What’s it like to live in a tourist town with no tourists?

After the floods, Yellowstone gateway communities are grappling with what comes next.

 

When I pulled up to the Alpine Motel in Cooke City, Montana, just outside Yellowstone National Park in early July, general manager Chad Meador, who was watering flowers, walked over to greet me. “How’s it been since the flood?” I asked, referring to the record levels of June runoff that inundated homes and destroyed roads throughout the region.

A sign at the entrance to Cooke City, Montana, expresses the community’s gratitude to summertime visitors.
Nick Mott / High Country News

He gestured at the gravel parking lot behind him. My car was the only vehicle in sight. “How’s it look?” he said.

Over 90% of Yellowstone National Park was open, but two of its five entrances — the north and northeast gates — remained closed to general traffic due to road damage. Both entrances are in remote areas, home to Gardiner, Cooke City and Silver Gate, Montana.

In ordinary summers, empty parking lots in any of these towns are a rare sight. Peak Yellowstone tourism season attracts millions of visitors, and brings more than $200 million to Park County each year. But now, with the gates closed, Cooke City, Silver Gate and Gardiner are largely cut off from the park and learning how to survive when the tourists are gone.

RICHARD PARKS, owner of Parks’ Fly Shop in Gardiner, just north of Yellowstone, gauges the level of the Yellowstone River by how high it rises on a few boulders just outside his window. His father opened the shop in 1953, and he’s paid careful attention to the river nearly his whole life. On Monday, June 13, he looked out and the boulders were gone, completely covered by dark brown water. “Didn’t even make a ripple,” he said. “There’s no way that was coming down the river without there being consequences.”

When the flood hit, the town issued a boil water order. All the restaurants closed, and the area was briefly cut off on all sides. Then, after the flood receded, even more impacts hit. “A tsunami of cancellations started rolling downhill,” Parks said. His hectic summer of guiding trips suddenly came to a halt, along with the business in his shop. He reduced one of his employees to part-time and let another one go.

The deserted town of Gardiner, Montana, Monday, June 20, 2022. Due to the flood and the shut down of the Yellowstone National Park, many tourists have left.
Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

In downtown Gardiner, I walked into the Wonderland Cafe and Lodge and sat down at a booth with the owner, Stacey Orsted. Gardiner, perched in an arid valley on the banks of the Yellowstone, is home to about 830 people. On a normal summer day, Orsted said, there would be a line out the door and an hour-or-more wait for a table. Now, we were the only people inside. According to Orsted, the Wonderland is the largest hospitality employer in town. She usually has about 50 employees in summertime, but now, she’s down to 33. And every business in town is facing similar problems, she said. “Anybody that works here is now impacted. Whether they lost their job, they’re working less hours, or they’re making less tips.”

A $25,000 grant was available for small businesses from the state, Orsted said, but other than that, business owners would have to seek out loans — and, after COVID, she’s already saddled with as much debt as she can stand. She’s an optimist, she said, but “this one’s tested my optimism to the max it’s ever been tested.” 

Cooke City and Silver Gate, Cooke’s neighbor three miles up the road, sit high in the Beartooth Mountains. Combined, they have fewer than 100 inhabitants. In the Cooke City General Store, owner Troy Wilson, who is also the fire chief, stood at the empty shop’s checkout counter, waiting for nonexistent customers. Local businesses had been preparing for a banner year: 2021 was Yellowstone’s busiest ever, with 4.8 million visits, and this summer marked the park’s 150th anniversary. Special events were planned, and local businesses loaded up. “Now we’ve turned into a ghost town, and I think probably everybody’s down anywhere between 60% to 70% of their business,” he said.

Wilson, who grew up in Billings, used to visit Cooke City with his grandparents. Fishing and exploring, he fell in love with the Beartooths. He started working in Cooke in 1984, and bought the general store in the early 2000s. He said there were moments when the severity of the town’s predicament hit him hard. But he was stoic about the future. “Wherever you’re at as a businessperson or homeowner, you’ve taken on the responsibility of where you chose to live,” he said. “So sometimes you have to pay the piper.” 

“Anybody that works here is now impacted. Whether they lost their job, they’re working less hours, or they’re making less tips.”

THE FLOODS TURNED the problems that local business owners faced on their head. For years, as national park visitation skyrocketed, they’d had to deal with too much business during peak season: every room booked, waitlists, lines out the doors, bumper-to-bumper traffic, vacation rentals eating up all the housing for workers. Now, for the first time, they have to learn to advertise themselves. They’re pivoting to attract people from nearby parts of Montana and Wyoming, who ordinarily might avoid the hustle and bustle of the gateway towns. Now, the thinking goes, locals can come and experience the park’s surroundings in a way that hasn’t been possible during peak tourist season for years: in solitude.

“We’re all pretty devastated by this,” said Misty Polk, manager of the High Country Motel. “But we’re also using this as an opportunity to show people what Cooke City has without the park.” 

In all three towns, it’s common to see the park’s charismatic megafauna roaming the streets. Elk and bison plod through downtown and bed down in tall grass. Several people told me they’d seen bears, wolves, even a wolverine, since the tourist traffic had disappeared. Even though the official park entrance is a few miles away, “We’re essentially in Yellowstone Park, you know,” said Ben Zavora, owner of Beartooth Powder Guides in Cooke City. “They just draw a line.”

Business owners are employing previously unthinkable strategies: offering pay-what-you-can stays, even telling people about favorite trails and fishing holes, places they generally keep to themselves for their peace and privacy. “Now I’m promoting my backyard instead of saying, ‘Go to Yellowstone, it’s awesome,’” Wilson said.

Cara McGary, owner of In Our Nature Guiding Services, looks at an elk carcass in her backyard in Gardiner, Montana, on June 16, 2022. As a naturalist and wildlife watching tour guide, McGary’s business will be severely affected by the closure of the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park due to the historic flood that damaged roads, bridges and infrastructure in southwest Montana.
Louise Johns for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Cara McGary, owner of Gardiner-based guiding company In Our Nature, said she’s started thinking about the new sorts of tours she could offer in the areas around the park — trips that might appeal more to people from the area than out-of-towners, like, say, visits to sustainable farms or other services with locals’-only rates. “This is the opportunity for spontaneity,” she said. If someone from Bozeman or Billings decided on a whim to spend the weekend in Gardiner, they’d have no problem finding lodging, and there’d be no shortage of hiking, fishing, birding, horseback riding or sightseeing to fill their days.

The National Park Service says that permanent fixes to Yellowstone’s roads could take three to five years. Meanwhile, however, they’ve made rapid progress on temporary solutions. In early July, Yellowstone began allowing local guides to use an old road into the park from Gardiner as a short-term fix to help bring tourists to the community. McGary drove me up that road, her first time back in the park since the flood. “The Park Service getting this road in the condition that it’s in and helping us begin to operate on a limited basis is just — it’s a lifesaver,” McGary said. The more visitor access that I can support — that’s directly related to how many rooms get filled in my community and how many meals get eaten in local restaurants. 

“This is the opportunity for spontaneity.”

It was a quiet day in the park. But winding down a road to an area called Tower Junction, we slowed as we approached a small queue of cars. A large black bear loped through a field of sage and crossed the road.

A bear jam: a quintessential — and often frustrating — Yellowstone experience. McGary smiled. For a moment, it seemed like she let go of the uncertainty ahead, as if her experience of the park was back to something approaching normal.

Nick Mott is an award-winning journalist and podcast producer who focuses mostly on climate, public land and the environment. He’s based in Livingston, Montana.

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