Montana State Parks Clock Record Visitation for 2020

Flathead Lake State Park’s six units combined accounted for most visited in Montana, with visitation spiking nearly 33%

By Tristan Scott
A Montana State Parks boat speeds off toward Wild Horse Island on Sept. 19, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Montana State Parks recorded more than 3.4 million visitors in 2020, a nearly 30% increase over 2019, while Flathead Lake State Park’s six units registered the highest visitation at 471,690 visits, up nearly 33% from the year before, and Northwest Montana’s suite of 13 state parks approached 1 million visitors.

Visitation to state parks increased every month in 2020 over 2019, despite temporary closures at a small handful of parks and the absence of or sharp decline in school field trips, events and other group activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Parks Division Administrator Beth Shumate.

“These record-setting visitation numbers should not come as a surprise to anyone who visited any of our parks in 2020,” Shumate stated. “The increased amount of people outdoors was evident, and our staff went above and beyond the call of duty to keep our parks safe and accessible. Montana State Parks provided immediate physical and mental health relief throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Park visitation was up all around the state as people flocked to the outdoors in 2020, which tracked with other ascending trends in outdoor recreation as Americans, beset with the social constraints of the pandemic, continue to seek out fresh air and wide open spaces in greater numbers.

But on Flathead Lake, where six units comprise Flathead Lake State Park — Wayfarers, Yellow Bay and Finley Point on the east side of the lake, and West Shore, Big Arm and Wild Horse Island on the west side — FWP reported visitation approaching a half-million visitors.

FWP Regional Parks Manager Dave Landstrom, who oversees all 13 units of the agency’s Region 1, encompassing Northwest Montana, including Lincoln County, described a “perfect mix” of circumstances that led to the unprecedented uptick in visitation.

“Obviously, Flathead Lake is the big story as it approached a half-million visits, but the whole region was close to a million visits, increasing 29.6% over 2019,” Landstrom said. “That is an impressive jump. Besides the onset of the pandemic, we also had an incredibly beautiful spring, so we were seeing July-like visitation numbers in May.”

As other recreational opportunities expanded into the summer, including at Glacier National Park, Landstrom said pressure decreased at state parks. Still, he said a blend of resident and nonresident visitors continued to visit the parks in droves.

At Big Arm, approximately 70% of the usage was from resident visitors, Landstrom said, while total visitation increased 35% at that park unit alone.

“Those are pretty historic numbers for that park, and it’s an example of locals looking for front-country recreational opportunities close to home,” he said, adding that it underscores the need for state land managers to secure additional recreational sites to keep up with demand.

There are currently only 13 public access sites along the approximately 185 miles of Flathead Lake shoreline, 89% of which (excluding islands) is girded by long stretches of private land.

To boost capacity and increase opportunities for public recreation, FWP has multiple proposals in various stages of development to add lakeshore access, through the creation of new parks, access points and conservation easements.

Most recently, in December the Montana Land Board unanimously approved the state’s proposal to acquire two new parcels — one that land managers hope will lead to the creation of the Somers Beach State Park and the other to the Montebello Fishing Access Site near Dayton.

The proposal on Flathead Lake’s north shore east of Somers would codify access to a popular half-mile, 106-acre sandy expanse that has long been conducted through a handshake agreement with its owners. Under the proposal, FWP would acquire the land for the creation of a state park and as a way to permanently conserve wildlife habitat while continuing to allow public recreation.

FWP is also seeking to acquire 14.89 acres of property one mile east of Dayton along the western shore of Flathead Lake. That property is owned by Montana’s Outdoor Legacy Foundation and would be developed into Montebello Fishing Access Site and include an access road, parking area, boat launch, dock, vault latrine, signage, boundary fencing, and host campsite. The site would be open for day-use only, but acquisition of the property by FWP would ensure future public access to this property as well as Flathead Lake.

FWP will next ask the state Legislature for spending authority to close on both properties during the upcoming session.

But it wasn’t just Flathead Lake that drew crowds in 2020, and Landstrom said the region’s other seven units — Lake Mary Ronan, Thompson Chain of Lakes, Thompson Falls, Lone Pine, Logan, Les Mason, and Whitefish state parks — also saw historic usage levels.

At Thompson Chain of Lakes, which spans approximately 3,000 acres and stretches over 20 miles along U.S. Highway 2 between Kalispell and Libby, from McGregor Lake in Flathead County to Loon Lake in Lincoln County, parks managers reported nearly 170,000 visits, or a 37% increase over 2019.

The biggest increase of all Region 1 units occurred at Lake Mary Ronan State Park, a far-flung yet pristine area that received about 23,000 visits in 2019 but registered 34,000 in 2020.

“People were looking a little further than the usual hot spots to get some solitude and recreation,” Landstrom said. “People were willing to go exploring this year, and these are just numbers I am not used to seeing. We expect to see an increase over the years, but these were some impressive jumps.”

Although the increased visitation in 2020 was remarkable and unique, it does continue a trend over the past decade, and agency officials said state park visitation has increased 83% over the last 10 years.

“While we don’t know what 2021 has in store for us, we will continue to manage Montana’s state park system with public safety and the safety of our staff as our highest priority,” FWP Director Hank Worsech stated. “We know how much people value all the amenities we offer and we look forward to another year of welcoming visitors to enjoy Montana’s outdoor opportunities.”

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