In recent years, we’ve written plenty about the record visitation to Glacier National Park as the number of tourists entering its gates has exploded, causing congestion and forcing park administrators to implement a one-in-one-out vehicle policy on the park’s busiest sections.
So, it was somewhat of a surprise, or dare I say relief, to read that June visitation to Glacier waned a bit when compared to the same month last year. The park was still plenty busy, with nearly 560,000 people entering — well over the number who entered in June 2016 — but around 60,000 fewer than June 2017.
This bucked the trend of record-breaking month after record-breaking month we’ve reported on in recent years. It seems the only respite from the increasing crowds can be attributed to closures due to fires or weather.
And it appears weather may have played a part in the numbers dipping a bit in June. We had a lot of rain last month and a few monster storms, which likely drove away a few visitors. Also, Going-to-the-Sun Road, the park’s biggest attraction, didn’t open until June 23, although last year it didn’t open until June 28.
It’s true the park is busy, but what sometimes gets lost when reading the headlines is it’s also true that it’s not that crowded everywhere all the time.
I hiked to Avalanche Lake, one of the most popular trails in Glacier, over Memorial Day weekend with some old high school buddies. We found parking right away and our own slice of solitude once we reached our destination.
A few weeks later, another group of us hiked to Scalplock Lookout on the southern edge of the park. The trailhead is just south of Essex and requires some endurance but provides great views. There were perhaps a half-dozen other hikers on the trail, which winds up Scalplock Mountain for about five miles each way. This section of the park is often ignored by tourists. Last year, I hiked Elk Mountain, also on Glacier’s south side, during peak season and didn’t run into anyone else. Zero.
Earlier this month — the weekend after Fourth of July, no less — as parking lots were filling up at Logan Pass, Avalanche and Apgar, we got an early start to the Two Medicine area on the park’s eastern section. We arrived at about 10 a.m. The place was busy, but we easily found a parking spot on a picture-perfect bluebird day. The hike to Scenic Point was well worth the trip.
None of this is to say the park isn’t busy. Nor is it to downplay the challenges facing the National Park Service as it grapples with larger and larger crowds with fewer and fewer resources. It does, however, put the increasing visitation numbers in perspective.
There is a growing sense among locals that this time of year the park is inaccessible and not worth visiting. And sure, on the busiest days during certain times, that may be accurate. It may be best to go outside and explore elsewhere and wait to take your trip to Glacier until September.
But the park can still be enjoyed during peak season — it just takes a little more planning and creativity. You may have to wake up a little earlier, be willing to take a shuttle or consider hiking trails that are a little less popular.
I can’t foresee visitation to the region lessening in future summers. This time of year is busy, and it always will be. At the same time, it’s a little premature to dismiss the idea of taking a trip to Glacier because it can be hard to find a parking spot.
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