Montana State Parks Experience Record Attendance for Fourth Straight Year

Flathead Lake state parks drew the most visitors in Montana during peak season

By Dillon Tabish
Cyclists enjoy the view from Whitefish Lake State Park. Beacon File Photo

The outdoors are more popular than ever in Northwest Montana.

Alongside record visitation at Glacier National Park, the state parks across this region and all of Montana experienced record attendance in 2016, according to annual data released last week.

Montana State Parks drew more than 2.65 million visits in 2016, a 7 percent increase over 2015, according to statistics released by the state agency. The annual tally marks the fourth consecutive year of record visitation. Statewide visitation is up 33 percent over five years ago and 39 percent over the decade.

Parks in this region drew the second most overall visitors in the state with more than 705,000, a 9 percent increase over the previous year. The Great Falls region drew the most visitors with more than 724,000, roughly the same as a year ago.

Visitation in the peak season — May through September — was also the highest on record, with over 1.88 million visits, a 26 percent increase over five years ago, according to state stats.

State officials also noted the continuing trend of favorable visitation during the so-called shoulder seasons, or February through April and October through November. More than 646,000 people visited during the shoulder seasons in 2016, a 62 percent increase over 2012, according to the agency.

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 peak season. More than 251,000 people visited the six sites, a 12 percent increase over 2015. For the individual sites, Wayfarers drew the bulk of visitors with more than 158,000 people. Big Arm ranked second with nearly 43,000 visits, a 6 percent increase, followed by West Shore (roughly 35,000, a 3 percent decrease), Finley Point (roughly 29,000, a 9 percent increase), Yellow Bay (roughly 26,000, a 13 percent increase) and Wild Horse (roughly 20,000, a 21 percent increase).

Lone Pine State Park saw nearly 104,000 visitors, a 19 percent increase over 2015. Thompson Chain of Lakes drew more than 107,000 people, a 12 percent increase over 2015. Whitefish Lake State Park drew roughly 80,000 people, a 5 percent decrease, and Les Mason attracted more than 31,000, a 10 percent decrease. Lake Mary Ronan saw more than 25,000 visitors, a 27 percent increase.

Amid the continued record visitation, state officials are grappling with deferred maintenance at multiple sites, including throughout this region. Funding for the Montana State Parks system has remained the same since 2000. With 55 designated park sites, Montana’s park budget is $7.5 million annually, the second lowest in the region behind only North Dakota, which has 13 state parks and an annual budget of $6.7 million. The budget constraints have kept staffing and reinvestment at a minimum, according to state officials.

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