In 2020, year-over-year visitation statistics in Glacier National Park registered at 40% below 2019 levels, as fewer people flocked to entrance stations with one notable exception — the two points of access along the North Fork Flathead River.
Among the numerous outliers affecting last year’s data was, of course, a temporary park-wide closure implemented in the pandemic’s early stages, as well as closures related to COVID-19 mitigation efforts that remain in place today, meaning some areas of the National Park System’s crown jewel have been shuttered for nearly a year, reducing last year’s overall visitation dramatically.
Still, despite the statistical anomalies in Glacier National Park, where year-over-year visitation has been steadily increasing for more than a decade, last year’s visitation figures show that park entrances at Polebridge and Camas experienced record use, with Polebridge reporting nearly 100,000 visitors in 2020 for a 16.2% increase over 2019, and Camas logging a 17.3% increase with 164,000 visitors.
Until recently, these entrance stations along the park’s western edge consistently ranked among the least-visited areas, requiring a degree of resolve to access that not all park visitors possess. For example, the Polebridge entrance station is located nearly 40 miles up an unpaved, wash-boarded road that tracks along Glacier National Park’s rugged western edge, eventually adjoining with Canada. Before it does, a dusty turnoff leads to the tiny community outpost of Polebridge, crosses its namesake bridge over the North Fork Flathead River and enters one of the park’s wildest corners, providing visitors access to Bowman and Kintla lakes and the towering peaks of the Livingston Range.
In 2010, about 25,000 visitors entered Glacier through Polebridge, where a community of year-round residents lives. Last year, visitation quadrupled that number.
Locals up the North Fork are growing begrudgingly accustomed to the region’s surging popularity, and have become irritatingly familiar with an analogy that likens visitation at Glacier National Park to a big balloon — pinch it in any one area and it bulges out in another.
“We all know that Glacier is like squeezing a balloon,” Superintendent Jeff Mow told community members who attended the virtual North Fork Interlocal Meeting on March 4. “Squeeze it in one place and it squishes out somewhere else. Well, Polebridge has been on the receiving end of that squish.”
Where that squeeze is occurring, and what’s causing it, might look different this summer, Mow said, but the impact of the squish is going to come to bear on the North Fork.
“Last summer, we had visitors wait on Highway 2 for an hour, only to arrive at the West Glacier entrance and be turned around because we’d swung the gate,” Mow said. “I would say that probably a lot of those folks ended up along the North Fork.”
Congestion intensified along U.S. Highway 2 between Columbia Falls and West Glacier last year because closures along the park’s eastern boundary funneled a season’s worth of visitors into the park’s western corridor, many of them eager to drive the park’s iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road, which last year, for the first time in the park’s history, was managed as a one-way-in, one-way-out alpine “thoroughfare.”
As pressure intensified, park officials were forced to close the western entrance 18 times in June, after the park first reopened to visitors following its initial park-wide closure due to COVID-19, as well as an additional seven times during the course of summer.
That left throngs of visitors rubber-necking for another means of getting the Glacier experience — and many of them chose to negotiate the tire-rutted, dust-choked and eye-poppingly gorgeous North Fork Flathead River corridor, wittingly or unwittingly.
This year, COVID-19 mitigation measures will remain in place in Glacier Park, at least into the early stages of summer, Mow said. But the real culprit that’s going to interfere with visitation flow in 2021 is road construction, as well as what business leaders in gateway communities forecast to be a summer of record visitation as the American public celebrates what it perceives as the end of the pandemic.
“The thing that’s going to kick our butt this year with regard to the visitor season is the ongoing COVID mitigations and the increased demand,” Mow said. “We have more scheduled inbound flights for 2021 than we had in 2019 because airlines are figuring out that business travel is not coming back so leisure travel is driving visitors to Kalispell. Rental and hotel bookings are off the charts even compared to pre-COVID times. So the demand is going to be off the charts on all of us.”
Up the North Fork, that means the squish is going to be off the charts, as well.
While Mow is trying to generate support for a ticketed entry system at Glacier’s west entrance this summer, guaranteeing a set number of visitors access to the park through a reservation system and thereby taking some of the edge off peak demand, he’s also trying to mentally prepare visitors for congestion and delays, particularly due to a flurry of road construction projects slated for the upcoming summer season, most prominently on a busy stretch of U.S. Highway 2 from Hungry Horse to Essex.
“If we have visitation on the west side that resembles anything like what we had in 2020, we will be closing the west entrance potentially 25 times this summer,” Mow said, adding that a potential east-side opening, which remains contingent on negotiations with Blackfeet tribal leaders, would take some of the pressure off the west side.
Regardless of whether the park’s eastern entrances open, some popular campgrounds on the park’s east side will remain closed this year due to staffing shortages, with about 70 fewer seasonal park employees than typical because of a federal health mandate that each employee has their own room.
To that end, residents, business owners and park managers up the North Fork are preparing for another surge in visitation and use, as well as an uptick in demand for campsites. On top of the sheer numbers, the pandemic has been driving a new type of visitor to national parks like Glacier, which for some means a steep learning curve of how to behave in a wilderness setting.
“We had an inordinate amount of people who arrived at Polebridge just not knowing where they were at all,” North Fork District Ranger Jim Dahlstrom said. “They were looking for the Going-to-the-Sun Road or some other part of the park, and the GPS on their phone led them up here. We’re working with Flathead County on getting some new signage at Camas Road to maybe turn them around, and I was able to get Apple to remove Polebridge from its Going-to-the-Sun Road search database on its mapping devices. So that was a small victory there.”