The long wait is over: The East Entrance is open.
Hundreds of carloads of nature enthusiasts trekked west through the North Fork, Shoshone National Forest and passed the gates into Yellowstone National Park on Friday.
First in line at the gate, Nancy Gilmore, an employee in academic affairs at Northwest College in Powell, and friends Cassandra Luckett and Venda Shick were all smiles as gate employee Kimberly Kain swung the gate open.
“We got here at a quarter to seven. We stopped to see a grizzly [on the way],” Gilmore said. “We come every year on the first day. We saw a ton of bighorn sheep, a ton of elk, lots of deer and a couple bald eagles, but we did not see moose. We were in too big of hurry to get up here and be first in line.”
The new supervisor at the East Entrance, Brian Perry, had butterflies in his stomach as media surrounded him to learn the story of his journey to the entrance.
“I didn’t realize I would get interviewed,” Perry said as the swarm of journalists moved their cameras in the direction of the gate and visitors started their engines.
Perry is no stranger to the park, but gate supervisor is a new direction in his career. He took over the job left open by the retirement of Dennis Lenzendorf. Perry moved into his new home, immediately adjacent to the gate, just a week before the gates opened.
“I’ll be honest, it’s been hectic. I just made a major move and it was challenging starting a new job and being a new supervisor,” Perry said.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Perry previously worked eight seasons at Grant Village (on the west edge of Yellowstone Lake) as an interpretive ranger. He also worked three years at Mammoth Hot Springs and was previously a private guide in West Yellowstone, Montana.
“I’ve been all around the park,” he said.
An increase in the entry fee of $5 didn’t slow traffic through the gate as much as a bear sighting east of Pahaska Tepee. But Perry didn’t discount the importance of the fee hike.
“Times are tough and every little bit counts,” Perry said.
In 2017, the gates opened at 8 a.m. and closed at 1 p.m. out of concern for avalanche danger in Sylvan Pass. This year, snow piled at the edge of the road — and warm weather threatened to close the gate — but it remained in check through the day.
Gate employee Kain expected 400-500 cars to enter the park on opening day. After 15 years of seasonal work at the park, Kain also has a new position — now full-time. Kain is the new lead visitor use assistant and will move to staff accommodations soon in anticipation of wintering in the park. Having made several trips to Mammoth already, Kain said the park is in beautiful shape and the warm weather is bringing out the bears.
“I’ve already seen three grizzlies,” she said. “Early and late are the best times to see bears.”
Once through the gates, visitors were thrilled with views of majestic snow-covered peaks and plentiful wildlife. Grizzlies were abundant near roads, causing many bear jams. Bison lounged and browsed near geothermal features at Sedge Bay. A coyote gnawed on a rotted bison carcass for hours at Pelican Creek. Sandhill cranes, mountain bluebirds, American white pelicans and waterfowl flocked to the Yellowstone River and browsed meadows free of snow. Reports of wolves near Mammoth Springs sent many north on the long drive.
Delays at Fishing Bridge for survey crews slowed traffic down to one lane controlled by flag crews.
“There will be half-hour delays and [crews] will be doing that until Oct. 15,” Perry said. “It’s very difficult for us when we are under construction. But we have to find time to do it.”
Survey crews will continue for a short time, but then the park will be forced to start cutting trees according to Nancy Ward, chief of maintenance at the park.
“We need to clear the trees before nesting birds take up residence,” Ward said Monday.
Traffic will remain down to one lane through the summer, depending on work that needs to be done by contractors, she said.
“They will have to keep the traffic moving,” Ward added.
Separately, the Park Service hopes to finish paving between Norris and Mammoth Hot Springs this year, and have that entire project finished early next year, she said. Traffic jams in both construction zones have been long at times.
The Beartooth Highway leading to Cooke City, Montana, and the Northeast Entrance remained closed on Friday, forcing many on a round trip back to the East Gate. The drive east through the Shoshone National Forest to Cody offered many roadside views of full-curl bighorn sheep rams, herds of elk and deer near Wapiti and several moose in the North Fork of the Shoshone River.
On their way out of the park, Bob and Georgia Funkhouser said they’ll wait until the snow melts a little before venturing back into Yellowstone. They saw one bear as it struggled to make its way through the snow. Georgia Funkhouser said she felt sorry for the big boar, but knows it’s nature’s way.
“I love my bears,” she said.