While driving to and from Many Glacier Campground last weekend, my friends and I enjoyed a playful contest. As we slowly navigated Glacier National Park’s iconic thoroughfare in a caravan of cars and trucks, we peered through the smoke at each passing license plate.
Texas. New York. Ohio.
Within only a few miles, the stakes were quickly elevated — what if we could tally one from every state?
It seemed preposterous at first. No way. As amazing as this home of ours is, it’s still well off the beaten path, away from a major interstate and airline hub, several hundred miles from a large metropolitan center and still figuring out how to accommodate the demands of a massive influx of tourists.
And yet — Colorado, Michigan, North Carolina.
By the time we exited the West Glacier entrance, passing a long line of vehicles waiting to wait even longer for a parking spot somewhere along Going-to-the-Sun Road, we’d encountered Americans from all but a handful of states. Wyoming must have something fun going on because it was the only Western state not represented in our two-hour experiment.
Newsflash: Glacier Park is more popular than ever. It’s become a familiar fact to locals in recent years, but it has reached a jaw-dropping level.
Last month more than 1 million people visited the 1-million-acre national park, shattering the previous monthly record by 191,000 people. Over the 31 days of July, that’s a daily average of more than 32,000 visitors.
It’s not a question of whether our beloved national park is going to surpass 3 million visitors this year; it’s by how much. And to think, only five years ago, we marveled at Glacier welcoming more than 2 million visitors in a single year.
Just as remarkable, for the first time, Glacier surpassed its bigger, older and usually more popular sibling, Yellowstone, for monthly visitation in July. As Glacier’s attendance skyrockets toward a fourth straight annual visitation record, Yellowstone is down slightly this year, a trend that almost every national park is experiencing.
Not only did Glacier pass Yellowstone, it was the second most popular national park in the entire country last month. Excluding parkways and recreation areas, the only park that drew more people was the tourism behemoth of the National Park System, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles Tennessee and North Carolina and annually attracts nearly 11 million visitors.
Glacier had more visitors than Grand Canyon National Park. More than Yosemite. More than Zion.
For some, including myself, it’s also increasingly unsettling. I’m happy to see Americans from all corners of our country experience the pristine nature of Glacier Park — and support our local economy in the process — but I worry about the sustainability of this deluge.
How much can Glacier handle? This unparalleled popularity is prompting concerns about visitor safety, harm to the environment and wildlife and the outsized pressure it puts on the agency managing it all while facing budget cuts.
The National Park Service is studying measures to address congestion and parking woes. The most recent remedy includes one-hour time limits for 60 parking spots at Logan Pass. Specific sites, such as Many Glacier, Bowman and Kintla, are reaching capacity on a daily basis and vehicles are being temporarily restricted from entering. Other changes are certainly on the horizon.
Welcome to the new normal in Glacier Park.