YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — For Matt Gibbens, visiting Yellowstone National Park via the East Entrance when it opened on Monday was a “no brainer.”

“I just knew that I would see something I’d never seen before: Yellowstone at its purest,” he said.

He wasn’t disappointed. Gibbens was standing at the Lower Falls overlook at Artist’s Point, and the usually crowded viewpoint was nearly empty. He told his girlfriend he normally has to circle the large parking lot a few times just to find a place to park.

The oldest national park in the United States closed to tourists seven weeks ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The East Entrance, near Cody, Wyoming, was one of two access points to the park that opened Monday. The other, the South Entrance, is located just outside Jackson, Wyoming. The three other entrances to the park, all located in Montana, remain closed. Last week Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said the earliest he would allow the entrances in his state to open would be June 1, much to the disappointment of some business people in those three gateway communities.

Some tourists, like Gibbens, were willing to make the drive to see the park during these unusual times. Others, like John Mills, just happened to be in the area and took advantage of the opportunity.

Mills left Ann Arbor, Mich., a week ago in his Tesla electric car to go on a cross-country birding trip while his software company is closed due to the new coronavirus.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing bears and wolves,” he said.

Five buddies who left Chicago four days earlier also just happened to luck into Yellowstone’s opening day. John Reilly, Winston Jones, Alek Rasutis, Brian Davis and Tyler Morales were crammed into one vehicle on their journey to the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Despite their close contact with each other, they were taking “extreme precautions” to avoid getting or spreading COVID-19, Reilly said, including wearing masks and using hand sanitizer.

Last week, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said the park’s two Wyoming entrances would open at noon on Monday. But as a line of cars, trucks and campers backed up at the East Entrance — some camping at the entrance to be the first through the gate — Sholly allowed the park staff to open the gate two hours early.

“Hi, welcome to Yellowstone,” said Janice Berriochoa, a park ranger, through her face mask as tourists pulled up to the kiosk and offered cash, credit cards or a pass to enter. “Today is free, just for you.”

In the first two hours about 200 visitors had rolled through, excited to see the park’s wildlife, waterfalls and thermal features that in the past have drawn around 4 million tourists a year.

Sholly sees the reduced visitation as a good way to get the park’s staff and tourists used to new protocols instituted to lessen the chances of the park becoming a vector for the new coronavirus.

For veteran park worker Richard Ranc, that meant fewer toilets for him to clean in the Lake District. Whereas it used to be five to 10 custodial workers roaming the region to clean the vault toilets, it’s now 30. At age 80, Ranc has been working in his current job 32 years.

As Ranc sprayed disinfectant in an outhouse near LeHardy Rapids, known as a place to see harlequin ducks, vehicles rolled past with license plates from Virginia, Colorado, California and Utah, to name a few. Asked if he was surprised by how far it appeared people had traveled to visit Yellowstone, Sholly shook his head.

“I don’t think anything about this park surprises me anymore,” he said.

Sholly and his staff have devised a reopening plan that in this first phase includes day-use only, no overnight camping or lodging, no tour buses, and no food service. The idea is to go slow in hopes that an outbreak of coronavirus can be avoided for the park’s staff and, if lucky, in the surrounding communities because the last thing Sholly and his crew want to do is close the park again.

“We’re trying to get used to the new system,” he said. “There’s always going to be a learning curve.”

For 15 years Gibbens has been visiting the park from his California home since his father bought a home in nearby Wapiti, Wyoming. A couple of months ago he took the plunge and moved to the area to help his aging father. Access to Yellowstone and the region’s fishing were two big attractions.

“It just never gets old,” he said. “It’s one of my favorite spots.”

French may be contacted at french@billingsgazette.com.

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