Yellowstone National Park will open for the winter season on Thursday, but a lack of adequate snow cover on portions of the park's interior roads means snowmobiles will be limited to the South Entrance only.
"Between Mammoth and West Yellowstone there are significant stretches of bare pavement," said Al Nash, Yellowstone's chief of public affairs. "And we stopped plowing for our own access on Thanksgiving weekend."
Snowpack in the park ranges from a high of 20 inches at Grant Village to 10 inches at Madison Junction and 9 at Tower. And, according to the National Weather Service, there are no significant snowstorms predicted for the next seven to 10 days.
"The long-term outlook is normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation," Nash said. "That's not what we'd prefer to hear right now."
Commercially guided rubber-tracked and even wheeled vehicles will temporarily be allowed into the park, so most snowcoach concessioners in Mammoth Hot Springs and West Yellowstone traveling to Old Faithful won't be affected. Rubber-tracked snowcoaches will also be allowed to travel between Norris and Canyon.
"When there isn't adequate snow for access with snowmobiles or steel-track snowcoaches, we now have a much larger fleet of rubber-track snowcoaches that can operate in any snow conditions and ensure that the public gets to visit Yellowstone," said Randy Roberson, owner of Yellowstone Vacations in West Yellowstone.
Travel through the park's East Entrance over Sylvan Pass is scheduled to begin Dec. 22. Nash is hopeful that by then there will be enough snow to cover the connecting roads from Fishing Bridge out to Old Faithful and Canyon.
The road from the park's North Entrance at Gardiner through Mammoth Hot Springs and on to Cooke City is open to automobile travel all year.
Yellowstone is open this season under an interim rule while park staff works to craft a supplemental environmental impact statement that will guide future winter use. Under the rule, up to 318 commercially guided low-emission snowmobiles and up to 78 commercially guided snowcoaches a day will be allowed into Yellowstone, as in the last two winter seasons.
Nash said the National Park Service has to have the environmental report done before next winter in order to open its gates. He called the schedule to get the work done "aggressive, but it's a supplemental EIS so it builds on the EIS.
"Yes it can be done," he said. "And it's our plan to do that."
Uncertainty about the park's winter plans always has an effect on visitor numbers, according to Mary Sue Costello, executive director of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce. People may read only a portion of a news story or not understand the issue, meaning the chamber spends a lot of time educating the public, she said. Uncertainty also dampens early bookings by those making airline reservations, since many of those decisions are made in the fall or earlier.
"Any time you are in the middle of an EIS, it's challenging," Costello said.
Still, she said, bookings in West Yellowstone are good through the holidays, flat in January and pick up in February and March.
"I think it's promising," Costello said. "We're open and ready for business."