Short Season for Going-to-the-Sun

By Beacon Staff

The west side of Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park is scheduled to close on Sept. 19 after only being open for roughly two months. And when traffic stops on the 78-year-old National Historic Landmark, it also slows in the rest of the valley.

This is the fourth year of an estimated 10-year rebuilding process on the iconic road. Logan Pass is scheduled to remain accessible from the east side of the park, where there is less construction this year, until Oct. 19.

Although Glacier stays open year-round, the closing of its main thoroughfare, one of the Flathead Valley’s biggest tourist attractions, signifies the end of the peak season and the dollars that come with it.

“It’s always been troublesome for tourism in this area. As soon as that road closes it just turns off the spigot,” Jan Metzmaker, director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau, said.

This year will mark one of the shortest periods the park has been fully accessible. Logan Pass remained covered in snow through June and the entire 50-mile stretch of road did not open until July 13.

Last year, the road opened on June 24 and officially kicked off centennial celebrations throughout the summer, resulting in a record attendance of more than 2.2 million visitors.

This year, a hangover arrived in the form of a late start and now an early closure.

“You could just see when the Going-to-the-Sun road didn’t open until July 13 it really had a big impact on the economy in the Flathead Valley, particularly here in Columbia Falls. We are the gateway to Glacier National Park,” Carol Pike, the executive director of the Columbia Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, said.

As a whole in Flathead County, tourism brought in $232 million last year, according to the Kalispell Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Glacier Park, the No. 1 attraction in the state, has a lot to do with those numbers, Pike said, but the window to see that attraction continues to be very small.

“The critical part is that in the spring that’s when you can’t get to the top and that’s when people choose to go somewhere else. And there’s a domino effect,” she said.

Whitefish ended up rebounding from a rough June and had its best July since 2008, according to a recently released resort tax report from the city of Whitefish. The city had a 5 percent increase in tax revenue compared to last July. Bars and restaurants had the largest comeback with a 9.3 percent increase.

Glacier Park spokeswoman Denise Germann said the weather was unfortunate early on but once it cleared up the summer was “very busy” in the park.

“Anybody living in this area lives with weather changes. You take it as it comes and you do the best that you can,” she said.

“We do try to make every effort we can to accommodate visitors while still making headway on the rehabilitation.”

Germann emphasized the opportunity is still available for hikers and bicyclists to use Going-to-the-Sun road.

“To experience the park on bike or on foot versus when you’re in a car, it’s a whole new experience,” she said. “There’s still plenty of opportunities at Glacier National Park.”

In other words, the glass is half full.

“You can still have a wonderful time in other wonderful parts of the park,” Metzmaker said.

“We all love being able to access Logan Pass,” she added. “We need to just focus on the future. If we can just get this (construction) done we’ll have a great road. We just need to hang in there.”