Outdoors

Crowds Flock to Glacier Park

Going-to-the-Sun Road will remain closed above Avalanche over Fourth of July holiday; east entrances will be inaccessible for 2020 season

Ever since Glacier National Park reopened its gates to the public in early June, locals and tourists have gradually begun flocking to the West Glacier entrance following a two-month closure.

As park officials continue collecting visitation data for the month, Glacier National Park spokesperson Gina Kerzman says the park feels like it hit peak season early with July crowds in June.

“I think a lot of that contributes to the fact that (visitors) feel so thankful they have somewhere to go during COVID,” Kerzman said.

The Going-to-the-Sun Road is currently seeing a steady stream of bikers while the road is closed to motorized traffic past Avalanche, and Kerzman says the gates will remain shut for the 4th of July holiday. Snow-removal crews, which got a late start this year due to COVID-19-related staffing delays, will continue working to install guardrails, remove road debris and clear the Logan Pass parking lot, pathways and boardwalk areas.

“We just have a pile of snow up there,” Kerzman said.

While the West Glacier gates reopened on June 8, a Blackfeet Tribal Business Council ordinance passed on June 25 bans travel at the park’s eastern entrances for the remainder of the 2020 tourist season.

“Based on the spike in COVID-19 cases in Montana and the health and safety risk to the residents of the Blackfeet Reservation … the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council hereby desires to close the eastern border of Glacier National Park for the protection of the residents of the Blackfeet Reservation for the rest of the 2020 tourism season,” according to the tribal ordinance.

With the eastern border closed, all visitors are now concentrated at the west entrance, causing staff to redirect most of their attention to traffic control. Parking lots at Lake McDonald and Avalanche Creek are seeing tight congestion along with North Fork Road, which also has denser traffic than normal, causing closures throughout the day to limit crowding, Kerzman said.

“That’s been a dance for our rangers,” Kerzman said. “If people pour into those parking lots, pretty soon we get gridlocked.”

“We have so many people spread out and not enough rangers,” Kerzman said.

This season, park rangers were hired on a priority hire basis and seasonal staff hiring was delayed more than a month. Staff members are required to quarantine for two weeks under the park’s protocol.

All campgrounds, with the exception of Fish Creek, have remained closed since the park reopened because the park hasn’t been able to hire enough staff. In an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, housing has also been restricted to one staff member per room, limiting the usual number of employees.

“Nowhere in the world is normal right now, and Glacier is included in that,” Kerzman said. “We continue to ask visitors to be patient.”

What’s Open?

The west entrance to Avalanche Creek, as well as North Fork Road areas, including Kintla and Bowman lakes.

Fish Creek Campground. Reservations can be made at recreation.gov.

Non-motorized Going-to-the-Sun Road traffic. Hikers and bikers may travel all the way to Logan Pass from July 2 to July 5.

Trails and restrooms accessible from park roads.

Non-motorized boating on Lake McDonald.

Lake McDonald Lodge and the Village Inn.

Limited food service, takeout only.

Sperry Chalet is on schedule to open for its first reservation on July 18. Granite Park Chalet guests will be shuttled to the Loop Trail for access.

Swan Mountain Outfitter horseback rides, guided hiking trips.

What’s Closed?

All campgrounds, with the exception of Fish Creek.

Backcountry permit reservations — first-come, first-served walk-in system, park-owned stores, tours and visitor centers, although rangers are offering information outside.

Visitor transportation services (shuttles).

Glacier Park Boat Company has suspended all operations for the 2020 season, but could reevaluate as the summer proceeds.

Visitors should come prepared and follow all CDC and local health guidance by practicing good hygiene and social distancing. Face coverings are recommended where social distancing is not possible. People who are sick should stay home and not visit the park. The CDC has provided specific guidance on visiting parks and recreational facilities.

For updates, visit https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/statusupdate.htm.

maggie@flatheadbeacon.com