Springtime: Roads Opening In Yellowstone National Park, Bears Coming Out in Grand Teton National Park

Barring an unexpected snowstorm, you should be able to drive to this four-way intersection near Canyon in Yellowstone National Park this weekend. NPS photo by J. Schmidt.

Ahhh springtime in the Rockies, that wonderful season when plows open more and more roads in Yellowstone National Park, bears come out of hibernation in Grand Teton National Park, and blizzards aren't out of the question.

It can be downright miserable in both Yellowstone and Grand Teton this time of year. Of course, it can also be delightful, with few visitors, roads open for cyclists, vegetation greening up, and wildlife on the move and often visible. And you even could hit a day with temperatures in the 60s or higher.

In Yellowstone, the going gets a bit easier this weekend as plans call for the roads from the North and West entrances to Norris, Madison, Canyon and Old Faithful to open at 8 a.m. this Friday to cars and RVs.

That said, travel between Madison and Norris through Gibbon Canyon will be impacted this year by a major road construction project. Visitors can expect up to 30-minute delays from the time the road opens to travel on through the summer. This section of road will also be closed to travel between 10:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m. every night from May 26 through August 16. There will be no construction delays or night time closures during the Memorial Day and Independence Day holiday weekends.

Park officials say removal of an existing bridge and construction of a new span will require the road between Norris and Madison to be completely closed to all travel beginning August 17 until it reopens to snowmobile and snowcoach travel in December. During this period, visitors should allow extra travel time in case they need to reroute through West Thumb and Canyon. Maps and additional construction details will be available at all visitor centers and online at the park's website.

The road linking Canyon, Fishing Bridge and the East Entrance is scheduled to open on Friday, May 1. Travel from the South Entrance to Grant, West Thumb and Fishing Bridge is set to begin Friday, May 8, with travel from West Thumb over Craig Pass to Old Faithful expected to begin shortly thereafter, once repairs are completed on the Isa Lake Bridge.

Travel from Cooke City over Colter Pass to the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway and the Long Lake gate typically also opens by mid-May. The balance of the Beartooth Highway to Red Lodge, Montana, and the road between Tower Fall and Canyon over Dunraven Pass opens the Friday before the Memorial Day Holiday weekend, weather permitting.

Very limited visitor services will be open for several weeks. Due to the deep snow present in the park’s interior, walking on trails including those along the Canyon Rim, or on boardwalks through thermal areas, will be difficult or impossible for some time.

The park also has several seasonal Bear Management Area closures designed to reduce encounters with bears in areas that have a high density of elk and bison carcasses. Several areas including Midway Geyser Basin and Fountain Paint Pots will remain closed through the Friday of Memorial Day weekend.

Park crews have to clear 198 miles of main road, 124 miles of secondary roads, and 125 acres of parking lots inside the park, as well as 31 miles of the Beartooth Highway outside the park’s Northeast Entrance, each spring.

Yellowstone's weather is very unpredictable. Visitors should be prepared for a wide range of winter and spring weather conditions, and should be alert for plows clearing snow from the roads, and temporary road closures. Updated Yellowstone National Park road information is available 24 hours a day by calling 307-344-2117.

Meanwhile, just to the south in Grand Teton, park officials report that their bears are waking up and moving about. As a result, you'd be wise to keep an eye out for bears anywhere within Grand Teton National Park and the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway.

Just this week, a grizzly bear was observed near the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center and the park’s headquarters building at Moose. Because this and other bears are again on the move and actively searching for springtime food sources, appropriate precautions for traveling in bear country must be taken.

Officials say you should not approach a bear under any circumstances. This is particularly important for situations involving bears near a carcass or other food source, and female bears with cubs.

When traveling in bear country, take precautionary measures such as carrying bear pepper spray and keeping it easily accessible for ready use. Please take the time to learn how to properly handle bear pepper spray and remember that having it with you is not a substitute for being alert. While enjoying recreational activities on the Teton Park Road, the Moose-Wilson Road, and in other backcountry areas within the park, visitors should always exercise good judgment by following recommended safety precautions: Be alert to surroundings, make noise, travel in a group, and keep food and garbage properly stored.

When bears leave their winter dens, they search for any food source that will help restore fat reserves lost during hibernation. Winter-weakened animals and winter-killed wildlife carcasses provide immediate sources of protein and are vigorously defended by hungry bears. As snow banks recede, bears also dig up and eat burrowing rodents and spring wildflowers. Historically, adult male bears emerge from hibernation by late March. Female bears, accompanied by their cubs, emerge later in the spring and are especially protective of their young. Any bear will defend a food source against perceived threats.

Grand Teton visitors are asked to report any bear sightings or signs of their activity to the nearest visitor center or ranger station as soon as possible. This timely information will assist park staff in keeping visitors informed about recent bear activity, and in keeping bears away from unnatural food sources.

Comments

Thanks for the informative blog. I have booked my flight to Jackson Hole airport but don't know how I can reach the Grand Prismatic Spring area. Can you recommend any hotel/motel which picks up guests from the airport? I don't drive, how can I get to see the Grand Primatic and Mammoth? Thank you very much! - C

One heck of a day for these press releases - we had 3 to 6 inches of snow in Bozeman - very wet, but a whole ton of snow in the mountains, well over a foot, I read. Weather should be warm this weekend, though, but probably a lot of snow on those opening park roads this Friday. Having gone on opening weekend last year, I'd strongly suggest snow tires, especially if you are heading to Canyon.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

Oh, another thing ... if you are going on U.S. 191 to West Yellowstone, please, please, please slow down, especially in the area it looks like you can go a million miles an hour just north of town to the turn off to Ennis. 15 buffalo were killed by cars in the past week! Yes, 15! And, in only 3 separate incidents. People miraculously weren't hurt in any of the incidents.

For whatever reason, this isn't in the press, yet, but it is turning up on some blogs. Bison right now are migrating from the park to Horse Butte, along Hebgen Lake. There are over 100 buffalo there now, and they are going back and forth. The road area has great buffalo habitat; they are very hard to see in the dark, especially with oncoming traffic. The speed limit is 55 mph through there, but a lot of people think it's 70. Signage is terrible.

But, please slow down ... keep an eye out ... and let others know. If you are in the park, you know to look for buffalo; this time of year, the same is true in this area near the Madison River.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

Jim, good info for travelers. Thanks for providing the local conditions. As I noted, you never can tell what the weather will be like in the park this time of year.

Also, those bison-car encounters is somewhat staggering. I wonder why the park didn't put out a release. Something to look into.

Anonymous, I'd suggest you check with the Jackson Hole Chamber regarding airport shuttles. As for getting up to Grand Prismatic Spring, that'll be a bit tougher due to the distance. That said, you might check with the Teton Science School. They offer Wildlife Expedtions and tours of both Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. They're a great outfit and provide great interpretation.

They probably didn't put out a release because it happened just outside the park (a 20 mile stretch of U.S. 191 is in Yellowstone, but you don't see bison there anymore - just in the areas between West Yellowstone and just past the turn off to Ennis). There is a letter several groups are working on; our group is going to post it on our site. Ralph Maughan posted something on this at http://wolves.wordpress.com/2009/04/14/bison-us191/. There were more details posted earlier, which aren't there anymore. The accidents involved a Honda, a semi, and an SUV, according to more than one person I've talked with who live in West Yellowstone and in initial reports from Buffalo Field Campaign. Buffalo Field Campaign just sent a letter to various Montana officials on this. BFC people and maybe others in the community will be meeting with Sen. Jon Tester's people at a meeting in West Yellowstone; as I understand it, their intention is to talk with them on whether stimulus transportation money already allocated for Montana and which all needs to be spent very quickly can in part be allocated toward better signage on U.S. 191. No telling if Tester will push for it or not.

As for the snow, it's still coming down very, very hard despite it being right around or often just above freezing in Bozeman. We're at only 4,900 feet here; in Yellowstone, you'll be usually over 6,000 and up to almost 8,000 feet on the roads that are now open. You can bet the snow is coming hard; this is not a local storm. We expect another day or so of this before it warms up dramatically. Bozeman's temp on Saturday should be sunny and 60 degrees; you can subtract 10 to 15 for the park, which should mean that park roads at the very least will be plowed and maybe even dry by Saturday, but that's not uniform, especially at higher elevations. March was particularly wet. However, if you do go in, it should be beautiful. The NPS recently reported a group of bison near Mammoth Hot Springs, and then bison strewn out from the West Entrance all the way along the rivers to Old Faithful (heard that from the chief ranger last week at the Interagency Bison Management Plan meeting; but that's also typical for this time of year). Other animals like elk will no doubt be more and more numerous as they move back into the park from winter ranges.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

Hey Jim,

Thanks for all the detailed information. My Wife and I will be on vacation in West Yellowstone at the Wyndham Resort this weekend. I've always wanted to see Yellowstone with a blanket of snow and my wife has never been, so she won't know exactly what the difference is from the summer months. However, I was inquiring about the wolves. Have they been spotted yet and where might the best accessible location be to spot wolves?

Thanks Again

Mike, I've always had great luck in the Lamar Valley. It's big and open, home to several wolf packs, and full of elk and bison and, at this time of year, has its share of winter-kill.

There are two packs -- the Nez Perce and Swan Lake packs -- that divvy up the landscape on the west side of the loop road between Norris and Mammoth, so you might luck out and see some along that stretch.

Good luck!

Thanks Kurt,

I'll keep my eye out for them. Do you know if there will be any activities going on next week both in Yellowstone and in the Teton areas. I looked into snowmobile's and they've already shut down for the season. I also looked into some horseback riding but appears they're not open yet. Any other suggestions that my wife and I might be able to do during our week long visit.

Thanks again,

Well, you're definitely hitting it between seasons, as they say. Still, you might be able to find some good snowshoeing in some areas of the parks.

It's probably too much of a ride, but if you're an early riser, Grand Teton rangers are leading tours to watch strutting grouse:

Strutting Grouse Tours provide an opportunity to acknowledge the seasonal change and the chance to watch a fascinating ritual as grouse congregate to perform animated mating displays on their traditional lek (mating arena) located just off the Antelope Flats Road. Ranger-led tours start bright and early at 5:30 a.m. on weekend mornings from the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center. Depending upon snow conditions, the first tour is tentatively scheduled for Saturday, April 11; there will not be a tour on Easter Sunday. Other tours will be held on April 18-19, and April 25-26. Reservations are required and participants are advised to phone the Discovery Center at 739.3399 to reserve a spot and to get information about what to wear and bring along on these April tours.

Just north of downtown Jackson is the National Museum of Wildlife Art. It's a great way to spend a couple of hours if you like art and wildlife. Downtown Jackson has more than a few art galleries as well.

In West Yellowstone, the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center offers up-close looks at both wolves and grizzlies in natural settings. And West Yellowstone also has an Imax. The Yellowstone museum in town also is interesting.

You might also check with the Teton Science School to see what Wildlife Expeditions they might be offering.

And if you check each park's website and look under "Things to Do" you should be able to find a list of outfitters that offer various activities in the parks, such as wildlife tours, photography tours, etc.

Kurt is right about your best bet to see wolves is in the Lamar Valley - or wherever you see large groups of people with spotting scopes. The wolves follow the elk herds; a lot of wolves leave the park in the winter to follow the herds; they will return as the elk return. Wolf numbers in the park are lower this year, however. Diseases like dysentery and mange have really hurt Yellowstone wolf populations in the last year.

As for activities, it's going to be moist or snowy, a lot of trails will be closed because of snow or bear management - check with a visitor's center. Your greatest activity will be to witness a really neat time of year when you can see large chunks of Yellowstone that still look something like winter but which you can now reach with your car. Boardwalks may have layers of snow on them that you'll have to walk on a couple feet thick; so even geyser watching isn't as relaxing as it might be later in the year. You might try snowshoeing, but if it's warm, the snow will just stick to them. It's beautiful, but it's probably the least accessible time of year - even the dead of winter is easier to get around - at least then you can hop on skis and snowshoes and navigate through fine powder while bears are denning. Spring is probably the yuckiest time of year in these parts; muddy and slushy with unpredictable weather - however, it is beautiful - on one of the Traveler Forums, I posted some pictures from the first weekend last year.

As for an update on the bison, look for an article this Friday in the West Yellowstone News. A Buffalo Field Campaign source heard from someone at that paper that the Montana Department of Transportation plans on changing the electronic signage to refer specifically to bison on the roadway and to announce that 15 bison have been killed. They seem open to working on ensuring a safe passage for buffalo crossing the road.

Letters have started going out; I'm going to wait until tomorrow to post a letter signed by several groups (local and national) on our Web site - http://www.buffaloallies.org - 's Web site. I'm going to wait until it's likely that the government officials have received their email. To preview it, it calls for better signage, for reducing the speed limit until at least June 1 on that stretch of road from 55 mph to 45 mph, calls for more enforcement of existing laws, and more prevention. I know that Buffalo Field Campaign has some people certified to flag and some signs - they are now out there at night - but they don't have the authority to help the buffalo off the road; this would call on agencies to do that.

A lot of these demands, though, feel a little farcical to me since those same bison are going to be forced by Montana well inside the park after May 15; to date, though, bison have not been hazed west of the park, and the trap at Horse Butte hasn't even been set up - there is more tolerance this year under adaptations to the Interagency Bison Management Plan. However, bison are likely to still be calving after May 15; so they will be pushed off the roads into the park, and so there won't be quite the same danger on US 191 after June 1. So, it's ironic to push for transportation regulations with June 1 in mind, knowing what the management of bison is.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

First mainstream press on the bison deaths:

http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/articles/2009/04/16/news/10bison.txt

Looks like it wasn't a Honda but a Ford Fusion as had been told to me - http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/articles/2009/04/16/news/10bison.txt (says there were minor injuries in the first incident, and the car totaled - which I had heard from a resident of West Yellowstone who talked to the woman who crashed her car)

Three vehicles, two incidents apparently near each other - which helps explain to me why someone from BFC told me 2 incidents and someone who lives on Horse Butte had said she had heard of three separate incidents on the scanner.

What the article doesn't say is how awful the deaths of some of the animals were; apparently, after the first incident, some bison lingered on throughout the night until a DOL agent finally put them out of their misery. I guess it's one of the first times I had wished the DOL had been there to kill a bison earlier.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

A much better article here going into more detail, especially of the first driver of the Ford Fusion.

http://www.billingsgazette.net/articles/2009/04/16/news/state/26-bison.txt

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

FYI, the letter I mentioned to the Montana DOT and Highway Patrol on the dead bison has been sent out, and I just posted it to my group's Web site.

It's at http://www.buffaloallies.org/node/169 . It was signed by Animal Welfare Institute, Buffalo Allies of Bozeman, Buffalo Field Campaign, Defenders of Wildlife, Gravelbar, Horse Butte Neighbors of Buffalo, The Human Society of the United States, Natural Resources Defense Council, Western Watersheds Project, and sent out on April 15.

Buffalo Field Campaign sent out a separate letter a day previous; however, that letter is not available via the internet.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

Thanks alot for your hard work and due diligence in keeping us travelers informed. I just wanted to let you know that we made it from Seattle to Yellowstone late yesterday afternoon. My wife and I were greeted with every animal imaginanable. We entered through the north entrance and as we approached Gardiner we saw herds of mule deer being chased by a herd of horses in their pasture, quickly followed by several herds of elk and mountain goats. At the campground below Mamouth at the switchback, the wolf spotters were watching a female wolf being followed by a coyote. As we entered Mamouth we were greeted like always by the herd of resident elk and bison. Thinking that our chances of spotting wolves for the day might be lost we continued our approach toward Gibbon Meadows where to our amazement was several cars pulled over. Could they be looking at the herd of Bison, maybe, but looking beyond the herd of bison nestled down in the new growth of grass, was a small pack of wolves, SCORED!!! After watching them for awhile we proceded to the West entrance. My wife and I were saying that the next animal we need to see is a grizzley. Then BAM!! at about 3 miles from the west entrance there were a slew of cars pulled over and what were they watching we asked?? A grizzley. Accross the river just east of Riverside RD up on top of the hill was a BIG GRIZZLEY bear just laying there watching all of the spectators watching him.
So far this has been an exciting trip with just the animals that we have seen so far in just a couple of hours. However alot of the geyser areas are closed due to carcases in the area which increase the bear danger.

Thanks Again!!

Mike, glad to hear things are working out so well for your trip. I'm definitely envious. And this weekend's improving weather should make things even more enjoyable. Let us know if you get any great photos you'd like to share with Traveler's readers.