Montana State Parks On Pace for Record Visitation

Mild weather during the first quarter of 2021 contributed to a 20% increase in visitation to Montana State Parks

By Tristan Scott
Sunset on Flathead Lake as see from Wayfarers Park in Bigfork on Feb. 20, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

If the first few months of the year are any indication, Montana State Parks are poised for yet another year of record-setting visitation, according to new statewide data tallying visits to state parks during the first quarter of 2021.

Coming on the heels of last-year’s record-breaking figures, Montana State Parks officials on June 7 reported a new first-quarter visitation record for the year, with more than 393,175 people visiting state parks in that timeframe, amounting to a 20.2% increase over last year’s visitation and a 78% increase over the same period in 2019, according to state officials. Of the 40 state parks that were seasonally open during this year’s first quarter, 80% saw an increase in estimated visitation compared with last year.

The early-season statistics presage what’s anticipated to be a busy summer in Montana, with the northwestern corner of the state forecast to draw particularly dense crowds in search of open spaces and outdoor recreation.

“As our parks prepare to welcome people from across our state, the country and the world, we continue to prioritize unparalleled customer service and public safety for our guests and staff,” said Beth Shumate, parks division administrator with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP). “Our 55 parks, including seven National Historic Landmarks, truly tell the story of the Treasure State. We look forward to a successful season and hope that our parks create lasting memories for all our visitors.”

In Northwest Montana, Flathead Lake State Park’s six units drew the highest visitation in the region, with an estimated 28,921 visits, signaling a slight (2.4%) decrease over the first quarter of 2020.

By spring of last year, visitation to Flathead Lake State Park had experienced a dramatic surge as people flocked to the outdoors, which tracked with other ascending trends in outdoor recreation as Americans, beset with the constraints of the pandemic, sought out open-air environments.

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 total visitation approaching a half-million visitors in 2020.

That number was up nearly 33% from 2019, while the region’s full roster of 13 state parks approached 1 million visitors.

“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.”

This year, the predictions for a busy summer are due in large part to a pent-up demand for travel as pandemic-related restrictions have eased, in addition to the growing popularity of outdoor amenities in the region, which could quickly reach capacity if the rising trends continue.

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, 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 the 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. 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.

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