Bighorn Canyon continues to increase recreational access

The lake level is up, and facilities in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area are continuing to open as COVID-19 restrictions ease, Chief of Interpretation Christy Fleming announced this week.

Bighorn Canyon notified the public Friday that the lake level had reached 3,617 feet and that the National Park Service had installed the boat launch ramp at Horseshoe Bend. However, the Park Service recommended launching only non-motorized boats and small fishing boats until lake levels are higher. Larger boats should use the ramp at Barry’s Landing, the NPS said in a press release.

Fleming said in an interview Tuesday that the lake elevation had reached 3,621 feet but urged boaters to use caution, noting that the lake is only four feet above the “minimal” boat launching elevation.

Boaters launching at Horseshoe Bend should stay within the river channel and areas to the north of Horseshoe Bend, the Friday press release said. Caution is required in the Horseshoe Bend, south narrows and causeway areas of the lake as large islands of mud remain exposed or are present just below the water’s surface. There is also some additional maintenance that the NPS needs to complete when lake levels are higher, such as reattaching the log boom that is currently blocking parts of the channel.

The Horseshoe Bend Marina is open for curbside food service, Fleming said.

The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is gradually opening up as water levels rise and restrictions are eased. Boats can now launch from Horseshoe Bend with caution, according to the National Park Service.
David Peck photo

The Barry’s Landing and Kane boat ramps remain open. Trail Creek and Horseshoe Bend campgrounds are open (campground fees apply), and all south district trails remain open to provide healthy outdoor options for the public. These areas continue to be monitored daily.

Following guidance from state and local public health authorities and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and in consultation with the Crow Tribe, Bighorn Canyon planned to increase recreational access on the North District, near Fort Smith, Mont., on Wednesday, June 3.

Bighorn Canyon planned to reopen access to the Afterbay Lake access near Government Camp, the Ok-A-Beh launch ramp and Ok-A-Beh public restrooms on June 3.

With public health in mind, the following facilities remain closed at this time:

· Government Camp

· The Yellowtail Dam Visitor Center near Fort Smith and the Bighorn Canyon Visitor Center at Lovell.

· Ok-A-Beh Marina, slips and fuel docks.

· The Ok-A-Beh and Horseshoe Bend swim beaches.

Another victim of the COVID-19 crisis is the YCC program at Bighorn Canyon, which for many years has provided good summertime employment for local youths and a valuable work crew for the park.

“We’re all hands on deck at this point (for maintenance),” Fleming said.

On a positive note, the Lovell Visitor Center staff is planning “pop-up” visitor center hours at the end of the week and on weekends, Fleming said.

“We’ll be outside and have a pop-up visitor center with maps and stuff, but we’re not opening the visitor center yet,” she said. “We don’t have a set schedule (for the pop-up centers).

“I think sometime in July we’ll open both visitor centers (north and south).”

After consultation with the Crow Tribe and monitoring conditions, the Park Service planned to reopen the Afterbay Campground (campground fees apply), the Headgate Trail and the Beaver Pond Trail on Wednesday.

“Please keep in mind that the Crow Tribe has issued a directive requiring any individual coming into their reservation for non-work related purposes to self-quarantine for 14 days,” the Park Service release stated. “This directive is to discourage out-of-state visitation, reduce strain on resources, protect healthcare workers during the pandemic and reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“Park wide, the maintenance staff strives to clean restroom facilities in the park to the highest standards and keep them stocked. However, visitors should be advised that frequently used restroom facilities do pose a risk to the spread of COVID-19 and visitors should bring their own hand sanitizer.

“The health and safety of our visitors, employees, volunteers and partners continue to be paramount. At Bighorn Canyon our operational approach will be to examine each facility function and service provided to ensure those operations comply with current public health guidance and will be regularly monitored. We continue to work closely with the NPS Office of Public Health using CDC guidance to ensure public and workspaces are safe and clean for visitors, employees partners, and volunteers.”

The Friday release pointed out that the re-opening is a gradual process.

“While areas are accessible for visitors to enjoy, a return to full operations will continue to be phased and services may be limited,” the Park Service stated. “When recreating, the public should follow local area health orders, practice Leave No Trace principles, avoid crowding and avoid high-risk outdoor activities.

“The CDC has offered guidance to help people recreating in parks and open spaces prevent the spread of infectious diseases. We will continue to monitor all park functions to ensure that visitors adhere to CDC guidance for mitigating risks associated with the transmission of COVID-19, and take any additional steps necessary to protect public health.”

The park’s interpretive staff has been developing and sharing virtual tours of Bighorn Canyon on the park’s social media platforms for people who are not traveling at this time. Tours and updates to phased opening may be found at:  

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BighornCanyonNRA/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/bighorncanynps/

Twitter:    https://twitter.com/BighornCanyNPS

Details and updates on park operations will continue to be posted on the park website www.nps.gov/BICA and on social media channels. Updates about NPS operations will be posted on www.nps.gov/coronavirus.