CODY, Wyo. — Early visitors to Yellowstone National Park may sometimes wish they could stay a little longer. And some of the first people touring the park by auto this year got their wish Friday, as a closure of Sylvan Pass stopped traffic on the park's East Entrance road for a few hours.
Park officials temporarily closed the 1 1/2-mile stretch of road between the East Gate and Fishing Bridge to allow for avalanche mitigation.
Workers fired a 105-mm howitzer cannon to blast snow from peaks along the north side of the 8,524-foot pass. The road reopened shortly before 6 p.m. Friday.
It was the first day the East Gate from Cody, Wyo., was open to autos this year.
East Entrance Ranger Dennis Lenzendorf said about 30 vehicles were waiting to enter at 8 a.m. Friday, including a group of tourists from Thailand and another group from Japan.
"There was so much snow on the road, I wondered whether we'd be ready to go today, but we made it," Lenzendorf said. "It's great to see how excited everyone is to get back in the park."
For many faithful locals and a few lucky visitors, the snow-covered landscape of spring offers a quieter, less-crowded way to take in the park's wildlife and wonders.
"I'm really surprised at how much snow there is," said Gehn Fujii, a Vermont resident making his way to the West Coast for a summer job.
Fujii had planned his trip to allow for a swing through Yellowstone, and was among approximately 20 people stopped near Steamboat Point at mid-morning to watch a young grizzly bear forage along a hillside.
Though he had seen black bears in Vermont and grizzlies in Alaska, Fujii said he was dazzled by Yellowstone's wildlife, landscape and thermal features.
"I'm definitely going to have to plan another trip to come back again," he said.
Grizzly bears were active in several spots along the park's east side Friday, with one group spotting five different bears during a two-hour drive between Steamboat Point and Canyon Village.
One grizzly drew a crowd near LeHardy Rapids as it fed throughout the day on a carcass at the edge of the Yellowstone River. Photographers and wildlife watchers lined the roadside and ventured into the trees for a closer look. But with only light traffic, the typical "bear jam" of mid-summer never materialized.
Throughout the park, migrating birds and waterfowl fished and fed along the rivers, including a bald eagle that soared over the Yellowstone River south of Canyon Village.
At Trout Creek, a great blue heron ignored the few passing cars at mid-afternoon to focus on a shallow pool where it waded in search of a meal. The enormous, long-legged bird moved slowly and patiently until striking with a swift thrust of its neck.
The heron has a diverse diet, and can feed on reptiles, invertebrates, fish and even small mammals.
But despite the first spring tourists making their way back into the park, the heron and his feathered friends will continue to enjoy exclusive fishing rights for a few more days. Yellowstone remains closed to anglers until Memorial Day weekend.