At 8 a.m. on April 29, Glacier National Park debuted its first-ever ticketed entry system for motorists entering the iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road, a narrow, scenic, 50-mile long alpine highway corridor bisecting some of the park’s most popular hikes and attractions.
Most of the road is currently closed as plow crews dig it out from beneath a winter’s worth of snow. Because of its popularity, however, as well as its mountainous geography, the Sun Road is subject to intense overcrowding and congestion during peak summer months. As local business leaders predict record-breaking visitation to the region this summer, and as park administrators reel from the combination of COVID-19 restrictions and heavy visitation that caused unprecedented closures and congestion at the park’s most popular entrances last summer, Glacier officials have spent months refining a system to regulate the number of vehicles entering the road this summer, as well as providing a degree of certainty to visitors who might otherwise be turned away at the gate.
Now that the ticketed reservation system is online, however, out-of-state visitors and locals alike are airing frustrations, with most of the criticisms aimed at the dearth of available tickets, the pace at which they are selling out and the added challenge of planning a summer vacation.
“I’m so disgusted with what’s happening at Glacier National Park, only minutes from my home,” one Twitter user posted last week. “Entry tickets went on sale at 8:00 am today and by 8:05 they were gone. We can no longer go for a bike ride or a picnic, or plan a camping trip.”
According to park officials, reservations for June sold out within minutes after they were made available, even as a rolling 60-day window for reservation availability means more tickets come online every morning at 8 a.m. At one point shortly after the tickets went on sale, the website traffic to the online portal recreation.gov, which the park is using to sell tickets, exceeded 10,000 people, or more than three times the number of available tickets.
The problem is, the number of tickets available corresponds to the park’s capacity, which is fluid, and is currently limited by winter closures. The Going-to-the-Sun Road remains closed on the west side from Lake McDonald Lodge to Logan Pass atop the Continental Divide, while closures remain in effect on the east side above Rising Sun, meaning just 17 miles of the 50-mile thoroughfare are accessible to vehicles. The number of tickets available, therefore, represents a fraction of what will be released when the Sun Road opens fully, usually in late June or early July.
But many prospective visitors are now seeking to purchase tickets for slots at the end of a 60-day window that would have them arrive after the Sun Road’s historic opening date, leading to more confusion and frustration as the number of available tickets remains at the pre-opening level.
“Yes, there are fewer tickets available prior to the Going-to-the-Sun Road opening. And once the road opens, additional tickets will become available,” Glacier Park Public Information Officer Gina Kerzman said. “Unfortunately, we never know the date that it will open, but once the road does open, or once we’re clear on when it will open, those tickets will become available.”
But they can guess. To that end, park officials have determined that the road historically opens by July 1, a safe bet this year given winter’s below-average snowpack. This means more tickets have been released on May 5 for 60-day advance purchase, which may placate would-be visitors who couldn’t purchase tickets in time.
Approximately 75% of the entry reservations are available up to 60 days in advance, with the remaining tickets set aside for release two days in advance in order to accommodate more spontaneous visits, both from locals and drive-in markets. That means visitors who haven’t had any luck nabbing an advanced reservation still have another shot, so long as they’re willing to wait until two days before their visit.
“Time to rethink the GTSR ticketing system,” Jennifer Thies posted on Twitter. “Was on the website this morning and sold out in 3 minutes for June 29th. And now I have to wait to June 27th for another shot?? How can I plan a vacation like this? Definitely not well planned.”
Under the new rule, however, Thies will have a better shot at securing tickets on June 27, assuming the Sun Road is open or preparing to open by then.
Another point of consideration is that visitors are required to purchase a $2 reservation ticket in addition to their park passes, and while the reservation is good for seven days, they can activate it at any point during that week-long period.
Visitors entering the park at Many Glacier, Two Medicine, Polebridge, or along U.S. Highway 2 will not need an online reservation ticket, while visitors with proof of service reservations inside the park — for lodging, camping, boat rides, bus tours, guided hikes, or horseback rides — will be exempt from the added reservation requirement.
A wide range of variables figure into the equation that determines how many daily tickets will be made available, including how much real estate is open to visitors, as well as how many visitors are accessing the park with reservations to ancillary services, like an interpretive tour or lodging, as well as the number of visitors who purchase a seven-day pass but only anticipate visiting one or two days.
Although park officials previously said that about 4,600 daily tickets would be available when the Sun Road is fully opened, that number is fluid, and applies to vehicles, not visitors.
“There are a lot of variables,” Kerzman said, adding that park officials are tracking the influx of visitors as well as their departures in order to determine how many tickets they release.
“This is our first year implementing this system so we know that there are going to need to be tweaks,” Kerzman said. “We are going to be monitoring the number of tickets versus the number of vehicles entering and we are going to adjust those numbers if we feel there is room for additional capacity.”