Polebridge Mercantile in the North Fork on June 30, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon
Glacier Park

Glacier Park Charts Second-busiest June on Record

Visitation tally trails 2017 even as some segments of the park set all-time highs; data gap in Many Glacier means last month’s approximation is low

By Tristan Scott

Glacier National Park drew more than a half-million visitors last month, charting its second-busiest June on record despite imposing a ticketed-entry system aimed at blunting the acute congestion that in recent years has led to paralytic gridlock in the park’s key arterials.

As approximated through June, the overall visitation estimates peg Glacier’s year-to-date totals as the second busiest in the record books, trailing only the unprecedented blitz of visitors that converged on the National Park Service’s Crown Jewel in 2017, which remains unmatched. However, the totals through the first six months of this year (802,323) are well above 2019 year-to-date figures (795,792), while many park entrances set all-time highs in June. That’s despite there being an asterisk beside the park administration’s arithmetic — the visitation tracking system at Many Glacier wasn’t working last month, depriving the tally of what could be approaching a six-figure sum.

In 2019, for example, which is more representative of the park’s normal visitation flow than the pandemic-tinged outlier of 2020, approximately 68,105 people passed through the park’s gates at Many Glacier, on the east side. This year has been far busier, officials say, though it likely won’t push the visitation figures into an all-time record category.

According to Park Spokesperson Gina Kerzman, Many Glacier’s mechanical counters show as much as a 50% increase in trail traffic when compared to 2019.

“Although we don’t yet have precise numbers, I can say that we have seen a significant increase in visitation to the Many Glacier Valley,” Kerzman said. “It has definitely received higher visitation than in 2019.”

Indeed, the spikes in visitation are more extreme at virtually every park entrance at which an advanced reservation is not required to gain access — specifically, Two Medicine and Polebridge, both of which set all-time visitation records last month, surpassing 2017 levels by multiple thousands of people. Similar patterns will likely emerge when the Many Glacier figures are aggregated, Kerzman said.

Conversely, far fewer people visited Glacier Park through its St. Mary entrance in 2021 compared to 2017, with just 83,668 visitors last month compared to 175,325 in June 2017. That disparity accounts for June’s second-place ranking, and likely tipped the visitation scales toward Polebridge and Two Medicine, where the spillover effect is most pronounced.

In West Glacier, meanwhile, June’s visitation records stood at an all-time high at 238,229, besting 2017 totals by about 10,000 people.

Park officials reported a 41% increase in the number of vehicles along the park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor on June 25, the date that signaled the scenic thoroughfare’s full seasonal opening, yet there have been few instances of problematic motorized congestion this summer, an indication that the ticketed-entry system is working along the alpine byway.

One unintended consequence of ticketed entry is that it diverts a surplus of visitors into segments of the park that don’t require a ticket, thus displacing the congestion and shifting the onus onto the park entrances that are less equipped to contend with the crush of visitors.

For example, approximately 23,572 visitors entered the park at Polebridge in June, which is more than the 19,715 people who arrived there in 2017 and well above the 15,052 people who visited the park’s remote northwest corner in 2019. Similarly, an estimated 63,362 people visited Two Medicine last month, compared to 42,597 in 2017 and 40,032 in 2019.

Managers in those segments of the park report being overwhelmed, though park officials say this year’s ticketed-entry system is merely a pilot program, and have not yet determined whether it will be applied in the future — neither at the Sun Road’s two primary access points nor at its tertiary entrances.

However, administrators report receiving valuable intel from this year’s system, which began May 28 and expires Sept. 6. Curiously, at the time of this printing, a glut of the $2 tickets remained available for the dates surrounding Labor Day on the park’s online portal, recreation.gov, through which the reservations are made available on a 60-day and 48-hour advanced basis. For more than six weeks, the tickets have been selling out within minutes of the system releasing them.

“I don’t know if people just stopped looking that far in advance, but Labor Day is one of our busiest weekends and we’ve got tickets available,” Kerzman said.

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