Tourism insiders expect strong summer as Yellowstone’s East Gate set to open Friday

A bighorn sheep stands in the middle of the East Entrance road east of Sylvan Pass in Yellowstone National Park as spring 2014 visitors enter the park from Cody, Wyo.

A bighorn sheep stands in the middle of the East Entrance road east of Sylvan Pass in Yellowstone National Park as spring 2014 visitors enter the park from Cody, Wyo.

CODY, WYO. — With the East Gate to Yellowstone National Park scheduled to open Friday, tourism industry insiders are reporting strong advance bookings in anticipation of a solid summer travel season.

Positive economic indicators like fall unemployment rates and the potential for low- and middle-income wage growth may be contributing to the optimistic travel outlook, along with gasoline prices that remain well below where they have typically been in recent years.

“Maybe people will be able to spend a little more money this year with gas prices down from where they were,” said Tim Wade, owner of North Fork Anglers and Tour to Yellowstone.

Wade said advance bookings for guided fishing trips and tours of Yellowstone Park are both “up significantly over last year.”

“Things look really good, and we’re expecting a strong tourism year,” he said.

Bill Thielemann, owner of Cody Cowboy Village, said he is seeing a sharp increase in reservations at his 50-unit motel property, which opens for the season Friday.

“Bookings are exceptionally heavy, and it looks like it’s not going to be very long until we’re sold out for the year,” Thielemann said.

Demonstrating the growing importance of the Internet as a key factor in vacation travel planning, both Thielemann and Wade said their recent online marketing efforts had played a role in more than doubling their advance bookings over the same period last year.

Wade said improvements to his Tour To Yellowstone website have helped keep online visitors browsing longer, making them more likely to book a tour.

Thielemann said recent travel industry consolidations by online hotel booking giant Expedia had resulted in a big bump in business for his hotel.

Cody Country Chamber of Commerce executive director Scott Balyo said other lodging businesses also are reporting strong early reservations, including some with bookings at twice the rate of last year.

For the second year, the Chamber will be serving a pancake breakfast Friday morning to celebrate the opening of the East Gate to auto traffic, Balyo said.

“It’s definitely a big deal locally, and we’re going to celebrate with an event that’s open to anyone who wants to get out and be among the first to enjoy the park,” he said.

A relatively mild winter has made plowing park roads a little easier this spring than is typical, said Yellowstone spokeswoman Traci Weaver.

Despite some spring snow showers over the weekend, Weaver said there was no significant new accumulation on park roads, and the East Gate is expected to open as scheduled.

Road crews were finishing work Tuesday on plowing the road between Cooke City, Mont., at the park’s Northeast Gate, and Pilot Creek, according to the Cooke City Chamber of Commerce. The road is expected to be open Friday, allowing travel from Cooke City to Cody along the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway.

Old Faithful and most of the park’s other major attractions will be open and accessible, but lodging and dining options are limited during the early spring season. Pay-at-the-pump gas stations in the park are open 24 hours. Because weather can be unpredictable, travelers are advised to pack and prepare in anticipation of potential delays or closures.

While roads in Grand Teton are opening Friday as well, Yellowstone’s South Gate is not scheduled to open until May 8, after which all park entrances will be open.

Weaver said motorists should expect delays of up to 30 minutes this summer during construction along a 5-mile stretch of road between Norris and Mammoth Hot Springs.

Early season construction will also prevent through-travel between West Thumb and Old Faithful, as crews work to replace the historic Isa Lake bridge at Craig Pass. The pass is scheduled to reopen by June 11, with traffic delays of up to 30 minutes while bridge construction continues during the summer.

Current road information is available by phone at 307-344-2117 or at the Yellowstone National Park website.

Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].

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