Yellowstone at the Memorial Weekend kickoff

[Tuesday May 27, 2008] This year’s Memorial Day kickoff week, the traditional opening of the Yellowstone National Park tourist season, has been noted for cool, variable weather and the presence of significant winter snow remaining at relatively low elevations of the park. Here’s a compilation of reports (roads, fishing, animal spotting, hiking) on conditions in Yellowstone from the days around the Memorial Day weekend:

Road Conditions
All the roads in the Greater Yellowstone Region, including Yellowstone National Park are open – except when weather, rockslides, road slippage, and avalanches intervene. This may be shaping up as a rough year, at least through the spring.

A rotary plow on the Beartooth Highway has completed its work, but the highway was closed at times over the Memorial Weekend because of new snow and unsafe driving conditions.

At the beginning of Memorial Weekend new snow complicated the opening of roads, especially the Grand Loop Road over Mt. Washburn and the Beartooth Highway. Even Sylvan Pass on the East Entrance Road was closed for a time over the weekend because of dangerous travel conditions. Although fully plowed, these roads will open or close depending on the immediate conditions, and it is best to check with the park service (307/344-2160) for up-to-the-hour road closings/openings.

Because of the snow melt and wet weather, rock fall and occasional mud or rock slides will be fairly common on roads passing steep slopes (Sylvan Pass, Mt. Washburn, Beartooth Highway, Chief Joseph Highway). Tuesday night (5/26/08) a small avalanche on the Beartooth Highway trapped some vehicles and eight people for a couple of hours until heavy equipment could be brought in to clear the highway. It pays to stay alert, even small rocks in the road can cause accidents and damage tires.

Opening day of fishing in the park was hampered by high waters and muddy conditions. The exception over the Memorial Weekend was the Firehole River, which though high and not too clear, was producing good catches. Hatches of Baetis (mayfly) along the Firehole contributed to avid feeding. Most of the other streams and rivers in the park were running exceptionally high and dirty (Madison, Gibbon, Lamar, Soda Butte, Slough Creek). The Yellowstone River is closed to fishing until July 15th. After a brief cool-down and slower snowmelt, the forecast into early June calls for more normal day temperatures – which translates into a greater volume of water pouring into the streams from this year’s big snowpack. So expect poor stream fishing conditions to persist – with local exceptions – well into June. Always a possibility in spring, heavy rains may complicate the fishing conditions on many streams.

Animal Spotting
Animal spotting continues to be good to excellent in most of the lower elevations in the park (Lamar Valley, Tower Falls, Madison Valley, Firehole Valley), as significant snow depth still exists at or above 7,500 ft. and the herd animals (elk, bison) haven’t moved far from the valleys. Bear, both black and grizzly, are seen regularly from the roadway, especially between Fishing Bridge – Canyon – Tower Falls. New carcasses in the Lamar Valley have been attracting wolves and bears.

Hiking – Backcountry
Wet conditions for hiking are normal for spring in Yellowstone, but this winter’s heavy snowfall, the long cool spring, and the recent rains and snows have made the possibility of local flooding a threat. The streams are high now, but any combination of warm weather (60F+ daytime) and thunderstorm downpours can turn even small streams into torrents – blocking trails and making backcountry travel wet and difficult. If you’re planning to hike or camp in Yellowstone, add to your list of questions for the rangers: What’s the stream crossing conditions along the route. In the high country, these conditions could persist this year well into July.

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