Yellowstone National Park’s Gardner Canyon Road Likely to Return ‘Back to Its Natural State’

by Caitlin Berard
(Photo by DEA / W. BUSS/De Agostini via Getty Images)

Over the summer, record flooding, rockslides, and high waters washed out entire bridges and sections of road in Yellowstone National Park. Since then, park officials have been hard at work ensuring that the park remains open via temporary access roads. Now, however, attention is turning toward permanent replacements.

The temporary road providing access between Gardner and Mammoth should open in two short weeks. But officials remain uncertain about the future in terms of a permanent road to replace its washed-out predecessor.

For months, engineers have debated the best solution. “I asked for an analysis of every possible, constructible alignment down to Gardner from Mammoth,” Park Superintendent Cam Sholly told KBZK.

Engineers presented the Superintendent with five possibilities, which Sholly says he will analyze by asking five questions: which has the lowest environmental effect, which is the least distracting from the otherwise breathtaking park, which provides the fastest route, which is most cost-effective, and which is most likely to hold up to future catastrophic events.

Because of the high likelihood of another flood in the future, Sholly is unsure that the park should reconstruct the road through Gardner Canyon at all.

“When you think about going back through this canyon, you could potentially … build it to be resilient to a future flood event,” he explained. “But it might not be resilient to this whole cliff face collapsing on it. So, it might be a really good opportunity to restore this river canyon back to its natural state.”

Why a Reroute Could Be Better Than a Rebuild for Yellowstone National Park

According to Cam Sholly, there are plenty of reasons why upgrading the temporary road to make a new permanent route is a better option than attempting to rebuild Gardner Road.

“We’ve put twenty million dollars into this Old Gardner Road already,” Sholly explained. “And, you know, there’s no going back on that. I think a fundamental question we need to ask is, do we really want to blow out another two-lane in this park to Gardner, right next to the two-lane we just created?”

There are also enormous cliffs hanging over the old road, which pose an obvious threat, especially in the event of an earthquake. “The last thing we want to do is build a viaduct through the canyon and have it imploded from up top,” he said. “And, I think there’s some real value to consider restoring that canyon to its natural state.”

Though the recent flood didn’t spark the conversations surrounding this decision, it did speed them up. The plans for replacement roads and alternative solutions will soon be presented to the public. However, it’s still expected to take 3-5 years to complete the permanent roads.