Glacier Park Visitation Record Settles at 2.36 Million

The 2015 annual total surpassed the previous all-time record of 2.32 million set in 2014

By Dillon Tabish
The rising sun illuminates the peaks surrounding Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park. Beacon File Photo

Despite rampant wildfires that hampered attendance in the busiest time of year, Glacier National Park set another record for visitors in 2015.

In its 105th year as a national park, the Crown Jewel of the Continent was more popular than ever, attracting an estimated 2.36 million people over the last 12 months, according to the National Park Service.

The 2015 annual total surpassed the previous all-time record of 2.32 million set in 2014. It marked an increase of 1.8 percent.

The popularity of national parks across the U.S. is hitting an all-time high. Yellowstone National Park also set a visitation record of nearly 4.1 million people in 2015. Two other famous parks, Grand Canyon and Zion, set records, too, and the overall visitation at NPS sites is poised to hit 300 million, the most ever and seven million more than last year’s previous high.

These latest records might not last long, though. The National Park Service is celebrating its centennial in 2016, and park officials are expecting a significant boost in visitors. As part of the year-long celebration, the agency is hosting festivities across the U.S. and urging Americans to rediscover its scenic wonders or find new ones to visit.

In Glacier, another record is entirely possible on its own merit.

This latest record most likely should have been much higher than 2014 and came in spite of several wildfires that broke out in several parts of the park this summer. The Reynolds Creek Fire sparked in late July in the St. Mary area and erupted from 2 acres to 2,000 acres in a matter of hours. The blaze led to evacuations and charred one vehicle and one historic cabin, the Baring Creek Cabin. The fire closed much of the area around St. Mary and portions of Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Over the next month, wildfires raged in the region, including Essex, and pushed visitors out of the core area of Glacier Park at times.

Yet even then, visitors flocked to the beloved outdoor refuge in high numbers.

The West Entrance remained the most popular gateway into the park with 1.14 million people, a 6.6 percent increase over the previous year. The fires did drop visitation at St. Mary’s by 11 percent, to 429,942 people, second most among the park’s entrances. Many Glacier was the third most popular gateway with 305,921 people, a 1.7 percent increase. Two Medicine saw 162,203 people, a 6.7 percent increase.

According to the NPS visitor stats, overall camping figures were down in 2015, likely due to the wildfires. There were 354,215 total overnight stays, a 2.8 percent decline. The number of backcountry overnight stays rose 9.8 percent to 32,797. Tent overnight stays were also up, 2.7 percent, to 113,600. Concession lodging dropped 9.5 percent to 105,997 overnights. RV overnights dropped 4.3 percent to 99,846.

The influx of people is forcing park officials to study ways to handle the flood of crowds in a relatively short summer season. Glacier Park is preparing to unveil this spring a new study of its congested Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor. The agency could propose several changes that would impact how visitors travel throughout Glacier. The list of options includes expanded parking, a larger fleet of free shuttles, an added emphasis on biking opportunities and controlled vehicle entry through a reservation system.

Glacier Park’s Rising Popularity

A snapshot of annual estimates of attendance in the local national park

1911   4,000

1920   22,449

1934   116,965

1936   210,072

1944   35,857

1946   200,547

1952   649,689

1962   966,100

1969   1,051,200

1983   2,203,847

1994   2,152,989

2004   2,033,933

2010   2,200,048

2015   2,366,056

Source: National Park Service

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