By Ruffin Prevost
CODY, WYO. — With just under six weeks until most roads in Yellowstone National Park close to autos for winter, a section of road near Tower Junction is being rebuilt for the first time in decades, while a damaged stretch of road east of Fishing Bridge will not be repaired this fall, as had been planned.
The road from Tower Junction to a barricade just north of the Chittenden Road turnoff on Dunraven Pass has been closed for the season to allow for a major reconstruction project, according to a statement released by the Yellowstone public affairs office.
Visitors will be able to access Chittenden Road and the Mount Washburn area from Canyon Village to the south until that section of road closes for the season at 8 a.m., Oct. 9.
Park Officials had said earlier this year that they were planning to make repairs this fall to a partially washed-out section of road between Sylvan Pass and Fishing Bridge. Much of the eastbound lane along a section of road known as “Nine Mile,” between Lake Butte Overlook and Sedge Bay, was washed away in May 2011.
Since then, concrete barricades have closed off the damaged eastbound lane and a temporary, automated traffic signal has routed alternating two-way travel through the remaining westbound lane with minor delays, typically of five minutes or less.
Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk told Cody business owners last year that it was his goal to fix the road as soon as possible, with repairs initially scheduled for fall 2011. Budget constraints and logistics complications have delayed the repairs.
Though the single-lane solution has reportedly worked well, some Cody merchants remain nervous that further erosion could wash out the remaining lane, and worry about ongoing delays for repairs.
“I give them credit for being able to keep one lane open with minimal delays, and we certainly appreciate that,” said Scott Balyo, executive director of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce. “But obviously, we would have hoped that it would be fixed this fall.”
Heavy spring snowmelt and precipitation in 2011, along with wave action from Yellowstone Lake, washed out a portion of the road, requiring a large retaining wall as part of the proposed repairs, which are likely to cost more than $1 million. Park officials had hoped to add the job onto the Tower area road reconstruction project already under way.
But bids “came in well above our estimates and available budget, and a contract was not awarded,” said Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash in an email. Nash said the National Park Service would solicit new bids for the Nine Mile repairs “at some point in the future.”
With spring traditionally a poor time to work on roads in the park due to wet conditions, and peak summer traffic making construction closures and delays undesirable, it could be another year before repairs begin at Nine Mile.
“The worst-case scenario is that the rest of the road goes too, and then you’ve really got a problem,” Balyo said.
Park officials have said that federal highway engineers have installed monitoring equipment at the site and do not anticipate additional erosion or damage to the remaining lane.
Most of Yellowstone’s roads will close Nov. 5 in preparation for the winter season. The road from the park’s North Entrance at Gardiner, Mont. to Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyo. and on to Cooke City, Mont. is kept open to autos year-round.
A section of the Beartooth Highway (Highway 212) between the junction of Highway 296 and Red Lodge, Mont. closes for winter on Oct. 9.
Fall remains a favorite time for local residents to visit Yellowstone without the crowds of summer, but services and facilities are curtailed or closed in the coming weeks, and weather can be unpredictable. Road closures from early-season snow or ice are always possible.
Visitors are encouraged to call or go online for the latest information on Yellowstone area roads and amenities.
Call 307-344-2117 for updated park road information or visit the Yellowstone website for specific closing dates.
Call 888-WYO-ROAD or visit the Wyoming Department of Transportation website for Wyoming roads outside the park. Call 800-226-7623 or the Montana Department of Transportation website for Montana roads outside the park.
For winter season information, visit the Yellowstone winter planning page online.