Visitors pay for a pass at the west entrance of Glacier National Park. Beacon File Photo
Glacier Park

Glacier National Park Sees Year-to-Date Record Visitation through May

Officials credit ticketed entry system as reason park has staved off gate closures

By Micah Drew

Glacier National Park hosted 170,277 visitors in May, a nearly 2% increase from the same month in 2019. The park has also seen a record number of visitors so far in 2021, according to year-to-date records.

In 2020, the park was officially closed until June 8 due to COVID, meaning spring and early summer data from last year is a poor comparison, so officials are looking to 2019.

For the first five months of 2021, 294,742 visitors have entered the park, a 17.1% increase from the same time period in 2019 and the highest year-to-date visitation through May on record, according to park officials.

On May 28, the park instituted a new ticketed entry system for Going-to-the-Sun Road, which requires visitors to reserve a ticket online in order to enter the park through the West Glacier, Camas Road or the St. Mary entrances. According to a press release, visitation from the start of the ticketed entry system on May 28 through June 13 was 27% higher this year than the same time period in 2019.

“Based on the number of arriving vehicles, in the absence of the ticketed entry system, the park would very likely have had to close the west entrance gate at least seven times over this period to manage severe congestion, gridlock, and traffic backups onto U.S. Highway 2,” the press release stated.

Last summer, amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of the east entrance to the park, spikes in visitation triggered closures at Glacier Park’s popular west entrance on 18 occasions in June before the Going-to-the-Sun Road opened to Logan Pass. Congestion related to those closures backed up traffic along U.S. Highway 2 for miles. The ticketing system was implemented with the hope of decreasing gridlock, which could be further exacerbated this summer by a months-long pavement preservation project along 40 miles of highway between Hungry Horse and Essex.

Response to the ticketed entry system has been mixed, with some local community leaders praising it as a way to balance the economic viability of the tourism industry with a sustainable outlook for the community and environment. But many locals have taken to social media to decry the new system as limiting their ability to enjoy their own backyard national park.

Glacier Park officials say, on overage, 23% of visitors at the West and St. Mary entrances over Memorial Day weekend arrived without a reserved entry ticket, but they expect that number to decrease as the summer continues.

Up at the North Fork entrance near Polebridge, park staff have seen high volumes of traffic and vehicle entry has been restricted by mid-morning daily. Going-to-the-Sun Road is not accessible via the North Fork entrance, and visitors are encouraged to check restrictions and closures before traveling to the park.

Entry tickets can be reserved at recreation.gov, where they are released both 60 days and 48 hours in advance. Park officials monitor and evaluate visitor numbers in comparison to ticket reservations and will continue to increase the daily ticket allocation if necessary throughout the summer.