**Related Video Above: House Floats Down Yellowstone River Amid Major Flooding**
RED LODGE, Mont. (AP/WJW) — Created in 1872 as the United States was recovering from the Civil War, Yellowstone was the first of the national parks that came to be referred to as America’s best idea. Now, the home to gushing geysers, thundering waterfalls and some of the country’s most plentiful and diverse wildlife is facing its biggest challenge in decades.
Floodwaters this week wiped out numerous bridges, washed out miles of roads and closed the park as it approached peak tourist season during its 150th anniversary celebration. Nearby communities were swamped and hundreds of homes flooded as the Yellowstone River and its tributaries raged.
The scope of the damage is still being tallied by Yellowstone officials, but based on other national park disasters, it could take years and cost upwards of $1 billion to rebuild in an environmentally sensitive landscape where construction season only runs from the spring thaw until the first snowfall.
Based on what park officials have revealed and Associated Press images and video taken from a helicopter, the greatest damage seemed to be to roads, particularly on the highway connecting the park’s north entrance in Gardiner, Montana, to the park’s offices in Mammoth Hot Springs. Large sections of the road were undercut and washed away as the Gardner River jumped its banks. Perhaps hundreds of footbridges on trails may have been damaged or destroyed.
“This is not going to be an easy rebuild,” Superintendent Cam Sholly said early in the week as he highlighted photos of massive gaps of roadway in the steep canyon. “I don’t think it’s going to be smart to invest potentially, you know, tens of millions of dollars, or however much it is, into repairing a road that may be subject to seeing a similar flooding event in the future.”
The southern half of the park is reopening next week, allowing visitors to flock to Old Faithful, the rainbow colored Grand Prismatic Spring, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and its majestic waterfall.
“Yellowstone’s south loop will reopen to the public June 22,” the park said on Twitter. “Visitors traveling to park in coming weeks must stay informed about new interim visitor entry system.”
But the flood-damaged northern end may not reopen this year, depriving visitors from seeing Tower Fall and Lamar Valley, one of the best places in the world to see wolves and grizzly bears. Some days during the high season, an animal sighting can lead to thousands of people parked on the side of the road hoping to catch a glimpse.
Whether some of these areas are reopened will depend on how quickly washed-out roads can be repaired, downed trees can be removed and mudslides cleared.
“I think it’ll probably be several years before the park is totally back to normal,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity said.
Maintaining the approximately 466 miles of roadway throughout the park is a major job. Much of the roadway originally was designed for stagecoaches, said Kristen Brengel, senior vice-president of public affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association.
“Part of the effort of the last couple of decades has been to stabilize the road to make it safe for heavier vehicles to travel on it,” she said.
Located at a high elevation where snow and cold weather is not uncommon eight months of the year and there are many tiny earthquakes, road surfaces don’t last as long and road crews have a short window to complete projects. One recently completed road job created closures for about two years.