Spring of 2022 brought a “once in 500 years” flood to Yellowstone National Park, prompting evacuations and an unprecedented full closure of the Park. Flows in the Yellowstone River were recorded at 50,000 cubic feet per second (cf/s) on the morning of June 13th. The previous high flow record was 30,000 cf/s compared to the annual average peak in June at 16,780 cf/s. Within 24 hours, the Park was evacuated entirely, clearing an estimated 12,000 people from roads, lodges, and backcountry sites. This impressive emergency action prevented any loss of life.
The Northern Tier received 7 1/2 to 9 1/2 inches of rain in one day on top of a heavy snowmelt year. In the three days leading up to June 13th, Yellowstone National Park had received two to three times its typical rainfall for the entire month of June.
The Gardner River, which meets the Yellowstone River in Gardiner, MT, flooded, washing out the North Entrance Road. Several long sections of pavement collapsed into the rushing waters. Engineers quickly declared it irreparable.
Soda Butte Creek, which runs along the northeast entrance road, also washed out in many sections, rendering the area impassable. The Yellowstone River in Lamar Valley claimed an interior road high up on the river gorge. This is just some of the damage of the turbulent, rushing waters. All of the significant damage from the raging floods and mudslides was in the northern tier of the Park.
Nine days later, as the weather stabilized, the park’s southern half reopened to visitors.
With the northeast entrance road in shambles and the Bear Tooth Highway in Montana washed out in six places over its 65-mile course (some ruts were 100 feet deep!), the small gateway towns of Silver Gate and Cooke City, Montana were isolated without any road access. Similarly, the Yellowstone River through Paradise Valley washed out bridges and isolated communities like Miner’s Basin.
The Park Service moved amazingly quickly to get access to the park from Gardiner. Tour operators were allowed to access the Park via the gravel Old Gardiner Road that joins Gardiner and Mammoth. By October, a brand new road snaking through the hills high above the Garder River Valley opened. Also in October, the Northeast Entrance road opened with washouts at the Soda Butte picnic area, Pebble Creek campground, Trout Lake trailhead, and a few more repaired and repaved.
In Lamar Valley, at the canyonside road collapse, crews stabilized and paved a one-lane passageway until they could rebuild the road this year. This is the only road access through Lamar Valley.
During my visit almost a year later, in June 2023, one-lane sections remained in effect in just three places and were expected to be complete by this year’s high summer season. The extent of the destruction is mind-boggling, only surpassed by the quick response from all agencies. It’s remarkable that there was no loss of life. Spontaneous major road repairs and rebuilding were completed in just four months.
The folks in Gardiner only half-joke, “First it was COVID, then it was the flood; this is probably the year that the big one is gonna blow!”
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