Yellowstone National Park and surrounding communities were devastated by unprecedented amounts of rainfall this week. The damage to roads and bridges has created hazardous conditions in and around the park, leading officials to close all five entrances on Monday.
This type of extreme weather is not common for the area. “It’s created an unusual instance for us,” said Katrina Wiese, president and CEO of Destination Yellowstone. “At this time, we’re usually worried about wildfires, not flooding.”
Since the flooding began, more than 10,000 visitors were evacuated from the park, The Associated Press reports, and search-and-rescue missions are ongoing in surrounding areas.
Known as “the world’s first national park,” the 2.2 million-acre expanse is one of the most popular tourism destinations in the country. The park drew a record number of visitors last year, with more than a million people visiting in July. According to data from the travel app TripIt, Yellowstone ranks in the top 20 places for hotel bookings over this Fourth of July weekend.
With Yellowstone’s peak season around the corner and the full extent of the destruction still unfolding, here’s what potential visitors need to know about the park’s situation.
— What has been damaged?
Snowmelt and heavy rainfall contributed to substantial flooding, mudslides and rockslides in the park, destroying roads and bridges, knocking out power and stranding local communities. Park officials released photos and video to the park’s Flickr account showing the scope.
Aerial assessments show major damage to roads between the north entrance of the park, the Mammoth Hot Springs, Lamar Valley and Cooke City, Mont., near the northeast entrance. Officials say it will take substantial time to repair and reconstruct them.
— What part of Yellowstone is closed?
For now, all entrances to Yellowstone National Park are closed.
— When will the park reopen for visitors?
The northern portion of the park, which is most affected, is not expected to reopen to visitors for months because of damage and flooding close to the park’s northeast entrance in isolated Gardiner, Mont., through the Mammoth Hot Springs, Lamar Valley and Cooke City.
Park officials said Tuesday night that they’re assessing damage to determine reopening plans. All entrances to the park will remain closed while officials wait for flooding to recede before assessing the damage to roads, bridges and wastewater treatment facilities.
Closure of the southern loop of the park has been extended through June 19.
“The National Park Service will make every effort to repair these roads as soon as possible; however, it is probable that road sections in northern Yellowstone will not reopen this season due to the time required for repairs,” a news release said.
While the northern loop of the park remains closed, officials are assessing how many visitors they can allow safely in other parts once the park reopens. They may launch a temporary reservation system to prevent traffic and protect park infrastructure.
— Where can I find the latest information?
Officials have been releasing information on the Yellowstone website. The park has also been posting updates on Twitter and Instagram.
For road conditions, NPS recommends visiting the park roads website or signing up for alerts for your phone by texting “82190” to 888-777. You can also call 307-344-2117.
— Should I cancel my trip to Yellowstone?
It depends. If you were hoping for Yellowstone National Park specifically, Wiese says she recommends rescheduling plans, as visitors won’t be allowed in the park until conditions improve.
However, others say to hold off on canceling. With airports operational and other parts of the state unaffected by the rainfall, Robin Hoover, executive director of Montana’s Yellowstone Country Tourism Region, says they’re still welcoming visitors to the area.
“It’s going to take some time to assess the full situation and help our communities figure out what’s next,” Hoover said. “But in the meantime, we do want to assure visitors they can find plenty to do and see in our neighboring communities outside the park.”
Matt Berna, president of Intrepid Travel, North America, says the tour company has nine trips that might be affected by the flooding. Even so, he also doesn’t think travelers should cancel their trips to Yellowstone altogether.
“There are amazing things to do across Montana and Wyoming, in Big Sky, Bozeman, Jackson Hole, the Grand Tetons,” he said. “And we know Yellowstone Park will do everything it can to get portions of the park open.”
Janine Pettit, founder of Girl Camper, an organization that plans trips to Yellowstone, says that once park officials say it’s safe to come back, go for it. In the meantime, she recommends renting an RV from peer-to-peer companies like Outdoorsy or RV Share to explore destinations such as Cody, Wyoming.
“The area is so beautiful, and you can absolutely still have an amazing holiday,” Pettit said. “It will just take some flexibility and sense of adventure.”
— Can I get a refund for my travel plans?
If you booked tickets, campsite reservations or lodging through Recreation.gov, there’s information on cancellations and refunds on its Rules & Reservation Policies page. In the event of an emergency closure, you should be refunded, including all fees, with the exception of fees for free tickets, free campsites or free permits. You should be notified through the contact information you have listed in your customer profile.
For tours, hotels, and other reservations made in advance, Hoover recommends travelers contact businesses directly about refunds and rescheduling.
“A lot of local businesses are already posting on their Facebook pages how to go about that,” Hoover said.
If you bought travel insurance, John Rose, chief risk officer for the travel management company ALTOUR, says to check whether your policy covers natural disasters. “If not, it is up to the vendors or refunds, which varies as the refund policies often do not cover for a natural disaster,” he said.
Even without insurance, “most travel suppliers are more flexible than ever due to the continuously changing circumstances,” says Emily Lutz, a travel adviser in the Travel Leaders network. She’s found that hotels, tour companies and other travel suppliers are usually happy to reschedule reservations for different dates, but you may have difficulty adjusting if you made reservations through third-party booking sites.
— How can I help the efforts?
Those who wish to support Yellowstone can donate to the national park itself, the park friends group Yellowstone Forever, the National Park Foundation or Two Bear Air, the local philanthropic search-and-rescue organization helping with evacuations. You can also search for volunteer opportunities in and around the parks at Volunteer.gov or get in touch with organizations in the area to find out more ways to help.
After park employee housing was washed away into the Yellowstone River, a GoFundMe was set up for its residents.
“While Yellowstone National Park pursues both temporary and permanent housing options for these families that are all National Park Service employees, I’m hoping we can replace some of the personal items that were lost in the flood,” wrote the fundraiser’s organizer, Lauren McGarvey.
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The Washington Post’s Gabe Hiatt contributed to this report.