The National Park Service is beginning to test public access in some of its parks across the country, and Yellowstone National Park will allow visitors to enter the park through its Wyoming gates beginning Monday, May 18. Glacier National Park remains closed, but both parks prepare to open access in Montana in the coming weeks.
Montana’s national parks are busiest in the summer months. Last year, more than 2.5 million travelers visited Glacier National Park from June to September, and Yellowstone saw 3 million visitors in those four months. People from around the world are drawn to wonders like Glacier’s windy mountain pass, the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser, spouting its steam 100 feet into the air like clockwork about 20 times a day. Such sites draw crowds, which is a danger these days. Park officials are revisiting how visitors will experience our parks to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow, who has been working from home in Whitefish, said he is preparing his staff for a season of constant change.
“The nature of COVID-19 is so unprecedented, nobody foresaw this, nobody anticipated this, so there’ll be a lot of learning, a lot of 'let’s try this, and, hmm, maybe let’s not do this anymore, let’s do something else,'” Mow said. “So I think we’re all going to need to be more adaptable and flexible in the face of COVID.”
But while the virus is new, Mow has learned that uncertainty is always part of management. After spending two decades leading national parks in Alaska, Mow became Glacier’s superintendent about eight years ago. One constant from year to year, he said, is change.
“Since I’ve arrived at Glacier, it’s been almost every year we’ve had wildfire, we’ve had government shutdowns, now we have pandemic,” Mow said. “Quite honestly I think the staff will be happy to see me go when it’s time for me to go, because they’ll go, 'man, hopefully we get a calm period at some point in time.'”
Mow has a background in geology and has served on the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He said climate change has taught him to be comfortable operating in the gray.
“You know, the former superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, Bob Barbee, he was my mentor for awhile when he worked in Alaska. [His mantra was] 'You need to develop your zest for ambiguity,'" Mow said. "Because you know, look where we are now. You want to talk about ambiguous, this is about as ambiguous as you can get. When the whole world is trying to figure out what COVID means.”
Current Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly said the decision to open Wyoming gates to the park came after conversations with leaders of neighboring gateway communities that rely upon Yellowstone tourists for a big bulk of their business. Additionally, Wyoming recently lifted its 14-day self-quarantine order for out-of-state visitors while Montana has not. He said Americans are ready to travel to the national parks.
“I think people have been cooped up for a long time now,” Sholly said. “I think there’s a lot folks out there in the United States that were going to take international trips, but may not now. But they still want to take trips. Where’s a good place to go? Time will tell, but I believe that these gateways are ready for some business, and I believe that business will come.”
For many visitors an open park is only as appealing as its open attractions. So the parks are strategizing how to let visitors experience some of their most popular destinations first, with a priority on safety. In Yellowstone, public restrooms, self-service gas stations, medical clinics, trails and boardwalks will be open in designated areas for now, while overnight lodging, food service and visitor centers will remain closed. Yellowstone has arranged more frequent bathroom cleaning and modified entrance stations to keep staff and visitors safely distanced. But Sholly said there are some places where Yellowstone will rely on its visitors to keep themselves safe.
"We can do a lot of things to control how many people come into a facility,” Sholly said. “When you start talking about outside – you know we have around 11,000 people per day on the boardwalk at Old Faithful on an average summer day – there’s really no control point there. And you can access Old Faithful basically from 360 degrees. So what I would hope would be that the general public would do best to adhere to the national, state and local health guidelines. But I’ve also said that the park service is not going to be the social distancing police. Where we can effectively message and put signage up, reminders as people come in the gates that we need their help in working through this, and understanding that their irresponsibility can affect and infect others around them."
In Glacier, Mow said visitors tend to gather at predictable places for photo ops. He said he hopes visitors broaden their itineraries and their expectations.
"One of the things I learned from working in Alaska for over 20 years is that when you’re planning a trip, especially to Alaska, it’s always good to have a plan A, B, C and D. Because so often in a place like Alaska, it’s the weather or where planes can and can’t get, or some place is flooding. In Alaska, you walk on the wild side, so you have to be prepared for all those things. So having multiple itineraries is a great thing to have, cause then you’re never disappointed.
"And I don’t find that people travel in the Lower 48 that same way. They get really focused on standing in that one spot, or you know there’s that photo they saw on social media and they said, you know 'I really haven’t been to Glacier until I take that exact same photo with my own phone.' And we literally see people lined up in a line just to sort of stand in this one spot for that same photo. I’d like people to think more broadly about how they visit and think about all those alternative things and realize there’s not enough time to do everything I want to do, and therefore if I have to do something over here as opposed to over here, it’s still a great trip."
As Glacier has yet to announce its opening date, Mow said he is focused on being able to open the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Weather always drives its open date, as road crews typically clear snow well into June. But park staff will have to decide whether to run shuttle tours, including ones in Glacier’s signature red jammers.
Mow said eventually, they’ll decide how to alter dining and lodging to optimize safety. Already Gov. Steve Bullock’s Phase One directive has limited Glacier from staffing for the season, due to new employee housing rules requiring each person to have individual facilities which can be a challenge in classic seasonal housing. Normally they would have hired 300 seasonal employees by now, and they’ve only been able to bring on a fraction of that. It’s setting the stage for a slow start.
"People expect when parks open up that it’s going to be switching the light switch on, everything works," Mow said. "And it really isn’t gonna be like that. It’s gonna be more like sort of opening the tap slowly. We’re stepping gingerly into the future and we have to be able to retrace our steps if we need to."
And in Yellowstone, too, Sholly said visitors, especially those who visit soon, should expect changes.
"It may not be everything’s open in Yellowstone, but whether people can access the park, enjoy the park. And we will continue to work bring facilities online as it’s safe to do so, when the risk is as acceptable as it can be, with the right mitigation in place. Opening in May may look different than open in August."
While the parks expect overall lower visitor numbers this season, they’re still preparing to be plenty busy.
"Seeing that sort of that pent-up energy that so many people have, we won’t be short of visitors, I don’t think," Mow said.
Sholly said, "The further we get into the summer and people around the country start realizing, hey, you can go to some of these places, be socially responsible and enjoy them, I think you’re going to see that visitation ramp up even more. I hope so, anyway."
Both park superintendents said they’ll make sure the rest of Montana is ready before they open the state’s entrances to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.
"We know as soon as we say we’re open we will be bringing in an influx of areas from outside the area," Mow said. “And that’s been one of the big cautions that the governor has said we don’t want to do that in Phase One. We want to take this slowly, gradually and build ourselves up to that."
So until then, the plows inch forward on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, one bend at a time, with the faith that when it’s clear, travelers will be just around the corner.
"We’ll be ready for it," Mow said. "Whether the state’s ready for it, or the rest of the country’s ready for it, we’ll just see. There’s just so much that’s unknown, but we will be ready to open when the time is right."
Until then, park superintendents will prepare for the upcoming season a bit like a traveler with multiple itineraries.