Glacier Park Approaches Visitation Record for Second Consecutive Year

Through October, an estimated 2.33 million people visited the park this year

By Dillon Tabish
Fall colors reflect in McDonald Creek in Glacier National Park on Oct. 19, 2014. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

On the heels of another bustling summer, Glacier National Park is poised to reach another milestone.

Glacier Park is set to surpass the all-time annual record for visitation for the second year in a row.

Through October, an estimated 2,333,194 people visited the park this year, barely 5,000 shy of the annual record set in 2014. The National Park Service released the latest park statistics Nov. 12.

An average of 15,000 t0 16,000 people visit the park in November each year, meaning the record will likely be broken soon, if it has not already.

Overall visitation is up 1.6 percent so far this year despite a spate of wildfires that raged in and around the park in late summer and forced the temporary closure of sections of Going-to-the-Sun Road.

The majority of people — 1.11 million — entered through the West Entrance this year, a 6.2 percent spike over last year. The North Fork and Polebridge areas drew an estimated 73,706 people, a 26.1 percent increase over last year.

This year marks the eighth time in 12 years that over 2 million people have visited Glacier Park. Only five other years prior to 2004 saw that many people in the park, according to NPS data.

June boasted unseasonably warm weather and set a new record for the month with over 414,000 people that month. On June 11, the park celebrated its 100 millionth visitor.

Yellowstone National Park has also experienced a record year. An estimated 4 million people entered Yellowstone through October, a 17 percent increase over last year. Overall visitation at all U.S. national parks is up 3.61 percent this year.

As Glacier Park enjoys all-time high popularity, officials are studying congestion issues in the Going-to-the-Sun Road Corridor. Amid this increased visitation and congestion along the main thoroughfare, park officials are considering several changes that could impact how visitors travel throughout Glacier.

Superintendent Jeff Mow said the persistent growth of visitation does create challenges for the park with congestion and overwhelmed resources.

This year presented a unique scenario for visitation: May and June were unseasonably warm and drew larger-than-normal numbers. July was one of the busiest months on record, but the crowds quickly subsided in August with wildfires forcing the temporary closure of the Sun Road and other areas.

Under the current visitation trend and without any factors such as wildfires hampering those figures, Mow said he believes Glacier could see annual visitation increasing by 20 percent in the near future, similar to Yellowstone.

“I’m interested in having conversations with the business community about how are we going to digest that?” Mow said. “What does that do to the congestion points? How does that impact the quality of the visitor experience? Those are all questions we need to ask.”

Mow said there were often days when cars were frequently waiting upwards of two hours to park at Logan Pass. That logjam redistributed people to other areas of the park, Mow said, such as the Polebridge area.

“There’s a lot of interesting information and analysis that can come from a summer like last summer,” he said.

“I’m hoping this winter to learn from my peers at the Yellowstone, Grand Teton and parks in Utah and elsewhere about how they dealt with that 20 percent (increase) and what are some of the things we could learn from them.”

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