Snowmobiles and exhaust at the West Entrance to Yellowstone National Park in February of 2000. (Jim Peaco/NPS)

CODY—Montana business owners and residents in Gardiner, Cooke City and Red Lodge joined with Wyoming colleagues in Cody Monday to discuss how to ensure winter access to each other’s communities and to Yellowstone National Park after record rains last month washed out bridges and roads throughout the region. Floods left the park’s North and Northeast entrances closed to tourist traffic.

Citing June’s catastrophic floods and the the possibility of being cut off from automobile access to food, medical care and essential supplies this winter, members of the newly formed Park Access Recommendation Committee said they plan to meet sometime in August with public officials in Montana and Wyoming to develop a plan to plow an 8-mile section of U.S. Highway 212 traditionally left unplowed for use by recreational snowmobilers.

PARC members said during their online meeting that if repairs to heavily damaged sections of the Northeast Entrance Road between Cooke City and Gardiner are not completed by winter, U.S. Highway 212 would be the only option for residents to connect by auto to the outside world. They are also looking for additional winter tourism from auto visitors to help make up for an abysmal summer to date.

“This is a matter of survival for us,” said Terri Briggs, owner of the Big Moose Resort and president of the Cooke City Chamber of Commerce, which also serves the nearby Silver Gate and Colter Pass communities, all of which are unincorporated. Briggs said a Chamber survey found business was down 50%-70% so far this summer for most local merchants.

The Northeast Entrance Road in Yellowstone National Park is washed out after heavy rains and snowfall in June. (NPS photo/Jacob Frank)

PARC member Michael Keller said winter access out of Cooke City “is a critical life, safety and wellness issue,” and that he isn’t certain that road repairs through the Lamar Valley could be completed in time. Keller is general manager of Yellowstone National Park Lodges, operated by Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the park’s primary concessioner. He also is treasurer of the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce and a director on the Wyoming Tourism Board. 

The Park Service has been unable to give a solid timeline for repairs, and likely won’t be able to until at least after Labor Day, Keller said. 

Joint plowing efforts

For decades, the National Park Service has plowed the Northeast Entrance Road through the Lamar Valley, connecting Gardiner and nearby park headquarters in Mammoth Hot Springs to the remote mountain communities of Silver Gate and Cooke City, which lie just outside the park’s Northeast Entrance.

The Wyoming Department of Transportation and Park County have traditionally plowed the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway and a section of U.S. Highway 212 to Pilot Creek, a little more than 4 miles south of the Montana border and just over 8 miles southeast from Cooke City. That has allowed snowmobilers coming from Wyoming to use a parking area at Pilot Creek for parking trucks and trailers, and the 8-mile section of unplowed road to access a network of backcountry trails in the Beartooth Mountains around Cooke City.

The idea of plowing Highway 212 all the way to Cooke City — “plowing the plug” — has come up previously, often cited as a way to increase winter tourism in the region by allowing auto travel from Gardiner to Cody. Proponents say wolf watching, skiing, snowshoeing and ice climbing are Cooke City area activities unavailable to those arriving from the Wyoming side, except by snowmobile. 

But the plug has remained unplowed, in part because of the actual or perceived financial, logistical and jurisdictional complications of clearing a remote section of alpine highway that runs through two counties, two national forests and two states. 

Few travelers were stopping in Cooke City on Dec. 28, 2021. Business owners are looking to boost winter tourism by plowing a section of U.S. Highway 212. (Ruffin Prevost/Yellowstone Gate)

Snowmobilers have been vocal and persistent in their opposition to plowing, arguing that it would limit some of their trail access and complicate parking, among other issues. Opponents of plowing the plug — mainly snowmobilers and some businesses that rely on them — have also claimed previously that most in the Cooke City area would prefer the highway to remain unplowed. 

Local consensus

While that may have been true in decades past, a number of separate surveys over the last few years conducted by the Cooke City Chamber of Commerce and others, have consistently shown a 60%-70% majority of local residents who want the plug plowed. Winter tourism business from snowmobilers has also been slowly but steadily dwindling in recent years, some PARC members said.

“No one wants snowmobilers up here more than us,” said PARC member Timmy Weamer, owner of Cooke City Exxon. Weamer said his group will work to ensure continued snowmobile access to trails using the right of way at the outside borders of the plowed section of Highway 212, as is routinely done near places like Island Park in Idaho, Togwotee Pass and Big Sky in Montana

“This isn’t about just access for snowmobiles to Cooke City. It’s about our access out and other visitors being able to get through to Cody and Red Lodge,” Weamer said. “Right now, in winter, you have to tell cars to turn around.”

Weamer’s father, Tim Weamer, lives in Red Lodge, where he said summer business has been down about 40% so far. He handles marketing for the Red Lodge Chamber of Commerce and serves as a board member for the Yellowstone Country region of Visit Montana, the state tourism agency.

“From the Red Lodge standpoint, we agree with (plowing the plug)” he said during Monday’s meeting. Additional auto traffic coming from Gardiner and points north through Cooke City and on to Cody and Red Lodge would add to the winter economies in all of those communities, he said.

“We need to start now. The clock’s ticking.”

Michael Keller, general manager of Yellowstone National Park Lodges

Bruce Sauers, director of revenue for the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, said during Monday’s meeting that museum numbers are down about 20% so far this summer. 

“We are faring better than most, but it’s still a significant impact for us,” Sauers said. “There are vacancy signs up everywhere, lodging rates are down and I think everyone on this call has felt an impact.” 

PARC members said they want the plug plowed to ensure short-term critical access this winter, but also with an eye toward long-term regional tourism development in the years ahead. But they said they share the same goal as snowmobilers in working now to ensure the best access to trails this winter if the plug is plowed. 

In a July 20 letter from the Wyoming State Snowmobile Association to Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, group president Brenda Miller wrote that if repairs aren’t completed in time, “we fully understand that [the plug] will have to be plowed this winter to provide highway access into Cooke City.”

Miller said that if the plug is plowed, “we request that your office help ensure every available effort is made to establish an alternate off-highway route for the existing snowmobile trail which would be displaced from that section of Highway 212.” Her letter opposed plowing the plug if repairs are completed.

Keller, the PARC member and Yellowstone general manager for Xanterra, said it is important to start work now to sort out how any changes would work. 

“We’re not sure yet who would be responsible for maintaining that road for cars and ensuring access for snowmobiles, or what all that would look like,” he said. “So we need to start now. The clock’s ticking.”

This story was originally published on yellowstonegate.com. 

Disclosure: Ruffin Prevost is a board member for the Park County Travel Council. The group does not have a position on this issue. Contact him at 307-213-9818 or ruffinprevost@gmail.com.

Ruffin Prevost, Yellowstonegate.com

Ruffin Prevost is founding editor of Yellowstone Gate, an independent, online news service about Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks and their gateway communities. He lives in Cody where he also works as...

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  1. Over five years as owner operator of Big Bear Lodge, we are located @ the center of the “Plug” Since our arrival, we’ve treaded lightly in regards to local hot topics. We support & engage in EVERY activity that our environment provides. We’ve offered our support & involvement & it has been accepted (graciously) by almost all local organizations. There are two exceptions. The 1st is our local snowmobile club chair holders. The individuals propagating miss truths & rumors. The board members have systematically silenced those that oppose there limited vision. The board members have made it common practice to speak for our citizens and club members without consent. The organization itself has earned the title of “Bully”. Second would be the YNP authority. The park authority has further empowered the local snowmobile board members by pandering to there every whim while simultaneously ignoring the well being of our friends,neighbors & children. Without exception every parent with a child enrolled @ The Cooke City school is whole heartedly in favor for “Pulling the plug”. I’m praying for the day that we are no longer manipulated by a club & overlooked by a Federal entity. Can’t believe I have to say this out loud, but- CAN WE GET SOME STATE GOVERNMENT UP HERE!?

  2. Golly Gee. Here I thought we were in Global warming/climate emergency. This promotes more fossil fuel use. Plow the roads so the EV chargers can be used

  3. Golly Gee I thought we were in climate emergency? Here one promoting more emissions from nasty old fossil fuels.

  4. Excellent story on this complex issue. Following and covering the Plug for decades, I’m struck how in recent years sentiment has really changed in Cooke City. It used to be that those relatively few individuals who mostly controlled winter tourism there were doing just fine and wanted no changes, nor the new competition that could result from plowing the plug.
    But that’s dramatically changing these days as so many younger people with diverse ideas and goals seek to alter the status quo for the wider benefit of the Cooke City community – not to mention Cody and Powell. These changes, difficult as they are for some (including snowmobilers who are used to controlling the highway), are inevitable.

    I’ve long been enthralled with the prospect of a new, all-weather route from, more broadly, Cody to Bozeman and the diverse new opportunities for the public that would surely result.

    It seems that all it took was a historic flood to gain and focus everyone’s attention.

  5. Lost in the blizzard of rhetoric around the Cooke Pass orpahned road dilemma is one fact never uttered: the road in question is a federal primary highway . Specifically , US 212 which originates in Edina Minnesota ( St. Paul area) and runs 950 miles to Yellowstone Park. The history of the highway is tortured to say the least. From the junction with the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway —-a state of Wyoming highway in entirety- to the northeast gate of YNP, the management of the road has been worse than a family feud with step-dads and orphaned out of wedlock children . It is beyond exasperating.

    Truth be told, Cooke City, Cooke Pass, and Silvergate Montana are the out of wedlock orphan communities of Wyoming as much as they are ensconced in Montana. That’s just an unfortunate fluke of geography and political map lines. Pragmatically, Metro Cooke City is really more of a province of Wyoming, although it ” belongs” to Montana yet requires traversing a National Park to get to its own Park County Montana county seat in Livingston 110 miles away. Cooke City is barely one mile from the Wyoming state line as the Raven flies; Silvergate practically sits on top of the boundary, and the Northeast Entrance is actually in Wyoming. It is only 80 road miles to the Park County Wyoming courthouse in Cody , and just a wee bit further to Wal-mart. As it stands currently , to drive from Cooke City to the Park County seat in Livingstone MT is an all day venture —out thru the Chief Joseph to Wyoming , or up and over the Beartooth Highway if possible, Either route is w-a-a-a-y over 300 miles one way at the moment.
    The federal highway administration upgraded US Hwy 212 over Cooke Pass to full highway standard about 10 years ago. Nice wide road with guardrails and solid subgrade, fairly easy to maintain and keep open yearround— except Wy-DOT absolutely wants nothing to do with it , if possible, blathering that they won’t entertain taking on any fulltime maintenance of US 212 over the mountains where it is known as the Beartooth All American Road unless and until the Feds upgrade the ENTIRE highway to federal standards. Which of course is a wholly specious deflection since the Feds have already upgraded the portion of US 212 between the stateline over Cooke Pass all the way to Yellowstone. Inside the Park is a different sordid story- the Lamar Valley road from the Northeast Gate to Tower Junction and Mammoth the park headquarters is currently impassable from the June floods. Metro Cooke City is totally cut off from its own state. Access can only be had from the Wyoming side. That goes way beyond being an invenience.
    Here’s State Exhibit B: that same US Hwy 212 over in the extreme northeast corner of Wyoming near the Black Hills. Check the map- a portion of US 212 cuts diagonally across Wyoming from Alzada Montana to Belle Fouche South Dakota for 20 kmiles. I wonder which state snow plows keep THAT stretch of road open in winter? Montana? South Dakota ? Wyoming. US Hwy 212 has two orphans, so there’s that.

    My Solution # 1 is radical : Wyoming needs to take territorial ownership of Cooke City. Look at the maps. The state boundary line needs to be redrawn to encapsulate the Greater Cooke City area as a Wyoming enclave . Thus the debated portion of US 212 over Cooke Pass would become Wyoming’s full responsibility yearround. All the economic benefits from tourism and snowmobiling , and tax revenue , would be for Wyoming . Supporting governmental and political responsibilty would also become Wyoming’s due , both ways . Geographically this is entirely pragmatic and not at all unreasonable . Montana would cede its parental rights and we would adopt Cooke City Wyoming into the family. Most of the land is forest service anyway . Why not do this to solve all the problems ? Anybody have a better idea ?

    – because as it stands right now we are being held hostage by some very Very VERY selfish snowmobilers who have commandeered a vital public highway for six months of the year and demanding squatter’s rights. Never mind that snowmobiles can always be hauled on these little things called ‘ trailers’. The sledheads also whine that they need a snowpacked virginal Cooke P_ass route as part of their grand delusional Continental Divide Snowmobile Trail syste. They really do claim Cooke City is a vital segment of the Continental Divide trail ! Has anybody besides me pointed out to the that Cooke City is almost 75 miles away as the Raven flies from its closest approach to the actual Continental Divide hydrographic divide way over by West yellowstone on the Idaho border. So that argument is a pickeled red herring.

    We should annex Cooke City into Wyoming once and for all. ( give me a momemt to put on my helmet and flak jacket). And here is how Wy-DOT pays for yearround highway maintenance of US 212 over Cooke Pass. It’s already being done… the $ 850,000 per year in fuel tax Wyoming collects inside Yellowstone Park , and the $ 9 million in Wyoming Sales Tax that yellowstone and its concessionaires pay to Wyoming for goods and lodging. Wyoming has been collecting taxes from Yellowstone since forever, but giving back NOTHING in return . We could also use the same funds to open the East Entrance-Sylvan Pass road a few weeks earlier in the Spring. Remember back a few years when Governor Matt Mead of Wyoming did that ? Yellowstone was going to delay plowing Sylvan Pass because of the government shutdown. Wyoming paid to open Sylvan Pass that year…about $ 100,000 in manpower and fuel if I recall.

    The snowmobilers will just have to accept trailering their sleds over Cooke Pass till they can construct —at their own expense after full NEPA anaylsis – a separate snowmobile trail paralleling US 212. Call it the Continental Divide Adjunct or something. US 212 can and should be open yearround. Again , it is fully a federal primary highway regardless of who claims they have no responsibility for it. Deeding it to Wyoming is a socieoeconomic No Brainer. Everybody wins, even Montana who will have full visitation rights to its former orphaned step-child.

    Anybody got a better idea?

    1. Dewey, I think the idea of Wyoming annexing the twin Burgs of Cooke City and Silver Gate has seriously been tossed around before (with more ‘ayes’ vs ‘nayes’). Actually, since you can’t landlock a town/city from it’s county seat, I wouldn’t be surprised if Park Co. MT and the State of Montana gave up sovereignty of the hard to access Burgs immediately. And you’re right, the snowmobile crowd has pretty much lorded over Colter Pass regarding plowing. A question for you (or Ruffin): in the Spring, doesn’t the NPS plow from Cooke City up U.S. Hwy 212 and over to the State line on the Beartooths?

    2. Dewey makes a good case here. Cooke City is a victim of a line on a map that doesn’t account for geography. Access to medical services, food stores, tire shops and so on, all the necessities of daily living are far closer in Cody than Livingston, Montana. Plowing that small section should be a no brainer. Providing a trail for snow machines that currently use that short section of unplowed road is a problem easily fixed with a little planning. Good article Ruffin.

  6. PJ,

    Part of what this new group wants to determine is exactly who would plow the plug. Normally, you’d have the Park Service plowing in from Gardiner and they could plow it or plow half. But if road repairs aren’t done in time that won’t be the case this winter. So that would leave Wyoming and/or Park County, Wyoming to plow from the Wyoming side, and possibly split costs with Montana since about half the 8-mile plug is in Montana. It’s likely one of those issues that will take some public officials sitting around at the same table together a few times to work out.

    Jim, all of the snowmobile use in this particular area around Cooke City is outside Yellowstone boundaries.

    Thanks for reading and your comments and for supporting WyoFile.

  7. Good article, Ruffin. Who would plow the “Plug”…State of Wyoming….State of Montana….City of Cooke City…National Park Service?

  8. Snowmobiles should already have been banned in the Park. Exhaust fumes! A wintertime circus!