On July 19, the first Sunday after Glacier National Park opened its iconic alpine highway from the popular west entrance to Logan Pass atop the Continental Divide, the crush of incoming visitors was already evident at 6 a.m.
At The Loop, a trailhead situated prominently in the crook of the Going-to-the-Sun Road’s lone switchback, located high above the Lake McDonald Valley floor but still a couple miles below the road’s zenith, a car full of visitors squeezed into the last remaining parking spot as a conga line of traffic proceeded uphill in search of their own postage stamp of pavement at the Logan Pass Visitor Center, which filled a short while later.
A mile or so up the trail from The Loop, one of a limited number of trails open for backcountry access right now, a young couple broke camp a few feet off the path on a flat bluff overlooking the sprawling valley, a violation of park rules strictly prohibiting overnight camping in undesignated sites without a permit. As the morning’s first hikers approached, the couple grinned sheepishly, a dog barking at their feet in territorial alarm — another rule violation, as pets are not permitted on trails, along lakeshores, or anywhere else in Glacier’s backcountry.
In the absence of a backcountry patrol ranger to enforce the rules, everyone carried on their way.
Since entering its “summer like no other” — an apt and oft-used line to characterize the Glacier experience this summer in the age of coronavirus — park administrators have likened the business of managing the park’s one million acres of public land to building an airplane while flying. The unprecedented and unforeseen circumstances Glacier and other national parks have been dealt by the COVID-19 outbreak have demanded quick thinking, strong community engagement and a heavy emphasis on education.
“We have been searching for elegant solutions,” Glacier Park Superintendent Jeff Mow said. “At times, some might not seem so elegant.”
Charged with striking a balance between preservation and use, Mow’s difficult task this year has been compounded by a public health crisis that has not only constricted the volume of space available to visitors at Glacier, but has also driven more Americans into the outdoors, seeking solace and escape from the world’s frenetic pace.
To accommodate them, in early June, when much of Glacier’s 50-mile Sun Road corridor remains closed due to lingering snowpack in a normal year, Mow and his staff opened the park’s west entrance to motorized traffic, initially allowing vehicles to travel as far as Lake McDonald Lodge, located about 10 miles inside the park’s gates. Even with the lion’s share of amenities closed or delayed due to health concerns, throngs of visitors clambered to access the park’s narrow artery, which was gated intermittently to block traffic and ease jams at the 106-year-old lodge.
At the time, campgrounds remained closed, while the Red Bus tours, shuttle services and Glacier Park Boat Company tours had been taken off line for the summer due to COVID-19 precautions.
“The level of visitation concentrated in a very specific area of the park was unprecedented,” Mow said. “It really put all the pressure on one segment of the corridor. Our staff was getting beat up pretty good.”
Meanwhile, plow crews continued working in earnest to clear the Sun Road’s winter weight to Logan Pass and beyond, anticipating opening the entire 50-mile corridor sometime after the Fourth of July holiday — a perennial rite of summer that signals the start of peak tourism.
But a major development kept that from happening.
In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council on June 25 voted to keep roads on the park’s eastern boundary, which are on reservation land but allow access to the park, closed for the remainder of the visitor season. That meant the Going-to-the-Sun Road, Two Medicine, and the Many Glacier areas of the park cannot be accessed from the east this summer.
On July 13, when the park finally opened to vehicle traffic to Logan Pass on the west side, it marked the first time in the park’s history that the Going-to-the-Sun road has been managed as a one-way in, one-way out vehicle access with a turnaround point at Rising Sun. While the opening allowed for 29 additional miles of roadway and nine additional trailheads for visitor access from the previous closure at Avalanche, it’s constrained a summer’s worth of visitation mostly to a single segment of the park.
“That’s when we started looking at what other tools do we have to help us through the remainder of the season,” Mow said.
One such tool implemented by Yosemite and Rocky Mountain national parks involves a limited ticketed system for entry, where visitors must book a reservation to access the park.
Mow met with more than 100 businesses in gateway communities flanking the park to gather input on the proposed system, while conferring with officials at parks that had already implemented the reservation system, and ultimately decided against moving forward with the proposal.
“There were serious concerns about implementing such a system with such short notice and midway through the visitor season,” Mow said.
The proposed system would have required the visiting public to accept a major shift in management, while requiring additional park staff to manage the inrush of traffic, explain the new system to visitors lacking reservations, and provide nonexistent space on the roadway to turn them around.
“When we started considering the reservation system, we talked to both major parks implementing similar measures because if we were going to do something drastic, we didn’t want to invent our own system, we wanted to use something off the shelf,” Mow explained. “Based on those conversations, we learned that the system was very staff intensive and we weren’t going to be saving any time in that respect because you have to reach the visitors before they hit the gate. If they reach the fee booth and they don’t have a reservation, it completely clogs the system. And if you look at the geography of Glacier, there’s not a lot of room to peel people off and explain to them how they book a reservation under a brand new model.”
Still, a ticketed entry system would have lent a degree of certainty to visitors who might otherwise be turned away from their destinations inside the park due to capacity issues.
“In recent years we have clearly heard from visitors who do not appreciate driving all the way to Glacier National Park only to be turned around and told that the park’s full,” Mow said. “We try to provide real-time information through our webcams, our RAD [Recreation Access Display], our Twitter feed and other social media channels, but it is very frustrating for visitors. So with the reservation system, one thing is you have some certainty about your visit.”
Glacier National Park is consistently the 10th most visited national park in the country with over 3.1 million visitors in 2019, representing a 64% increase over the last 10 years. Over the last 8 years, visitors routinely experience a high level of congestion in many areas of the park from late June through August. In 2017 the park recorded over 1 million visitors just in the month of July.
“That was not an ideal experience for a lot of visitors,” Mow said.
The spectacular roadway is so popular, and the number of visitors to the park now so high, that it’s affecting how people experience Glacier. During peak season, traffic is congested on the narrow, two-lane, 50-mile road that hugs cliff sides at points as it climbs over the Continental Divide. Parking lots and scenic turnouts are crammed to capacity.
It’s not just the road that’s busy. The number of hikers on popular trails near Going-to-the-Sun is up 250 percent from the late 1980s. That’s resulted in hiker congestion, an increase in wildlife encounters, the displacement of wildlife and the trampling of vegetation.
The park, which welcomed all of 4,000 people in its first year in 1911, broke the 1 million visitors’ barrier for the first time in 1969. Visitation doubled to more than 2 million just 14 years later, and while it took 31 years to break that record, Glacier now regularly tops 3 million visitors annually.
Since 2013, the park has been working on a Going-to-the-Sun Road Corridor Management Plan to improve the visitor experience and protect the park’s resources.
Among the scenarios the plan considered was that visitors to Glacier National Park might one day be required to reserve a time to travel over Going-to-the-Sun Road during July and August. Or wait their turn to begin an ascent to Logan Pass.
Or steer clear of the road altogether on days when only bicyclists are allowed.
Throughout the planning period, visitation increased at a rate even beyond what the original document envisioned. In 2017, the park began having to impose temporary closures at popular venues such as the North Fork, Logan Pass and Many Glacier. During peak summer visitation periods, the Logan Pass parking lot has closed three times over the course of a day, with closures generally lasting a matter of hours.
The plan ultimately settled on an alternative to “adaptively manage to changing conditions due to uncertainty,” according to Mary Riddle, chief of planning and environmental compliance.
“This year is certainly showing us that range of uncertainty compared to previous years and actions that we need to be able to consider and implement to be able to do that,” Riddle said.
Adding to the challenges inside Glacier, COVID-19 resulted in staffing reductions of about 65-70 percent, Mow said, which equates to a shortage of roughly 100 positions. Of the positions that were filled, in many cases duties have shifted from education and enforcement to traffic control.
In response to the pandemic, the Department of Interior, the federal agency that oversees the National Park Service, allowed its units to explore management tools in response to a public health emergency without going through lengthy public engagement processes required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
“That was the administration saying, ‘under these circumstances parks should be allowed to try some things they’ve never done before,’” Mow said. “I think at the end of the summer, everyone will have learned a lot from the parks that did implement new systems, and everyone will have learned a lot from the parks that didn’t.”
Even with the administration’s permission to trot out a reservation system park managers have contemplated for years, and after considering input from a multitude of stakeholders while accepting the dynamic nature of the public health crisis, Mow ultimately decided the timing wasn’t right. According to Mow, there wasn’t any one particular factor that stymied the proposed ticketed entry system, but rather a consensus that it was asking too much, too soon of an already overwhelmed public.
“We heard support for a reservation system from community constituents because they know the park is at maximum capacity,” Mow said. “But there were serious concerns about implementing such a system with such short notice and midway through the visitor season.”
Since opening to Logan Pass, the Sun Road has received about 4,000 motorized vehicles per day, with a little less than 2,000 parking spaces available, and those figures come prior to the opening of the Highline Trail, a popular hiking route along the Garden Wall that remained closed as of July 27, when the Beacon went to print, due to historic snowpack and lingering hazards.
Although visitation likely hasn’t come close to hitting its summer climax, Mow said the Sun Road’s “adaptive opening” has created a palpable release of building pressure.
“It’s eased up a lot,” Mow said. “We haven’t had to do any of those restrictions where we turn people away at Logan Pass or Avalanche, which are being managed in a manner that is normal for summer. It definitely seems like spreading people out over a larger geography has really helped us.”
It’s not just Glacier National Park that has struggled with accommodating the growing appetite for outdoor recreation, with recreational use managers for the Flathead National Forest reporting unprecedented use along roads and at trailheads in areas that typically don’t receive high use. From Swan Lake to Spotted Bear, district rangers say that narrow, unpaved roads are choked with day-use traffic and overnight camping.
“All districts are reporting that tents and campers are parked in every nook and cranny along roadsides and pullouts,” according to Lauren Alley, a spokesperson for the Flathead National Forest. “Our Hungry Horse District Ranger noted that people are dispersed camping along the Hungry Horse Reservoir Road, directly adjacent to pavement, which may not be the experience that most hope for.”
Alley said public land managers are also seeing people “saving” dispersed campsites, placing chairs or other personal items in them early in the week, and then coming back for the weekend.
“This isn’t permitted, but does give you a sense of how high the demand for camping is,” Alley noted.
In gateway communities like Whitefish and Kalispell, offices of tourism and chambers of commerce are reporting below-normal occupation rates that belie anecdotal reports of a busier-than-normal summer.
“It feels busier than the numbers indicate,” Dylan Boyle, executive director of Explore Whitefish, said. “For June, our lodging occupancy report was at a little over 50 percent, and that is 30 percent down from June of last year.”
Meanwhile, the window for advanced bookings has narrowed dramatically, with bookings that are typically made months in advance coming in days before a visitor’s planned arrival.
“There’s so much more variability in the kind of travel happening, with an outsized drive-in market and fewer fly-ins, as well as more people traveling in RVs and motorhomes, or staying in short-term rentals, second homes or camping instead of staying in hotels,” Boyle said.
At Whitefish Mountain Resort, Nick Polumbus, director of sales and marketing, said summertime visitor activities have approached normal as the Flathead Valley settles into a steady weather pattern, with tickets for the bike park well ahead of prior years.
“The truly interesting behavior is with lodging reservations, as we are well behind where we should be due to the cancellations we saw from March through May,” Polumbus said. “That said, the last three weeks we have seen record reservation pace, much of it for very last-minute reservations. We won’t catch up to prior years for lodging numbers, but the short-term comeback of reservations has been remarkable.”
According to Mow, the summer of 2020 will likely be a period that public land managers study for decades to come.
“I think this year of COVID has put a very sharp point on the issues related to outdoor recreation in general and not just at Glacier National Park,” Mow said. “I think there will be a meeting of minds at the end of the season and beyond, everyone will have a fresh perspective and some new ideas for the future.”