Glacier sees uptick in visitors before full Sun Road reopening
Daily Inter Lake | June 20, 2021 12:00 AM
Dee Horton planned her trip to Glacier National Park months in advance, booking a rental car, a place to stay and a flight to Kalispell from her home in New Orleans, knowing all those accommodations would be in short supply.
"I booked the rent-a-car a looong time ago," she said Thursday, taking in a scene of Lake McDonald from a boat launch at Apgar.
Horton, who joined several friends for a weeklong tour of Glacier, also took pains to secure an entry ticket for the Going-to-the-Sun Road under the park's new online reservation system — a process she described as a "lottery" and a "shot in the dark."
But her group, like many other visitors eager to see the park this season, also found a workaround, scheduling many guided activities that don't require a Sun Road reservation, including a boat tour of Lake McDonald and a hike with llamas.
"We planned activities in the park that allowed you to get in," Horton's friend Cynthia Barron said. "And then once you're in, you're in."
Park officials say the reservation system is working as intended — easing congestion on the Sun Road, preventing traffic jams from spilling onto U.S. 2 and allowing more visitors to find parking spots in order to access trailheads, campgrounds, gift shops, outfitters and visitor centers.
"How do we get people in the park and to be able to experience it and enjoy it without getting into a fistfight over a parking spot at Logan Pass? It happens," park spokeswoman Gina Kerzman said during a Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Tuesday, adding park rangers have seen an increase in calls for law enforcement service.
While park officials regulate how many vehicles are on the road at any given time, the total number of visitors is up significantly from years past.
More than 170,000 people visited the park in May as the weather warmed up sooner than usual. That brought the total number of visitors during the first five months of 2021 to nearly 295,000, a record high by nearly 2% and a huge jump from about 56,000 visitors last year, when the park was closed due to COVID-19.
The park began requiring Sun Road tickets on May 28. Officials said visitation for the period of May 28 through June 13 was 27% higher this year than in 2019.
WHILE THE reservation system has ruffled feathers, officials say there is no good alternative. Based on the number of arriving vehicles, the park "very likely" would have had to close the West Glacier entrance at least seven times this year to prevent traffic jams and gridlock, officials said.
Nearly one-quarter of visitors arrived at the West Glacier and St. Mary entrances without a reservation over Memorial Day weekend, and — just as officials had anticipated — many visitors arrived before 6 a.m. and after 5 p.m. when the reservation system is not in effect.
The North Fork entrance near Polebridge also has seen high traffic volumes, and officials have had to restrict entry there by mid-morning each day.
Park spokeswoman Brandy Burke said visitors should prepare for delays if they show up during the 5 p.m. rush.
"We are telling people to kind of spread it out if they can," Burke said. "We're telling people to have a backup plan, too."
Visitors also should check the park's website for updates on various construction projects.
"That's one of the reasons for ticketed entry, too," Burke said. "It's not just COVID or traffic; it's also construction."
VISITATION HAS yet to really pick up, as the park is preparing to reopen the Sun Road through Logan Pass within the next two weeks or so.
Burke said officials have begun comparing the number of reservation tickets with the number of vehicles that arrive each day, though she didn't say how those numbers stack up.
"We have made some adjustments in the past month," she said. "And that's a process that we'll continue throughout the summer. We'll keep adjusting."
Ken Coty, a former information-technology specialist who spends his retirement working seasonal jobs in national parks, was out for a hike on Thursday as cars streamed into the park from West Glacier. He said many visitors have popped into the shop where he works with questions and complaints about the Sun Road reservation system.
"A lot of people travel a long way and get frustrated" when they can't get into the park quickly, Coty said.
But for Eliana Langer and Lara Mann, who live in Whitefish, the effort to ease the flow of traffic is a welcome improvement. On Thursday morning, they completed a nearly 40-mile bike ride along the Sun Road, starting just outside the park in West Glacier.
"Biking from West Glacier to Avalanche — I would never do that in a normal year," Mann said. "It felt like we cheated the system, in a way. It wasn't as busy as it usually is.
"Everyone's pretty against the system, or they're upset about it," she added. "But I think it's going to make it so much better. Avalanche didn't feel crazy when we got there. There wasn't even a park ranger being like, 'It's full already.'"
This story has been updated to correctly identify who made the statements quoted in the final two paragraphs.
Assistant editor Chad Sokol may be reached at 406-758-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Reporter Bret Anne Serbin contributed to this report.