Glacier Park Releases Long-Awaited Sun Road Management Plan

Amid skyrocketing visitation to Glacier Park, officials propose expanding shuttle system, implementing new parking rules and building a new parking lot on the west side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road

By Justin Franz
Going-to-the-Sun Road shuttle at Logan Pass on July 3, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

In an effort to deal with rapidly increasing visitation and worsening vehicle congestion, Glacier National Park officials are calling for more public shuttle services, additional parking and even a partial-parking permit system along the iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road.

On Friday afternoon, the National Park Service released a draft of its long-awaited Sun Road corridor management plan for public comment. The public has 30 days to comment on the proposals outlined in the 184-page report.

Between 2015 and 2017, visitation to Glacier Park increased by 40 percent to nearly 3 million people annually. Many of those visitors are squeezed into the tight 50-mile corridor between West Glacier and St. Mary. As a result of skyrocketing visitation, the park has on occasion had to close parts of the road to avoid gridlock or allow emergency vehicles access. During peak periods throughout the summer, visitors must frequently wait up to two hours to board shuttle buses and are unable to find parking at popular destinations like Logan Pass and Avalanche Creek. Visitors have also faced long lines for basic facilities like restrooms and information desks. According to the report, the number of complaints regarding crowding, congestion and a lack of parking have increased dramatically in recent years.

Park officials also said congestion is becoming a major safety issue. In 2019, there have been more vehicle accidents along the Sun Road than any other year.

Glacier Park managers have been working on the Sun Road management plan for six years.

“The public, local businesses, and elected officials have played an important role in this project from the beginning,” Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow said. “Maintaining a quality experience while sustaining the park for generations to come will continue to be a community conversation as we develop tools and implement strategies to address substantial increases in visitation to our park and surrounding local areas.”

At the core of the plan are seven different proposals to deal with vehicle and human congestion along the Sun Road during particularly busy times of the year. The proposals include:

—Expanding the popular public shuttle system by acquiring additional buses, expanding hours, and building new stops at the West Glacier entrance, the Fish Creek Campground, John’s Lake trailhead, Big Bend, and the 1913 Ranger Station at St. Mary. The park is also considering expanding bus service outside the boundaries of the park with new stops on the east and west sides of the Sun Road.

—Implementing a partial parking permit system at popular locations like Logan Pass, St. Mary and the Virginia Falls Trailhead. The permit system would reserve part of the parking lots in those areas for people who purchased a short-term parking permit ahead of time (either the day of, day before or week of). The permits would be available online or at locations throughout the park and would only be valid for specific times. Overnight parking along the Sun Road would be prohibited. The proposal also considers implementing a permit system to hike the Highline Trail during peak times.

—Construct a new, 100-car parking lot somewhere on the west side of the park as well as expand parking on the east side near St. Mary.

—Add new and improve old trails as well as increase the number of pit toilets at popular locations. Specifically, the plan calls for the construction of 7.5 miles of new trail in the park, including at Avalanche Creek, Big Bend, Lunch Creek, Siyeh Bend and St. Mary. Additional improvements include enlarging the popular Hidden Lake Overlook by 15 square feet and creating a pedestrian underpass at St. Mary that would double as a floodwater passage during flood season.

—Encourage bicycle use by adding bike trailers to more shuttle buses, installing new bike racks and even promoting bicycle-only events.

—Improve mobility at the Avalanche Creek Campground by restoring an historic exit at the campground and converting camping space into parking during the peak season.

—Extend visitor hours at the Apgar and St. Mary Visitor Centers.

The full plan is available online at  http://parkplanning.nps.gov/GTSRPlan. Comments can be posted on the website, or sent by mail to Superintendent, Glacier National Park, Attn: GTSR Corridor Management Plan, PO Box 128, West Glacier, Montana 59936.

Park officials plan on hosting a public meeting about the plan sometime in mid-September.

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