As heavy rain and record-high water battered Yellowstone National Park on Sunday and Monday forcing officials to close it, hundreds of evacuees streamed south, not knowing where they’d lay their heads or fill their stomachs.
Most ended up in the nearest town — Jackson — retreating to makeshift waystations like the Teton County Fairgrounds. Thirty-eight recreational vehicles and campers and four groups in tents staked out temporary quarters outside the town’s rodeo arena Monday night, said fairgrounds manager Rachael Grimes, where they spent a night before moving on.
As they rescheduled their summer vacations, they told of their exodus and how a communion with nature turned into a flight to safety.
Barcelona, Spain resident Miguel Ruiz had been roadtrip touring national parks around the American West and awoke Monday at the Indian Creek Campground — near the rising, raging Gardner River.
“The river’s going up, up, up and there’s a bridge,” Ruiz recalled Monday. “It was coming close to the bridge!”
Nearby, Russell and Diane Thomas were stopped and stretching their legs by the Yellowstone National Park sign overlooking the swollen Snake River. The Gilmer, Texas, couple had been driving around Yellowstone on Monday before others turned them south.
“I thought the zombies were coming out,” Russell Thomas said, ”because we’re driving and there’s nobody around.”
Monday brought mostly nice weather and it wasn’t until later that day that Jordan Klingsberg’s family, from Boca Raton, Florida, heard about the calamity to the north, he said.
“People really didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “We were waiting for the bathroom and someone came up to us and said, ‘You know the park is closed?’”
For some, the evacuation resembled more of a classic day in Yellowstone instead of a worrisome trek — bison jams and Old Faithful eruptions included.
Along with Jackson, those washed out of Yellowstone gathered in the park’s gateway communities to the east and west Tuesday to regroup and rearrange plans.
Jackson bustled as it found itself in a tourism whirlpool, with park evacuees heading out, hopeful Yellowstone visitors stalled going in.
Michael Gray, a visitor from York, Pennsylvania who landed in Jackson, had been on a side trip with a traveling companion to Cody on Monday while his family was camping at the park’s Fishing Bridge RV Park.
Then, the park entrances closed.
“They wouldn’t let us back in the gate,” he said outside his Imagine RV at the Jackson fairgrounds Tuesday. The Grays and another family had been traveling together in a pair of RVs. But without the two husbands and second truck, Alicia Gray and the rest of the gang were stranded at Fishing Bridge.
They had one car, six people and two campers to tow. “We didn’t even have enough seatbelts for the group,” she said.
It took more than two hours of negotiations before Michael Gray and his traveling buddy got through the East Entrance to evacuate their two families.
The Grays took the event in stride. “It was crazy on Sunday, it just poured all day,” Alicia Gray said, calling the experience “an adventure.”
“The kids won’t forget it,” she said.
Abuzz and adapting
Visiting from Elbow Lake, Minnesota, Grant Schmall led his family of five out of the park Monday afternoon. They, too, had been camped at Fishing Bridge, had gone sightseeing and found an evacuation notice on their camper door when they came back in the afternoon.
“We just left a day early,” Schmall said outside his Ice Castle trailer in Jackson. “You could see where the road had sunk,” he said of damage along his route.
Gary McDiffett, a Los Angeles resident, saw his family of eight’s travel plans disrupted when he learned he could not drive his daughter from Fishing Bridge to the West Yellowstone airport and return.
“They said I couldn’t get back in,” he said as his family left the fairgrounds, along with double-doodle Ryder and golden retriever Phellps.
“From Canyon Village to Fishing Bridge we saw sinkholes starting to form,” he said while standing outside his Reflection RV in Jackson.
Leon Mooijan and his family had ventured some 5,000 miles from the Netherlands to the doorstep of Yellowstone before being stymied by the park closures. Outside a rented RV at Jackson’s Home Ranch parking lot, he took the disappointment in stride.
“It’s one of the highlights of our journey,” he said of the anticipated trip into Yellowstone. The family of five will spend a day or two in Jackson, then move on with the remainder of a five-week tour if they can’t get into Yellowstone.
Cody and West Yellowstone, Montana, were also dealing with the crush as town and tourism officials relaxed camping restrictions and sought lodging for displaced visitors. Some campgrounds and resorts outside the park were reportedly damaged by wind and water, including at Buffalo Bill State Park and on the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
Wyoming State Parks & Cultural Resources offered camping alternatives. Alicia Gray said online camping forums were abuzz with news and updates, including what she posted about the southern parts of Yellowstone being largely unaffected, even though they are closed through at least Wednesday.
None of the visitors seemed bummed and all said they could return or seek other places to go in the area.
On the way out, “we were still seeing bears,” Michael Gray said.
Mooijan took a broad look that compared his family’s inconvenience with the destruction in Red Lodge, Montana, and other towns. Though the Dutch family had bad luck, “it’s more bad luck for the people there, to put it in perspective,” he said.
Mike Koshmrl contributed to this story.