through last summer, fall winter, and now the spring season, unable to operate the big hotel or restaurants in Mammoth. That’s because the sewer line carrying wastewater from Mammoth to a treatment plant in Gardiner was lost along with the road in the flooding. Talking about the restoration work, he visibly brightened and said, “To think we’re doing this only one year after the historic flooding events of last year, is nothing short of amazing.”
“Everyone that played a part, and that includes the public that supported us, really should feel good about where we are,” said Sholly.
Keller talked about how visitors are reacting to all the work. He said, “Honestly, a lot of amazement over the road between Gardner to Mammoth. That definitely highlights a lot of people's experiences. The North entrance being closed pretty much all of last summer. Then they did reopen in October of last year at the very end of October, but there's very small visitation in the winter compared to the high volumes of visitation in the summer. People coming in on that road and being up high, the different views, the panoramic scenery that is provided from the route has generated a lot of comments. And then for folks that are going out towards Cook City, the same thing, where the road washed out of Trot Lake, where there was significant washout along Sotheby Creek, and just the recovery that's taken place out there. To the normal visitor for a lot of folks, you might even recognize some of the new roads and the new alignments that have been put in place. They did such a great job of kind of, you know, just restoring the road with, but maintaining the natural integrity of the area.”
He added that he’s optimistic that work on a temporary treatment facility in Mammoth will soon be completed allowing him to reopen the hotel and restaurants before the end of June so the concession operator, Xanterra, can salvage this summer’s season.
In spite of all the damage and all the road work, there are some things that survived. Just east of the Trout Lake trail parking lot, on the south side of the road, sits a huge chunk of petrified tree. Resplendent in orange, brown, and cream colors, it’s resting just a few feet off the road.
Sholly told us he doesn’t like to think in terms of legacy. But he did have some ideas about the response to the June 2022 flooding. He said, “You look at, like I said, how everybody came together, the teamwork involved from Washington to the states, the counties, communities, the team here in Yellowstone, Federal Highways, the contractors, good weather. We had a lot of things fall into place. I've not seen, you know, I started here in 1990. I've worked in a lot of assignments across the country. I've not seen an incident that large, have almost no bureaucracy. Everybody understood the importance of coming together. Everybody understood the fact that if we didn't get the work done when we did going into the fall that it was going to significantly alter everyone's world around here for the winter and going into the summer.”
In all, it will cost nearly a billion dollars, over many years to repair all the damage from last year’s flooding. But, it now looks like that work will be completed and roads will be better able to withstand future floods and other forces of nature.