JACKSON — By 11:53 a.m. Grand Teton National Park’s Moran entrance station was flowing with vehicles, a surprising sight on a grand opening day that was supposed to commence at noon.
The park’s brand new Colter Bay district ranger, Craig Thexton, explained that he made the call to swing the gates at 11:45 after people had been lined up for hours.
“It started at 5:30,” Thexton said.
By midday a line of “several hundred” vehicles were waiting, and the stationary caravan was spilling onto the highway. Same story at Moose: A line of cars, trucks and RVs extended past the Snake River bridge. The park let them through in both places to reduce congestion.
“We’re excited to have the park open and welcome the visitors back — just as much as the visitors themselves are excited,” Thexton said.
Thexton is 11 weeks into the job working at Grand Teton, but eight of those weeks were while that national park, along with Yellowstone, was off-limits to the public. The cause of the closure was COVID-19, the deadly pandemic that derailed ordinary life for much of the world.
Monday marked a step toward normality for Teton County’s two national parks, which opened all of their Wyoming gates at the request of gateway communities and Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon. The parks abruptly went from empty to hosting an early summer-season type of crowd.
Around a quarter past noon, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, resident Marty Smith was taking in the views overlooking the still water of the Snake River’s Oxbow Bend.
“I just rode 1,800 miles by myself,” Smith said. “I said to my wife, ‘Sophia, would you like to go with me? No? OK, see you later.’”
The impromptu decision was a personal trademark.
“When I go anywhere, it’s always last-minute, without a plan,” he said. “Let me tell you something. I’m 66, almost 67, and this is the way to live.”
Smith’s idea was spawned by a lure to see nature at its finest, most natural state, which he figured was the case after a prolonged period with a dearth of people.
But in the first few minutes after opening, not everyone was as invested in the Northern Rockies’ natural wonders.
At the Lower Willow Flats overlook, a teenager rested her iPhone on a Michigan-plated SUV, biding her time while her mother took a work call. She busted dance moves on TikTok, with her phone pointed away from the Tetons. Dad, asked for an interview, didn’t want to be bothered.
A dull-coated red fox sporting a GPS collar was evidently not so bothered by the sudden volume of vehicles. After trotting along the busy road shoulder, at 12:22 p.m. the crafty canine scampered down a slope. People in cars stopped to take pictures before the fox slipped out of sight, but a pickup with Lincoln County plates wasn’t having it. Its irritated driver aggressively blared his horn.
Along the shoulder past Pilgrim Creek, Red Top Meadows resident Cindy Campbell was pulled over and feeling the vibe of Grand Teton’s opening day. She excitedly recounted a morning seeing “red dogs” — just-born bison calves — at Elk Ranch Flats. She spotted a beaver in the Buffalo Fork just shy of Moran, and also saw the fox.
“I’ve only told one person today to go you-know-what,” Campbell said.
A truck from Alaska, she explained, pulled around her stopped vehicle, and came “this close” from clipping the fox.
“You could tell that fox was like, ‘Oh, man, what’s happening, this is not yesterday,” Campbell said. “He was owning that road completely.”
Cars were lined up near where she stood past Pilgrim Creek, the aftermath of a double grizzly sighting. Included in the crowd was Jackson Hole wildlife photographer Mike Jackson, who spoke from a distance.
“I’m 66,” Jackson said, “and I don’t want to have any part of that disease.”
It’s been a tough spring for his business, Best of the Tetons Photo Tours, which operates with “commercial use authorization” permits issued by the parks.
“It’s hard to give deposits back,” Jackson said. “You have money in the bank. It’s like taking coins off the scoreboard, you know.”
Ideally, Jackson will be able to run his business this summer while abiding by recommended social distancing guidelines.
“If everything goes right, I’m going to have people follow me in their vehicle,” Jackson said. “Then they won’t be in my truck and I won’t have high contact.”
Outside of restrooms and myriad natural amenities, gas pumps at the Colter Bay convenience store are about the only service within Grand Teton open for the time being, which is being dubbed the first of three phases of reopening. Richmond, Utah, resident Rich Nield, who was in the parking lot, was disappointed the store itself was still closed (it opens Friday).
“I was going to make lunch, and I forgot bread,” Nield said. “I don’t want to have to drive back to Jackson just to get bread.”
Nield and his good buddy, Alan Checketts, were in the area for a multi-day photography trip, laying their heads at a Jackson hotel. He was happy to be back for his fourth 2020 trip to the Tetons — the first three came before COVID-19 got real.
“This is my go-to place,” Nield said.
At Jackson Lake overlook the ice-free water was like glass, and Roseburg, Oregon, resident Heather Baker and her family stretched their legs on the front end of a classic American roadtrip. They stayed the first night in Idaho Falls and planned to push east through Cody after hitting Yellowstone National Park.
“We’re just trying to get as close as we can to that big mountain — what’s it called? — Mount Rushmore,” Baker said. “We’ve got five days to get to Arkansas and our Airbnb.”
A couple who stood nearby from Bonaire — an island country in a chain off the Venezuelan coast — were in a decidedly different position.
Danique Sneers and Amede Disbeschl had been stranded in the United States for two months because of a COVID-19 lockdown back home, and were making the best of it by visiting parks from Yellowstone all the way to Miami. The trip didn’t start off as a vacation: Sneers was taking care of her mom, who’s been in the United States to go through chemotherapy treatment.
While here, with no warning, her island closed the airport.
“The other two islands, they gave everybody 48 hours,” Sneers said. “Our island was like, ‘We’re closed.’”
Nearly two miles away across Jackson Lake, coyotes yipped somewhere along the shore — the great distance testimony to the stillness of the afternoon.
By 1:40 p.m. Palisades, Idaho, resident Mike Osteen had reached the bridge over the Snake River north of Jackson Lake and was breaking to let his dog do its thing.
“We only come up here a few times a year, usually just when we have friends and relatives in town,” Osteen said. “But we’re just tired of being in the house and the wife wanted to come up.”
A 3-mile drive up onto the Yellowstone plateau, a Twin Falls, Idaho, funeral home owner, Heidi Heil, was taking a break from driving with her four kids at the South Gate. Her hearse, actually a van, was parked nearby.
“I had a funeral in Tetonia, so I loaded a casket and my four kids and did the burial,” Heil said. “Then I came on up here.”
Heil was on the front end of a much-deserved break from work.
“My death rate doubled for six weeks,” she said. “This pandemic just wore me out, and I needed to get away.”
From beneath the bridge over the Lewis River, four seasonal Jackson Hole residents were scoping the falls on their day off. Darrell and Kristi Williams and Tina Mackin and Mark Evans all live and work at the Snake River KOA campground and RV Park near Hoback Junction. They opened at the beginning of May, though initially weren’t greeted too many clients.
“We were open, but not open,” Darrell Williams said. “But there was lots of clean-up to do. Deer, elk, moose, they all like to hang out in the park, so we cleaned up a lot.”
A lot of poop, he said. Everybody chuckled.
The heftiest crowd of the day, by far, was at Old Faithful. The News&Guide pulled into the parking lot as the geyser blew around 3:20 p.m., and we were surrounded by license plates from around the country: Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, California, Colorado, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Georgia, Oregon and New York. There were also plates from Florida, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Kentucky, Montana, Virginia, Illinois, Maryland, Texas, Connecticut, Ohio.
Mike Kazmac sat in his Washington-plated wagon waiting for the next eruption. He’s midway through an open-ended move, soon to be relocating to a Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem gateway community of his choosing.
“Everything,” Kazmac said, was cool: “The geysers, the hot springs, elk, bison who pretend not to see you.”
Yellowstone’s awe-inspiring landscapes, flora and fauna is also what drew Wilson resident and longtime valley newspaper scribe Tom Dewell to the parks for opening day.
“I love the parks,” he said.
Atop Dewell’s head lived a mane-like mess of hair, one casualty of a coronavirus crisis that closed down barbershops and salons statewide. He groaned as we asked him to pose for a picture.
“I ordered some shears,” Dewell said. “It’ll be like a lamb-sheering.”
More than 200 people surrounded Dewell on the Old Faithful boardwalk, all but a few mask-free. They were pretty well spread out, confined mostly to friend and family groups clustered on their own benches.
“We’re not going to sit down here,” a mother said to her young daughter. “There’s too many people.”
Among the crowd were Yellowstone EMTs Nathan Munson, Mark Jermusyk and Dave Byers, who strolled by while chatting about their chance to meet the superintendent, Cam Sholly. He stood alone on a spur of the boardwalk.
“I think we’ve got about 1,200 cars in the park right now,” Sholly told his rangers, initially unaware of the journalists nearby. “We’ll see what happens when we’ve got 10 times as many people.
“Our first responders are really the ones who I’m most concerned about,” he said. “You end up getting 20,000, 30,000 people a day in the park at a time, and that generates a call volume. If your first responders don’t stay healthy, that’s a problem.”
Yellowstone’s superintendent said it was shaping up to be an about average mid-May Monday in the park, judging by the gate traffic. Same day last year, he said, there were 478 vehicles tallied at the east gateway to Cody, and another 910 vehicles that passed into the park at the South Gate, headed up from Jackson Hole. Through 4 p.m. there were 431 vehicles admitted at Sylvan Pass on the east side and another 510 automobiles counted at the South entrance.
Sholly stuck around long enough to see Old Faithful blow, a phenomenon he’d witnessed as recently as last Friday — when no one was around. Minute after minute passed, and by 5 p.m. the iconic geyser remained dormant past its forecasted eruption window.
“The good news is Yellowstone is open,” Sholly shouted to “Ranger Jake,” Yellowstone’s staff photographer and Instagram personality. “The bad news is Old Faithful is broken.”
At 5:19 p.m., Old Faithful finally blew. Sholly, the son of a Yellowstone ranger, shot a short video on his phone.
“Woah,” a little girl shrieked in the distance. “It’s the biggest ever.”