Glacier’s Partial Reopening Draws Eager Visitors to Crowded Sun Road Corridor

With additional openings slated to begin June 15, Going-to-the-Sun Road sees heavy use from Apgar to Lake McDonald Lodge

By Tristan Scott
A man painting at Lake McDonald in Apgar in Glacier National Park on June 11, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On June 11, the first sun-soaked day since Glacier National Park eased open its million-acre interior following a two-month closure, throngs of visitors queued up at the west entrance to drive as far as they could along the park’s famed alpine highway, the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

At times, that meant turning around two miles down the road near Apgar Village, where park officials have taken to periodically swinging the gates closed in an effort to mitigate congestion at Lake McDonald Lodge, where another temporary blockade prohibits visitors from venturing any further.

“We barely made it through,” Neil Burke said from the driver’s seat of his motorhome as he navigated the lodge’s busy parking lot, squeezing into one of the last remaining spots. “We’ve got bikes and boats, so we would have gotten here somehow. But this makes it easier.”

Burke’s tenacity mirrors that of an American public chaffing under the constraints of life under lockdown, and it is testament to the alacrity with which the national citizenry is embracing a reopening that’s arrived just in time for summer.

Visiting from Michigan, Burke and his family, including two young boys, ages 6 and 8, added Glacier to their vacation itinerary after learning of its slated reopening date of June 8. That’s when officials began lifting a park-wide closure that went into effect March 24 as the coronavirus pandemic swept the nation.

Although the reopening of Glacier National Park and other units of the National Park Service has been widely cheered, particularly by gateway businesses and communities whose economies depend on proximity and access to Glacier, it has forced park administrators to venture into uncharted territory as they make preparations for the busy summer season ahead — preparations that normally would have been finalized months ago.

Those plans, including for staffing and maintenance, were disrupted by the threat of coronavirus that has forced changes in nearly every corner of the nation, where the specter of a resurgence of the virus still looms large.

But right now, Burke is trying hard to make up for lost time, which means piling the bikes and the boats and the boys into his motorhome for a cross-country road trip.

“I think we’ll leave the bikes and boats loaded for now and go for a hike while we can,” Burke said, adding that he still had plenty of ground to cover in order to make it to Grand Teton National Park by nightfall.

For the first time since shutting down two months earlier, when cases of COVID-19 surged much more dramatically than they are now, Montana’s tourism economy began winking the sleep from its eyes on June 1 after Gov. Steve Bullock lifted travel restrictions on out-of-state visitors, who were previously required to quarantine upon arriving in Montana, effectively shutting down the tourism economy.

Although the state’s phased reopening is intended to gradually reintroduce residents and visitors alike to pre-pandemic life, and its messaging is brimming with all of the attendant health, safety and sanitization guidelines that have become commonplace in recent months, nothing can quite compete with swinging Glacier’s gates open as a measure of the public’s appetite for returning to life en masse.

“Honestly, I feel guilty for contributing to the crowding,” said Angela Thompson of Tacoma, Washington, as she set out for a bike ride beyond the closure at Lake McDonald Lodge. “But I also feel really lucky to be here. A lot of people need this right now. Let’s just hope there’s not another spike (in cases).”

Despite the crowds, services were extremely limited during the first week of what park officials have dubbed “Adaptive Operational Recovery,” which aptly captures what Glacier Park Superintendent Jeff Mow has likened to “building an airplane while flying.”

Businesses were open in West Glacier and Apgar Village, but Lake McDonald Lodge, while a bustling hub of activity, remained closed, as did the adjacent camp store, restaurants and scenic boat tours.

In Apgar Village, Glacier Outfitters owner Dave Hampton said only a few rental bikes remained of his fleet of 70 bicycles as visitors opted for a two-wheel tour of the iconic Sun Road, which is open to hikers and bikers beyond the Lake McDonald closure.

Indeed, cycling sections of the Sun Road that remain closed to motorists will likely become increasingly popular in the coming days and weeks as plow crews clear the corridor’s upper reaches of snow. On June 15, park officials plan to extend the Sun Road’s open section to Avalanche Campground, where additional parking should help assuage the congestion bottled at Lake McDonald Lodge.

“I’ll probably come back this weekend,” Shari Peach, a physician from Missoula, said Thursday while resting outside Lake McDonald Lodge, shortly after finishing a bike ride of her own. “I don’t think we’ve seen the last of COVID, and I want to enjoy summer while I can. I’d like to pedal all the way to the pass.”

Beginning either at Lake McDonald Lodge or, after June 15, at Avalanche, hikers and bikers can travel as far as Logan Pass, but should do so at their own risk as avalanche danger and falling rock persist above The Loop.

Bicycles are also permitted between the foot of Lake McDonald and Sprague Creek Campground before 11 a.m. and after 4 p.m. Visitors should check the biker information webpage on the park website for additional information.

Camas Road will be open on June 15 and the North Fork will open as a day-use only area with the gate closing at 4:30 p.m. each day. The gate may close during the day when parking areas become full and will reopen periodically as conditions allow, officials said Friday.

The Polebridge ranger station will be closed to the public, but visitors will be able to get information and publications from staff stationed outside. All trails in the North Fork will be open, but only the Bowman, Kintla, and Logging Lake trails are cleared. Visitors can expect to encounter downed trees on all other trails in the district. Both frontcountry and backcountry campgrounds remain closed.

Also on June 15, the Village Inn Hotel and Lake McDonald Lodge open to overnight guests. The lodge lobby and lobby restrooms will be closed to day-use visitors. Food service will be take-out only and orders can be placed on the lakeside exterior of the building. The bar and gift shop in the lodge will be closed. The Lake McDonald Campstore will also open and restrooms across from the Campstore in the old post office building will be available.

Park officials are tentatively planning to begin issuing backcountry permits on June 26.

This weekend, the park’s west entrance will continue to open by 8 a.m. as conditions permit, and close at 4:30 p.m. After 4:30 p.m. additional entries will not be allowed, including hikers and bikers. Visitors already in the park are not required to leave by 4:30 p.m. and are free to exit after finishing their recreational activities. No overnight use of the park is permitted at this time and the campgrounds and lodges are currently closed.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.