Park Boss Says Sun Road Management Plan Provides ‘Tools’ to Handle Rising Visitation

Public provides feedback on long-awaited plan to manage Sun Road

By Justin Franz
Incoming cars seek parking spots in the full parking lot of the Logan Pass Visitor Center in Glacier National Park on Sept. 11, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In 2012, as traffic began to regularly clog the legendary Going-to-the-Sun Road, Glacier National Park officials began to look at ways to better manage the 50-mile highway. That year, 2.1 million people visited Glacier.

Seven years later, park managers have realized the congestion of 2012 is nothing compared to what has become the new standard during the busy summer months. Between 2015 and 2017, visitation in the park jumped 40 percent. This year, more than 2.4 million people have visited the park between January and August.

How to deal with that new normal was the subject of a hearing on Sept. 17 in Kalispell where the public was able to offer feedback on the recently released Going-to-the-Sun Road Corridor Management Plan.

During the two-hour meeting at Flathead Valley Community College, Superintendent Jeff Mow acknowledged that conditions have changed dramatically in the park since work began on the plan and it’s unlikely to solve all of the congestion issues facing visitors and managers, but it would be a “step in the right direction.”

“The plan gives us some tools to put in our toolbox,” Mow said. “I don’t think we’d implement all of them at once.”

Suggestions in the plan include expanding shuttle service along the entire Sun Road; implementing a partial parking permit system at popular locations like Logan Pass, St. Mary and the Virginia Falls Trailhead as well as prohibiting overnight parking (thus preventing people from parking and going for a multiday excursion in the backcountry while taking up valuable parking lot space); constructing new parking lots on the east and west side of the park; improving and adding trails and adding additional bathrooms in popular areas; improving services for bikers, including the addition of bike racks; during peak visitation, turning part of the Avalanche Creek Campground into additional parking; and extending visitor hours at the Apgar and St. Mary visitor centers.

The plan also suggests using a permit system on popular trails like the Highline to help limit the number of people on the trail during busy times of the year. While a permit system has been used for backcountry camping spots in Glacier, such a system has never been used to control access on trails in the park. Earlier this year, a hiking permit system was implemented on some trails in the Deschutes and Willamette national forests in Oregon to help deal with what officials called a “noticeable spike” in use.

Park officials noted that reserved parking and trail permit systems would only be used during the busiest times of year and only when certain visitation thresholds had been exceeded.

Mow said one of the big issues he hopes the plan addresses is making sure people who just want to stop at a place like Logan Pass for a few minutes can do so. Currently, hikers who arrive early and leave late take up dozens of spots in the parking lot.

“The people who just want to stop, go to the bathroom, look around, take a photo and move on just don’t have a chance on some days,” he said.

Mary Riddle, chief of planning and environmental compliance, helped write the plan and said the Logan Pass parking lot has become a major choke point in the park.

“When we started (working on this plan), Logan Pass regularly filled up at 10:30 a.m.,” she said. “Now it fills up at 7:30 a.m.”

Avalanche Creek is another area that is often congested. Since 1988, the number of hikers along the trail to Avalanche Lake has increased by 250 percent.

After an overview of the plan, Mow opened up the meeting for public comment. Many in the audience agreed that something needs to be done to alleviate congestion on the Sun Road and encouraged officials to implement the plan’s suggestions, specifically an increase in shuttle service.

Currently, Eagle Transit operates seasonal shuttle services in Glacier Park. Lisa Sheppard, director of Flathead County’s Agency on Aging, which oversees the bus system, said her team recently took a trip to Acadia National Park in Maine to study its bus system. The “Island Explorer” connects various destinations both inside and outside of the park as one coherent bus system.

Sheppard proposed building a similar system in Glacier, dubbed the “Mountain Climber,” that would connect Columbia Falls, Whitefish and Kalispell with destinations inside the park. Sheppard offered examples of a possible route schedule that would connect Kalispell with Avalanche Creek with trips departing as early as 5:45 a.m. and returning as late as 10:30 p.m. The service would be offered seven days a week during the summer.

“We think we can do what they’re doing in Acadia and we think we can do it even better,” she said.

The Island Explorer system costs $2.5 million annually and is primarily funded by the Park Service, the State of Maine and a corporate sponsor, L.L. Bean.

Whether a system like the Mountain Climber could be established in Glacier Park depends on funding.

Others suggested the park expand the scope of the management plan to include areas like Many Glacier Valley and the North Fork region. Currently the plan focuses on the Sun Road between West Glacier and St. Mary and the trails that connect to it.

Not everyone was pleased with the proposals outlined in the management plan. One person said the park should focus more on protecting Glacier’s natural resources instead of finding ways to get more people into the park.

“Wilderness is not about easy access,” the woman said.

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.

Public comment is being accepted until Oct. 6. Then park officials will review the comments and decide its next steps. Mow said that a final version of the management plan could come as early as next spring.