Even though it’s considered a “shoulder season” in Glacier National Park — a weather-dependent wallflower that arrives well before the full opening of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which touches off the region’s tourism season in earnest — the month of May often delivers a relished moment of respite for locals to enjoy the park’s quiet corridors before the inrush of summertime visitation.
This May, however, presented a curious dichotomy as park officials reported hosting a record-breaking number of visitors while mostly avoiding the pitfalls of congestion that have come to bear on the Crown of the Continent’s most popular attraction, an increasingly problematic trend that prompted the debut this year of a ticketed entry system aimed at dulling the sharpest spiked in visitation.
Glacier Park administrators have been massaging kinks in the unprecedented reservation system since it debuted on May 28, a lead-in to Memorial Day weekend that could have been a recipe for disaster, but which park staff managed with aplomb, with traffic backing up onto U.S. Highway 2 only once.
“That was our first weekend with the new system and we felt like it was a pretty big success,” Gina Kerzman, a park spokesperson, said. “We did have one incident where five to 10 cars spilled onto the highway, but it was only for a short period of time. We considered that a win because last year we had cars backed up all the way to Coram.”
The biggest challenge, Kerzman said, was intercepting incoming visitors who had not secured an entrance ticket or service reservation before they reached the park’s entrance gates, where the potential for bottle-necking and congestion is exacerbated. To that end, visitors will encounter digital displays, reader-boards and other signage along U.S. Highway 2 between Hungry Horse and West Glacier, at which point they’ll be directed to detour into park headquarters, where they can discuss other options with a park ranger, including visiting segments of the park outside of the Sun Road corridor that don’t require a reservation.
“Most of our visitors that first weekend didn’t realize they needed a reservation, which is about what we expected,” Kerzman said, adding that the percentage has gone down in the ensuing weeks, and is hovering at around 25%.
“We have been able to manage the traffic, get people the information they need and get them back on the road,” Kerzman said. “It’s always best for people to have a reservation in advance, but we’re figuring out how to best implement a system that was never going to be perfect.”
As of June 21, the Going-to-the-Sun Road was only open to motorized traffic for 18 miles on the park’s west side, where they’ll encounter a gated closure at Avalanche Creek. On the east side, motorized traffic can travel as far as Jackson Glacier Overlook.
Because the number of tickets available corresponds to the park’s capacity, which is currently limited by winter closures, additional tickets will become available as soon as the full length of the Sun Road opens, the date of which has yet to be announced but may arrive before July 1.
“A new set of tickets will become available as soon as we determine the opening date,” Kerzman said.
Even with the limited opening, officials reported hosting a record-breaking 170,277 visitors last month, a nearly 2% increase from the same month in 2019, while also reporting the park’s highest year-to-date visitation (294,742) through the first five months of the year on record, marking a 17.1% increase from the same time period in 2019 and the highest year-to-date visitation through May on record.
Meanwhile, visitation since the ticketed entry system was launched on May 28 through June 13 was 27% higher this year than the same time period in 2019.
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.
According to park officials, that level of visitation would have led to closures if not for the new system.
“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,” according to the press release.
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 has 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.