A Park in a Pinch

For the first time in its history, Glacier National Park may implement some sort of temporary ticketed vehicle entry system

By Kellyn Brown

Early each morning, like clockwork, Glacier National Park posts a notice on its official Twitter feed: “Parking at Logan Pass has been reported full. Vehicles will be turned away until parking is available. Please plan accordingly.”

That message is soon followed with: “Parking at Avalanche Creek has been reported full” and “Bowman Lake is full and uphill traffic is restricted.”

Essentially, every day since Glacier reopened its west entrance on June 8 and allowed vehicle travel to Logan Pass on July 13 it’s full by mid-morning … at the latest. Crowds have flocked to the park during a summer like no other, where vacation options are limited and more Americans are opting for staycations and road trips.

The country’s national parks, many of which are short staffed, are attractive to pandemic- and quarantine-wary Americans looking for a change of scenery. But with Glacier only partially reopened, the influx of visitors has led to bottlenecks on the roads, scarce parking availability and large crowds on some of the most popular trails.

Yes, Glacier has dramatically increased in popularity in recent years, but with the east side of the park closed due to the Blackfeet Tribe’s concern over the spread of COVID-19, most visitors are entering the park and driving to a dead end before turning around. To make matters worse, there are no shuttle services or boat tours and there is limited camping available. So, all the visitors are heading to many of the same places.

Yeah, but fewer people are visiting the park this summer because of closed borders, fewer flights and fears over the pandemic, right? Sure, total visitation in June was down more than 60 percent when compared to the same month a year prior. However, Glacier was only open for three weeks last month after temporarily closing and access to the Going-to-the-Sun Road was limited.

Despite just a fraction of the park opening for a fraction of the month, the number of people entering the popular West Glacier entrance was down just 27 percent from 2019. And, by all accounts, July has been even busier. The logistics of managing so many vehicles using a one-way in, one-way out road has hit a breaking point.

For the first time in its history, Glacier National Park may implement some sort of temporary ticketed vehicle entry system to manage traffic in the park and improve the experience for those who enter. Visitors would be required to plan ahead and purchase a ticket in advance.

There will be pushback to this idea, but the park is running out of options. Part of what makes Glacier so wild is the lack of roads that traverse its mountainous landscape. Even when all the roads are accessible, traffic gets backed up during peak season.

Local businesses have already suffered after being forced to temporarily shut down, especially in Glacier’s bedroom communities, which have had to play catch-up during a delayed tourism season. It’s also clear that the park is at the capacity and, as the number of visitors increase, there’s a pressing need for all of us to spread out a bit.

Lucky for us, there is a lot of public land around here perfect for social distancing. Planning ahead to visit the park is a small sacrifice to make. And exploring the adjacent forests and wildernesses is the least we can do. There’s still plenty of room out there.

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