For the faithful and fanatical few early visitors to Yellowstone National Park arriving from Cody last week, Friday seemed more like a breezy summer day than the first chance to enter the park by car after another long winter.
But it appears there wasn’t quite enough winter overall in the park this year, as snowpack was at just a fraction of its usual levels throughout the wide valleys and high mountains that are home to headwaters for much of the surrounding region.
A mild and dry winter made for an easy time moving around the park, but could mean limited water for irrigation and the potential for a busy fire season in surrounding areas.
“I’ve been coming here for years, and I’ve never seen the lack of snow like we have this year,” said Jeff Bastin, a visitor from Indiana who had stopped at Lake Butte Overlook to take in the views of Yellowstone Lake and chat with friends.
Joining Bastin was James Elliott, from Ohio, who has been coming to the park for the past 25 years to watch wildlife and meet up with friends.
Both men said they prefer to visit Yellowstone in the spring and fall, when the weather is cooler, the crowds are smaller and the animals are easier to find.
Early spring visitors like Bastin and Elliott say they especially enjoy catching up with old friends and sharing tips and information as part of a vast, informal network of photographers, wildlife watchers and park enthusiasts who cherish the first weeks that autos are allowed back in the park.
Plenty of local residents are also among the early season regulars who make time to tour Yellowstone before summer brings heavy traffic and crowded boardwalks.
Visitors from Cody began lining up Friday morning at 6:30 to be among the first through the East Gate when it opened at 8:00, said Dennis Lenzendorf, a park ranger who has worked on the opening day of the season for the past eight years.
Lenzendorf said this year was the busiest first day he has seen, with more than 80 vehicles entering the East Gate in the first hour.
Many of those first cars in line were driven by Cody regulars who show up on opening day every year, he said.
Temperatures crept into the mid-60s as virtually cloudless skies prevailed throughout the day.
Canon Village was already teeming with construction workers continuing work begun last fall on a series of modular lodging units that will replace dilapidated cabins built more than 50 years ago.
Between Norris and Mammoth Hot Springs, crews were busy on a major road construction project that will continue throughout the summer, bringing delays of up to 30 minutes for motorists.
But for longtime visitors, road work is just part of what’s expected when visiting, and a small nuisance when compared to the unique experience of a trip to Yellowstone.
“It’s just such a profoundly beautiful place,” said Elliott, who entered Friday from the park’s Northeast Gate, near Cooke City, Mont. “I try to get here twice a year, and as soon as I make it into the Lamar Valley, I look around and say to myself: ‘I’m home.'”
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].