As Yellowstone begins to reopen, business owners, visitors and a ‘reporter’ respond
By Bella Butler MANAGING EDITOR
Photos by Gabrielle Gasser ASSOCIATE EDITOR
WEST YELLOWSTONE – West Yellowstone doesn’t have its own community newspaper, but Amy Beegel considers herself an unofficial reporter for the community.
Case in point: It’s Wednesday, June 22, and Yellowstone National Park has just reopened after shutting down for nine days due to historic flooding that wreaked havoc on the park’s infrastructure. Beegel owns Easy Tours Yellowstone, and she’s waiting for breakfast at the Book Peddler & Coffee Café off Canyon Street in West before a tour. As not only a guide but also a football coach and well-known Bingo caller, Beegel is one of those prolific people in the community that knows everyone at the coffee shop. She strikes up conversation with a few others in line about the park’s reopening.
“They already caught someone with fake plates,” she tells someone.
Since roads in the park’s north loop were washed away by the floods last week, the south loop is the only area currently open in Yellowstone. To limit traffic in the reduced park space, the National Park Service implemented a license-plate system wherein plates ending in odd numbers can enter the park on odd-numbered calendar days and those ending in even numbers can enter on even-numbered dates.
According to Beegel, some determined visitors were willing to risk a federal offense to get in one day early.
On the day of the reopening, the park is accessible by its West Entrance in West Yellowstone, its East Entrance in Cody, Wyoming, and its South Entrance near Jackson, Wyoming. The North Entrance in Gardiner and the Northeast Entrance in Silver Gate and Cooke City remain closed, but NPS hopes to open those entrances within the next two weeks.
In West Yellowstone, a stalled line of cars backed up from the West Entrance clogs Canyon Street as well as most side roads. Someone reports it took them three hours to get into town from where traffic started to back up at the Yellowstone Airport—2.5 miles away. The entrance reopened at 8 a.m., but the congestion of eager visitors started closer to 7 a.m. and didn’t free up until after noon.
Business was exactly zero for Beegel since the park closed on June 13. This morning, she’s buzzing with excitement to take clients into the park. Though the town of West Yellowstone was unscathed by the flooding, businesses still took an economic hit when the park closed. The streets—normally bustling during one of the busiest times of the summer—resembled those of a ghost town. Many of these business owners say they don’t know what visitation trends the summer may hold, but they also share a consensus voiced by Beegel: “I’m gonna get through this.”
Last week, a friend called Beegel and jokingly serenaded her with James Taylor’s lyrics: “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.” Beegel’s worked in Yellowstone since 1988, the summer infamous fires ravaged the park. Following the recent floods, Taylor’s song felt too ironic.
“I’ve lived through a lot here,” Beegel says. Even with record visitation to the park throughout the pandemic, she was still impacted by COVID-19 cancelations in 2020 and 2021. More recently she’s worried how ballooning gas prices could affect her business this summer.
Tourism markets face significant vulnerabilities, however many West Yellowstone businesses like Beegel’s boast a resume of resilience.
Bob Jacklin has owned Jacklin’s Fly Shop in West Yellowstone for 49 years and has guided fishermen on nearby rivers for more than a half century. He knows how fragile West Yellowstone’s economy becomes when the park shuts down.
“We all worry when the park closes because the town dies,” Jacklin says behind the counter at his shop.
Boots Hodges, who works for Jacklin’s, said last week he worried for Jacklin when the park closed.
“This is his life,” Hodges says. “And if it was taken away from him it would hurt me as much as it hurt him.”
The park service made some exceptions to its alternating license plate system, one of which allows commercial operators like guides to enter the park regardless of their license plate numbers. A few people come into Jacklin’s asking if they can book guided fishing trips in the park to take advantage of the exception.
Hodges says they received a few trip cancelations last week but added that nearly 50 years of business has built Jacklin’s a loyal and local clientele. Many customers, some friends of Jacklin’s, called to check in, Hodges said, but never canceled.
“I think we’ll get back to somewhat normal,” Jacklin says as traffic continues to block the road outside his shop. “This is the busiest week of the year [for] fly fishing … but it’s gonna be good all summer.”
Back at the Book Peddler, employees are huddled around café owner Debbie Griffin, who’s watching Beegel’s livestreamed video on Facebook as she bikes around West Yellowstone reporting on the traffic.
“You gotta remember this is opening day,” Beegel says on the livestream as she pedals past cars. “And we knew there was gonna be kinks, right? I know it seems bad, but I feel like a lot of people were hanging in there for this opening day … It might need some time to work out.”
Despite the traffic, Beegel said she’s grateful to park administration, specifically Superintendent Cam Sholly, whom she and other residents often refer to simply as “Cam,” for getting the gates open.
For some businesses, the nine-day park closure translated to big loss. Aaron Hecht, owner of Wild West Pizzeria & Saloon, said during that time his sales were down 60 percent.
“Those [nine] days in the peak of summer really add up to quite a lot of revenue,” Hecht says. “It’s definitely a large sum that’s going to be hard to make up the rest of the year.”
Down the street from Wild West, Alberto Martinez and his wife, Fatima Uribe, slice green peppers inside their Mexican food bus, Las Palmitas. It’s their first day back at work since closing Monday and Tuesday.
“We couldn’t really afford to stay open,” Martinez says. Wanting to get his employees’ minds off the closure, Martinez bought them a day riding razors in Island Park and another whitewater rafting in Big Sky. He says it was a chance for them to relax with what he thinks could be a busy summer ahead.
“Once the season starts, I think it’s gonna be a very tough one this year,” he says. “With the two northern gates being closed, I think people are gonna kind of swarm this way and [to] Cody.”
Regardless of any rush the summer might bring, Alpine Motel owner Brian Watson is lamenting what he believes could be irreversible loss for his business of 15 years. Last week, he fielded a wave of cancelations. Even with the park opening, he says many of his guests, especially those who typically book stays between two and four weeks, were turned off by the alternating license-plate system.
“They’ve called me and they said, ‘There’s no way I’m going to come here for a month so I can spend half the time in the park,” Watson says. “And the park service, they weren’t sympathetic to that.”
Another exception to the alternating license-plate system is for guests with overnight reservations inside the park. Watson believes this unfairly disadvantages lodging outside the park.
Watson is hopeful NPS will reconsider its limitations on visitors if and when it’s able to open its north loop, which the park service has said would expand open areas in the park to approximately 80 percent.
“Once the upper loop is open, I would like to see them return to normal,” he says. “It won’t undo the cancelations that have already occurred, that ship has sailed basically, but it should be able to help the gateway communities recover going forward.”
While snaking traffic lines this morning indicated booming business as the park reopened, the park service later reported that as of 2:30 p.m., fewer than 5,000 vehicles had entered the park that day, down from the usual 10,000.
“While it’s too early to tell if the license-plate system worked, it appears to have done its job by cutting our normal traffic counts by half,” Sholly said in a June 22 statement. “As we’ve discussed with our community partners, we will monitor this together and make adjustments if necessary. We’re happy to have visitors back in Yellowstone and appreciate the patience of the public and community partners as we continue working through this difficult situation.”
Like Sholly, most business owners in West Yellowstone remain uncertain about what challenges or victories may define the remaining months of the season.
From her observations—on the streets of town to inside the park—Beegel reflects on her unofficial reporting from June 22. Her headline for the day, she said: “Let’s play this out and see.”