The Camping Crunch

Persistent record crowds at national and state parks are increasingly putting pressure on Northwest Montana's prized public campgrounds

Summer is still a few months away, but prospective campers will be making plans sooner than later.

In Montana’s second most popular county for visitors, landing a camping spot in Glacier National Park or at the many other state and federal sites has become a difficult task, particularly in the bustling summer months.

According to the latest state tourism data, 36 percent of the record 12.33 million visitors to Montana in 2016 — roughly 4.4 million people — went camping. Glacier County, which spans this corner of Montana, attracted the largest percentage of those campers at 40 percent, followed by Yellowstone Country at 32 percent, according to the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research.

In July 2016, there were nearly 80,000 overnight stays in Glacier Park’s 1,014 campsites, according to National Park Service statistics, meaning that campgrounds were effectively booked across the board.

At popular destinations such as Many Glacier Campground, lines consistently formed the night before on weekends as visitors tried to secure a first-come, first-serve site the next day. In recent years, a fourth campground host was added at Apgar to help manage Glacier’s largest community of campers, with its 194 units. Even campgrounds that historically existed in relative obscurity have become hot spots.

“Even the ‘safe bet’ campgrounds are not safe bets anymore,” Jenny Baker, who helps oversee campgrounds on the west side of Glacier Park, said.

“The North Fork campgrounds used to not fill hardly at all. They’re filling very, very quickly nowadays.”

The campground crunch is not isolated to Glacier Park, either. At Montana State Parks sites across the region, crowds are common and available reservations are sparse between spring and fall.

“(Crowding) is across the board on some of our busiest weekends,” Dave Landstrom, parks manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in this region, said. “But there are a handful of state parks campgrounds that can be a challenge for several days during the summer.”

“It’s just a function of supply and demand,” he added. “We’re hitting that critical mass during the really busiest times of year.”

The campground crunch is a symptom of a rising trend: record attendance in the outdoors.

In 2016, Glacier Park attracted roughly 600,000 more people than the prior year and set a new annual record with 2.9 million visitors. It was the third consecutive year that Glacier broke its attendance record. It’s the second most popular attraction in Montana behind only Yellowstone National Park.

Montana State Parks set a similar mark with an increase of 185,000 visitors from 2015 to 2016. The state parks system drew 2.65 million people. The parks in and around Flathead Lake remain among the most popular in Montana. In fact, the Flathead Lake state parks — encompassing Finley Point, Wayfarers, West Shore, Yellow Bay, Big Arm and Wild Horse Island — are the most popular in the peak summer season, according to state data. More than 251,000 people visited the six sites, a 12 percent increase over 2015.

“We’re not making a lot more campgrounds but we’re entertaining a lot more visits,” Landstrom said.

The strong demand for public campgrounds helps the private sector, and Northwest Montana is home to several private sites near amenities such as Flathead Lake and Glacier Park. In summer season, it can be a scramble from one site to the next searching for an overnight stay.

“We try and do everything we can to help someone find a campsite,” Landstrom said. “We’ll start calling other parks to see if there is one nearby or in the direction folks are headed to see if there are vacancies. We also have a list of private and federal campgrounds, and we’ll call them.”

Both the NPS and Montana State Parks have tried to help with the deluge by implementing online reservation systems in recent years. For example, about half of the campsites at Many Glacier can be reserved online in advance. Booking dates open up six months in advance. Advance reservations are also available for the Fish Creek and St. Mary Campgrounds and half of the sites at the Apgar Group Site.

Similarly, many state park sites can be reserved beforehand to ensure there is a site for someone traveling a long distance or even a local wanting to protect a spot during the busy tourist season.

“We really heard from the public that if they left Missoula on Friday after work, they wanted to know a spot would be there for them,” Landstrom said.

Before the reservation system, the agencies both frequently received complaints from campers who were regularly pestered by eager arrivals.

“We used to call it the parade of campers. Right around the daily checkout time, you’d get folks rolling through the campground and drive in loops asking people if they were leaving,” Landstrom said, adding that some people would park in front of sites to unofficially reserve them.

The NPS has extended the season for certain campgrounds in Glacier to try to make room for more visitors during the so-called shoulder seasons before the summer flood, but weather and staffing challenges are persistent. Last year, Avalanche opened a week earlier and portable bathrooms were installed in Apgar in the late season to accommodate campers.

“That’s something the park is looking at in general, those shoulder season activities,” Lauren Alley, a spokesperson with Glacier Park, said. “Glacier is a great place to visit in the fall and spring. To the extent that we can, we look at ways that we can facilitate that.”

Inevitably, this generation of campers is simply having to adopt a new skillset beyond lighting a fire or setting up a tent.

“It is definitely a game of planning anymore,” Landstrom said. “The weekends from the Fourth of July through the end of August, it takes a lot more planning than it used to.”

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