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National Park Visitors Must Pack Their Patience for Traffic Jams

Roadwork scheduled for summer brings long lines and inconvenience. 'Gateway' towns are trying to make the wait bearable.

September 05, 2004|Becky Bohrer | Associated Press Writer

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — Stuck in a long line of vehicles near a construction site, Darby Long took the delay in stride this hot August day. He reclined in his SUV, dangled a foot out of a window and tried to catch a short nap.

"For me, this hasn't been a big deal," said a slightly disheveled Long, of Charleston, S.C. "There are worse places to be stuck."

It may be the splendor and natural beauty that attract travelers like Long to Yellowstone and other national parks each summer. But it's the road construction, subsequent traffic delays and long lines that often keep them in one place longer than anticipated. Summer construction is a fact of life for many national parks and an inconvenience not all travelers take as well as Long.

But the National Park Service and some of the "gateway" towns near park entrances are trying to make the necessary construction a bit more bearable, using tools like the Internet and e-mail, and old-fashioned methods like fliers and word of mouth to keep travelers aware of work and delays and to keep frustration levels low.

Employees like Christopher Rast in Yellowstone distribute road information fliers with maps at park entrances. Local business and tourism officials send faxes and e-mails to motor clubs and other contacts. And park concession workers provide information in park lodges and in confirmations sent in advance to visitors who've booked stays.

The idea, officials said, is to keep visitors as well informed as possible about the work that must be done within a relatively limited time -- winter comes early and stays late in Yellowstone -- helping ease any frustration that they may otherwise have at seeing a stop sign and line of cars forming.

Besides Yellowstone, where three large road construction projects are underway, work has begun on what's expected to be the largest overhaul in decades on the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana.

In Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, crews are in the first of a planned two-year, $5-million project for 17 miles of major road improvement. Work has also begun on a stretch of the scenic Beartooth Highway, near Yellowstone's least-visited northeast gate and the town of Cooke City, Mont.

Roadwork is typically undertaken each summer in the park, with this year not dramatically different from years past, Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said. Having three projects underway in relatively close proximity, though, may make it seem to travelers that there's more going on than usual, he said.

One of the potential headaches for visitors in Yellowstone this year is on Sylvan Pass, near the park's eastern entrance. It is where Long ended up lounging for nearly half an hour on his way to find a hiking trail.

The pass is a winding stretch of road offering beautiful scenery but potentially dangerous conditions; parts of the road have no guardrails and steep drop-offs. It was along this stretch in july that a mudslide buried a portion of the road, trapping tourists and closing the east entrance for several days. The cost of the pass project is about $26 million, Nash said.

In Cody, about 50 miles east of the park, visitors can find out at the local Chamber of Commerce or businesses what to expect in the way of roadwork or delays. Signs nearing the park also alert travelers of the work ahead.

Gene Bryan, executive director of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, said a common complaint from tourists about the work on Sylvan Pass was that the road closed early and some visitors could not make it to their evening destinations.

That stretch of road has been closing at 8 p.m., and access will be even more limited after Labor Day, the unofficial end of the summer travel season.

"Some folks get caught up in the excitement of Yellowstone and forget to get out" before the road closes, Bryan said.

Nash said park officials were mindful of the visitor experience. About 3 million people visit Yellowstone each year, and experiencing delays for construction is not what many expect to encounter.

"For a lot of visitors, a lot of their experience at Yellowstone is traveling the roads," Nash said. "And we need to be sensitive to keep that experience as much as other visitors had earlier."

Dunraven Pass, another popular route in Yellowstone, is closed and probably will be until next year as a nearly 10-mile stretch of road undergoes its first major rebuild in decades, Nash said.

Completion of the total project depends largely on the availability of funding, he said, adding that the current phase will cost about $10 million.

Work is also set to begin next year on the first phase of a 38-mile reconstruction project expected to last seven years and delay traffic along Togwotee Pass, another Wyoming route leading toward Yellowstone and Grand Teton.

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