YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — Many people speak figuratively of preparing for spring by saying they are “shoveling out” from winter. But maintenance worker Gary Maki and others in Yellowstone National Park were literally doing just that last week, as the park opened for the summer season.
Though Yellowstone’s west entrance opened last month, the road linking Canyon, Fishing Bridge and the east entrance opened May 6, offering visitors access to most of the park’s interior for the first time since fall. Many diehard visitors spent the day returning to their favorite Yellowstone haunts, marking a kind of summer “opening day” for nature lovers across the region.
But for Maki, who has worked in the park since the 1980s, the day was mainly about digging out from a winter that saw more snow than any during the past decade.
“I saw this when I first came here, but this is kind of a lot compared to what we usually get,” Maki said of piles of plowed and drifted snow that towered above his head at Lake Butte Overlook. The hillside viewing area near the park’s east entrance offers commanding views of Yellowstone Lake, and Maki was clearing a path to a vault toilet near the parking area.
Spring visitors say they cherish the first few days when Yellowstone opens its roads each year. Not all dining, lodging and other services are open yet, and the weather is often chilly and wet. But the park is less crowded, offering a calm and peaceful alternative to the busiest days of summer.
The first motorists arriving from the east entrance this year drove through walls of snow that reached 10-15 feet above the road where it neared the top of 8,524-foot Sylvan Pass. Throughout much of the park, roads snaked through what felt like tunnels carved through virgin white snow.
At Fishing Bridge, an old auto repair garage had collapsed under several layers of wet, spring snow. Maki said the cave-in happened within the last week.
Across the street from the collapsed garage, Billings resident Camille Osborne was carefully navigating a parking area covered in snow, ice, slush and mud. Her open-toed wedge shoes weren’t ideal for the task, but Osborne said she was ready for spring, and had decided to dress accordingly.
Osborne said she had spotted a moose along the North Fork of the Shoshone River, just before entering the park. Fewer visitors streaming along the roads often means better chances to spot undisturbed animals, she said.
“You get to see more wildlife this way,” said Osborne, who often tours the park during its opening days each spring, when only a tiny fraction of Yellowstone’s 3.6 million annual visitors are making the rounds.
Nature photographer Gene Grove was another spring regular taking in the sights on opening day. Grove was prowling the snow-covered banks of the Yellowstone River, taking pictures of rarely seen harlequin ducks. Less than 30 breeding pairs live in the park in a typical season, according to National Park Service estimates.
He proudly showed off close-up shots of the strikingly colored birds.
“I just love showing and sharing,” said Grove, 73, a retired doctor who has been visiting the park regularly for six decades.
Spring is a quieter time with no crowds and plenty to see, Grove said, so he wasn’t about to miss opening day. He made the drive from his home in Whitefish, Mont. despite hernia surgery just two weeks ago, a procedure that came with orders from his doctor not to lift anything heavy.
“My tripod is pretty light,” he said with an impish grin.
Plenty of tripods lined the road upstream from LeHardy Rapids on the Yellowstone River, where two bears had been feeding on a carcass early in the day, and where wolves were spotted near the edge of the woods by late morning.
Two small, dark dots moved along a snowy background in the far distance, barely visible with the naked eye. Photographers and wildlife watchers used high-powered lenses and spotting scopes to track the wolves’ movements.
“We wouldn’t have seen them out there if it was grass instead of snow,” one man told his shivering friend, who seemed less excited about the snow.
Nearby, a group of students from the University of Michigan were straining to see the wolves, and debated whether to return to their warm minivan.
“It’s supposed to be summer break, but it’s not much like summer,” said Gain Sasirajporchai, an engineering student from Thailand dressed in skinny jeans and sneakers. Wolves, bears and bison were new to Sasirajporchai, whose homeland has tigers and crocodiles — animals he didn’t feel were particularly exotic.
“We thought it was going to be much warmer,” he said. “I hate snow.”
Thomas Naberhaus, Phil Hawkins and Greg Nelson were strapping on ski and snowboard gear atop a giant wall of snow that was level with the tops of vehicles parked along the roadside near Top Notch Peak.
The men were using alpine touring skis, covered on the bottoms with nylon straps that stop them from sliding backward. They planned to ascend the 10,245-foot peak that towers over the south side of Sylvan Pass.
Opening day offered a chance to make the run while it was still fresh and unspoiled, they said.
For others, a spring visit was a way to see a new and different side of a familiar park.
“We’ve been here at nearly every time of year, but we wanted to come on opening day because we had never done that,” said Anita Henna, visiting with her husband, Steve, from Twin Falls, Idaho. The couple has visited the park nearly every year for more than 20 years.
The Hennas had a prime spot atop a second-floor viewing deck at the Old Faithful Inn, where they watched a late-afternoon eruption of the reliable Old Faithful geyser. There were plenty of empty benches in a spot where, months later, the show will be standing-room-only.
“We like coming at different times and seeing different things,” Anita Henna said.
“That’s what’s really cool about Yellowstone, is it’s different whenever you come,” Steve Henna said. “It’s one of our favorite places in the world.”
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9321 or [email protected]