After a down year in 2008, visitation numbers at Glacier National Park are on the rebound, propelling the park to a strong January through June period where visitor numbers were up more than 14 percent off the same time last year.
The National Park Service Statistics Office reported that 327,572 people entered the national park last month, up 14.1 percent from about 287,000 visitors in June 2008. May was also a busy month for Glacier, with visitation up 20 percent from the May before.
In all, the NPS says 484,458 visitors flocked to Glacier during the first six months of the year. “Comparing month-to-month, we’ve been up so far this year,” Wade Muehlhof, a public information officer with the park, said. “That’s a good sign for the rest of the summer.”
In the early 1990s, the park enjoyed a robust period where its visitors topped 2 million for four consecutive years. Since then, however, annual visitation numbers have only hit that mark twice, including the 2007 season where there were 2,083,329 guests.
That high mark was followed up by a significantly slower year in 2008, when visitation dipped about 13 percent to 1,808,027 people – the lowest number since the 2003 season. Winter conditions in the park continued well into June last year, delaying the full opening of the Going-to-the-Sun Road until July 2. Park officials say gasoline prices exceeding $4 per gallon also affected Glacier’s tourism.
So far, though, this year appears to be back on track – good news for the businesspeople of Flathead’s tourism industry who rely on Glacier as their perennial ace to draw summer visitors.
“The Glacier Park numbers are our indicators,” Dori Muehlhof, executive director of the Flathead Convention and Visitor Bureau, said, adding that lodging businesses are reporting solid bookings for July as well.
Damage from a huge avalanche that swept across the Sun Road in early January threatened to keep the popular scenic road from opening on time again. But road crews had travelers on their way by June 26. Gas prices have stayed considerably lower so far this year as well, hovering around $2.60 per gallon last week as compared to about $4.17 the same time last year. Good weather and a lack of fires has helped, too.
Park officials also attribute the increase partly to the fact that people can tailor their Glacier trips to their budgetary constraints.
“It does provide an affordable way to vacation,” Wade Muehlhof said. “People are able to choose more carefully how they spend their money.”
Year-to-date park statistics back up that theory. Overnight stays in the park’s lodges decreased about 1 percent in the first six months of this year compared to last year. Meanwhile, the number of people staying in tents and recreational vehicles increased 21 and 35 percent, respectively, up to 15,400 and 18,984 people.
“There’s a term out there now that’s staycations, people vacation close to home,” Wade Muehlhof said. “I think that’s exactly what those numbers reflect.”
Meanwhile, Yellowstone National Park is on pace for a record-setting year. More than 1.3 million travelers flocked to the park during the first six months of this year.
In June alone, about 644,000 people entered Yellowstone, up 8.5 percent from the same time last year. It was the only time in the park’s history besides June 2007 when visitors exceeded 600,000 for the month.
Year-to-date, the number of recreational visitors in the nation’s first national park is up 9.3 percent from last year.
As both parks enter the height of their summer seasons, July and August, park officials and the businesspeople who rely on the national landmarks to fill their registers with summer tourism dollars are hoping the early summer trends continue.
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