Early crowds make for busy opening day at East Gate to Yellowstone Park

A Buddhist monk from Thailand takes photographs at Sylvan Lake on Friday in Yellowstone National Park.

A Buddhist monk from Thailand takes photographs at Sylvan Lake on Friday in Yellowstone National Park.

CODY, WYO. — For the past decade, at 8 a.m. on the first Friday in May, Yellowstone National Park ranger Dennis Lenzendorf has pulled aside a locked barricade to open the park’s East Entrance to the season’s first visitors. But this year was a little different.

Normally, a few dozen cars—mainly full of locals anxious to re-enter the park on opening day—are queued up and waiting. But typically, after the first hour, traffic is sparse. This past Friday, more than 50 vehicles were still lined up at 10 a.m. waiting to enter.

“This is by far the craziest it’s ever been” during his time working the East Gate on opening day, Lenzendorf said. “It’s been steady, solid like this all morning.”

Nearby, a minivan full of Buddhist monks from Thailand stood next to a large entrance sign, posing for a group photo. Dressed in sandals and saffron-colored robes, they appeared to be exotic harbingers of what park officials say may be another record-breaking year for Yellowstone visitation.

More than 4 million people toured Yellowstone in 2015, the busiest year on record. The previous high mark came in 2010, with 3.6 million visitors. With the National Park Service celebrating its centennial this year, planners are expecting even bigger crowds than last year.

If Friday was any indication, those expectations are well-founded. Besides the usual contingent of local and regional wildlife watchers who enter the park each May, there were plenty of international visitors and out-of-state license plates. Higher traffic from foreign tourists, especially visitors from Asia, has been a growing trend in recent years.

By mid-day, there was a line to use the men’s room at the Canyon Visitor Center, where Bernhard Strubel, a film editor from Berlin, was viewing interpretive exhibits with his parents.

“I decided to show my parents the ‘Wild West,’ said Strubel, who had already made stops at the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park and Monument Valley before making his first trip into Yellowstone.

“It’s beautiful, but there are already a lot of tourists, even so early in the season,” said Strubel, who specifically scheduled his May visit to avoid the crowds and hot weather of summer.

Though he had already seen a grizzly bear, black bear and gray wolves, Strubel said the park’s bison were his favorite so far.

Nearly 5,000 bison roam across much of the park, and five visitors were injured in separate incidents last year after getting too close to the unpredictable and deceptively swift animals. Already this year, a woman was captured on video as she walked up to a bison and tried to pet it.

The woman was not injured, but park officials have said they will be stepping up their efforts to make sure visitors keep their distance from all wildlife.

Included in printed materials passed out to each vehicle this year is a newly redesigned flyer on yellow paper urging visitors to “Think Safety, Act Safely.” It shows a simplified version of the familiar drawing of a person being gored by a bison, and the reverse side includes detailed warnings in five different languages.

That safety message was being reinforced in person Friday by a ranger managing traffic and crowds near Otter Creek in the Hayden Valley, where photographers were waiting for the return of a wolf that had been feeding on an elk carcass.

But rangers can’t be everywhere, and a few hours later, along the roadside in the Lamar Valley, a different group of visitors crowded around a small group of bison and their calves. Some raised their cell phone cameras as others posed for photos, moving closer to the calves to get that perfect shot.

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

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