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April 19, 2011 7:35 am

Summer season, winter conditions

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Mounds of snow dwarf a vehicle exiting a parking area near the Old Faithful Visitor’s Center on Friday. The remnants of winter dominated the landscape during the start of Yellowstone’s summer season. Mounds of snow dwarf a vehicle exiting a parking area near the Old Faithful Visitor’s Center on Friday. The remnants of winter dominated the landscape during the start of Yellowstone’s summer season. Tribune photo by Randal Horobik

Despite snow, Yellowstone begins to open

It may technically have been the start of the summer season, but visitors who took advantage of Yellowstone National Park’s opening weekend encountered the unmistakable remnants of winter.

Park roads linking Mammoth to the gateway community of West Yellowstone, Mont., the Norris Geyser Basin to the Canyon area and Madison Junction to Old Faithful opened to motorized vehicles Friday morning. Snow, however, was the overwhelming story for many of Yellowstone’s opening weekend visitors.

At the Old Faithful Visitor’s Center, early arrivals to the park had to walk through snow canyons trenched through drifts that towered over the tops of the entryway roofs. Benches around the area’s namesake geyser remained buried beneath winter’s blanket. Elsewhere, workers continued the laborious task of cutting blocks of snow 4-5 feet thick and pushing them off the rooftops of nearby buildings.

Drivers headed from Norris to Canyon encountered walls of snow 8-9 feet deep along both sides of the highway for miles. Walkways at popular attractions such as the Norris Geyser Basin and the Lower Falls’ Artist Point featured snow piled well above the tops of the safety handrails. Lamar Valley, a favorite early-season destination for wildlife watchers, continued to slumber, virtually trackless in a snowy quilt.

In some cases, the trip getting to the park was more of an adventure than being in the park. Drivers using U.S. Highway 89 to drive into the northern gateway town of Gardiner, Mont., could witness elk, deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and bison, many times without taking their eyes from the roadway. The animals are just beginning to migrate back to the park after being pushed to lower elevations by a winter of above-average snowfall.

According to the National Park Service, roads linking Canyon to Fishing Bridge and the East Entrance will open to wheeled vehicles on May 6, with all other park roads except the Canyon-to-Tower Fall route over Dunraven Pass scheduled to clear the following weekend.

All of that, however, is contingent upon the weather. On Monday, the majority of the park was in a winter weather alert, with predictions of another 5 inches of snow. The 10-day extended forecast included a chance of snow on 9 out of the 10 days.

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