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The Orphan Road

I am just counting down the days until the Park opens. Its frustrating because we seem to be last on the list.  The Park newsletter says May 8, if conditions allow, Chief Joseph will open to the Northeast entrance.  Yet treacherous Sylvan Pass opens May 1 with no conditions attached.Pilot and Index Peaks from Chief Joseph Highway, May/June

There are only eleven miles of unplowed good highway between Chief Joseph/Beartooth highway and Cooke City.  I’ve asked my neighbors several times to explain the politics of plowing that road.  Its complex because it would seem to be the responsibility of Montana, as Wyoming plows their side.  But from what I understand, no one wants to claim it.  Its the ‘orphan road’.  The Park maintains the Beartooth (hwy 212) because that’s a federal highway.  But the Beartooth highway is not plowed in winter, for obvious reasons.  And they don’t want to plow the small stretch from the Wyoming border to Cooke City in the winter, which would leave Hwy. 296 (via 212) fully open to traffic from Cooke City to Cody in the winter.  Instead, a local in Crandall grooms that stretch for snowmobilers.

The odd thing is that once you’re in Cooke City, the North Road in Yellowstone is plowed so the kids can get to school and Cooke City isn’t landlocked.  So if, for instance, I drove to the end of Chief Joseph and parked at Pilot Creek, skied the 11 miles to Cooke City, then how do I get into the Park without a car?    It’s 11 miles of sheer frustration.  The town of Cooke City would like it plowed (at least that’s what some of the local businesses have suggested to me), but they must be too small for political clout with the feds.

The town of Cody on the other hand has lots of political clout it seems.  They’ve pushed the Park every year to keep Sylvan Pass open as a groomed road for snowmobilers.  They seem to be under the illusion that keeping that entrance open attracts winter tourists and money for the town.  The figures for 2009 are in and only 97 snowmobilers went in through the East Entrance, at a cost of $325,000 to the Park.  That’s $3500 per snowmobile!  No snow coaches went through.

I’ve only been here 4 years, but here’s the logic the way I see it.  Sylvan pass is dangerous.  To keep the pass open and safe in the winter, the Park has to induce avalanches.  Its a treacherous road.  It’s beautiful but dangerous.  Chief Joseph highway via Dead Indian Pass, on the other hand, is plowed all winter.  It’s also incredibly beautiful and accessible via Cody and Codys’ airport.  The extra 11 miles of highway is a good road and not over a 8530′ pass.  My neighbor tells me they paved Chief Joseph always with the intention of it being the winter access into the Park.  So why doesn’t Cody push to open that in the winter?

It is because there is a false view that Cody is receiving winter business from their East gate.  Numbers say they aren’t.  But people could fly into Cody and drive into Mammoth or vice versa if those 11 miles were plowed.  I’m sure the costs wouldn’t be $325,000 to the Park.  Just the cost of paying the guy already plowing the North road a few extra bucks.

One group pushing to keep that part of the road closed is Cody Country Snowmobile Association. They argue that the area is world class snowmobiling, it attracts lots of people from out of state, and money is made for the state on the tickets for snowmobiles, as well as money spent in town by the tourists.

I’m no fan of snowmobiling.  They are too noisy for me.  I am a hiker and like to feel the quiet of the woods and see the animals.  But I’m sure if $325,000/year wasn’t spent on Sylvan Pass (the snowmobilers prefer the Beartooths anyways for its challenge and freedom), some of that money could be redirected (maybe in partnership with other state agencies that are likely to benefit) to create new access trails for snowmobiles, working out a plan that would please both the CCSA and people like me who want to gain access into the Park in the winter, as well as provide that extra revenue from tourists that Cody is looking for.

On the bright side, keeping that road unploughed, although we have lots of weekend car traffic from Cody to Pilot Creek with snowmobiles in tow, helps insure that my area of the valley is nice and quiet in the winter.   Maybe things are well enough left alone.  Regardless, I’m anxious for May 8 to take an afternoon drive into the Lamar and see the Bison babies.  Pronghorn in Lamar in spring--Northeast entrance

Spring storm brewing in Yellowstone, NE entrance

Lamar Valley, springtime

4 Responses

  1. Your photos are tremendous. Incredible!


  2. Hi Mike, Thanks. I see your blog has tons of great bird photos. I was lucky to get the ones of the Northern Saw-Whet Owl. Love to see more owl photos on your site.
    Thanks, Leslie


  3. […] written about that orphan road before.  My neighbor says that when they paved the road, the idea was that would be the all year […]


  4. I’ve loaded your site in Three different browsers and I must say this blog loads a lot quicker then most. Would you mind mailing me the name of your web hosting company? I will sign up through your affiliate link if you would like. Thanks!


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