At 6:40 a.m. on Sept. 6, the day before Labor Day, the parking lot at Glacier National Park’s Logan Pass Visitor Center resembled a tailgate party as throngs of visitors either jockeyed for parking spaces or, having secured one, set up lawn chairs in the beds of pickup trucks to watch the sunrise.
By 7 a.m., the lot was brimming to capacity and overflow traffic spilled east of the Continental Divide in search of pull-outs and makeshift parking spaces, quickly leading to gridlock and prompting park officials to enact a series of temporary closures and restrictions that prior to this summer were almost unheard of.
Meanwhile, all manner of selfie-stick and digital device were on display as visitors snapped portraits of Glacier’s peak-studded landscape, thrusting iPads and iPhones and GoPros through open windows, training the devices on the eye-popping scenery while seeking out alternative parking options.
It’s become a familiar scene in popular national parks as the digital age gains greater currency in wild places. Once reserved for members of a generation eager to unplug and divest themselves of society’s technological trappings, national parks now draw a crush of outdoor admirers rearing to capture their experiences on app-heavy electronic platforms while casting themselves in the bright hues of an Instagram filter.
The trend is not lost on park administrators tracking visitor experiences and trying to learn more about the cultural expectations of a shifting demographic.
But as visitors’ experiences and expectations shift, so too has Glacier Park’s grasp of social media’s potential as a tool for education; rather than use the platforms as a marketing device, administrators are promoting leave-no-trace guidelines and sharing information about closures, congestion, delays, and parking difficulty.
“Those are not great marketing terms but that is the reality,” Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow said.
With 787,000 Facebook followers, 280,000 followers on Instagram and another 280,000 followers on Twitter, Glacier has made a conscious effort to direct its social media efforts toward education, connecting with a new generation and a changing demographic.
But by the time Labor Day weekend rolled around, marking the tail-end of a summer that delivered a host of new challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic — including the total closure of the park’s eastern boundary on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation — the park’s social media team was in full triage mode.
“Be advised that incoming traffic is backed up to Highway 2 at West Glacier,” a Sept. 5 Twitter post stated.
“Once again, be advised that the West Entrance is closed at this time,” according to another post.
“Logan Pass parking lot is full and closed,” added yet another.
Normally, the park’s social media channels offer a mix of trail- and road-status reports, fun factoids, leave-no-trace principles, educational videos, and park history.
Over Labor Day weekend, however, due in part to a winter storm blasting the Sun Road’s alpine sections with snow and ice, the park’s social media output was an uninterrupted feed of unwelcome news to visitors.
“Are we able to get a refund on our pass?” one visitor posted on Twitter the day after Labor Day. “We were allowed to go to Lake McDonald yesterday and now can’t get back in. It’s sad that money is given for a pass and people cannot use them as the park is always closed.”
“This is crazy. Honestly can say I probably won’t come back to visit,” she wrote 20 minutes later.
Even with the summer months safely in the rear view, and the Sun Road’s most dramatic expanse closed for the winter, Glacier’s social media posts are still reporting full parking lots. But Glacier is also building on its virtual connections to visitors to expand in-depth storytelling formats in an effort to promote resource stewardship in and around the park.
For example, each week this summer, the park promoted a new factoid about leave-no-trace principles, whether that means encouraging visitors to stay on trail, explaining why adhering to the guidelines is critical to preserving the park’s resources, or discouraging a discarded orange peel that could change the course of a grizzly bear’s future.
A new Glacier Park Podcast is beginning production this fall, and the park’s newly minted Visual Information Specialists are seizing on the opportunity to connect with younger visitors.
“A slick, binge-worthy podcast is the best way to connect with young people, get them to engage, and convince them to become invested supporters and advocates of Glacier National Park,” according to Daniel Lombardi, Visual Information Specialist for Glacier National Park.
The Glacier National Park Podcast is going to be a longform storytelling show highlighting some of the wild and fascinating stories from Glacier’s past, present, and future. It will feature interviews and field audio from scientists, rangers, local tribal members, “and all sorts of people who have spent time in this area,” according to Visual Information Specialist Andrew Smith.
“We’ve spent the summer recording tons of stories with some of the most interesting people who work in the park,” Smith said. “This fall we’ll be editing all of that tape into a full season of wonderful audio content for people to enjoy while they dream about the return of summer and their next visit to Glacier.”