Glacier Park

Glacier Reports Reservation System Helped Blunt Traffic Spikes on Sun Road

Despite a dip in overall visitation through August, ticketed entry program drove visitation up at ‘alternate entrances’ to Glacier National Park

By Tristan Scott
Traffic flows into Polebridge in the North Fork on June 30, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

With the sun having set on Glacier National Park’s inaugural and often divisive ticketed-entry system this summer, officials say the pilot program accomplished what it set out to do — blunt the high-volume spikes in traffic that have caused gridlock and untenable levels of summertime congestion on the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor while also accommodating the growing public demand to drive along the scenic byway.

Park officials report ushering 2.35 million visitors through Glacier’s gates in the eight-month period through August, amounting to fewer visitors than they recorded during the same periods in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Moreover, the recently released data reveals a 12% decrease in vehicles traveling along the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road between Memorial Day weekend through the end of August compared to 2019 figures, “reflecting the park’s goal to shave off spikes in traffic volume,” according to a press release Glacier officials issued last week.

Throughout the park, overall visitation through August was down 3.8% compared to 2019.

In that regard, the system was a success.

But the system also delivered unintended consequences across Glacier’s 1 million acres, including by diverting ticket-less visitors to corners of the park that didn’t require a reservation this summer. Those entrances are less equipped to deal with surges in visitation, traffic and crowds, and caused a variety of problems.

Indeed, the only two entrances to require an advanced reservation between May 26 and Sept. 6 were West Glacier and St. Mary, which are frequently the most-visited access points. Tickets were not required at Polebridge, Two Medicine, Many Glacier, and Goat Lick, all of which saw heavier visitation than normal.

“While Going-to-the-Sun Road vehicle entry decreased this year, alternate entrances to the park saw increased visitation, resulting in frequent closures,” according to last week’s news release from Glacier Park officials. “Vehicle entry during June through August at Two Medicine was up almost 33%, the highest on record, and the North Fork almost 20% over 2019 numbers.”

Park officials noted that errors in data tracking and traffic counting also resulted in some erroneous figures, including an incorrect report of a 41% increase of Sun Road traffic over 2019 on opening day. The correct increase was 10%, and park officials blamed the inaccuracy on data collection.

“In our attempt to use real-time data to monitor the traffic on Going-to-the-Sun Road, we discovered a data error that made it appear as though we had a larger increase in traffic over 2019,” said acting Superintendent Pete Webster. “Although the reported increase in July was not accurate, overall ticketed entry has met the goals we set out to achieve.”

Construction on Many Glacier Road throughout the season also caused the traffic counter to malfunction in June and July, according to Webster, a situation he said has been remedied for the remaining season. Alternative calculations based on current and previous year trail counts and visitation needed to be developed to estimate the traffic counts, which delayed the park’s reporting on visitation statistics for June and July.

In 2020, high visitation on Going-to-the-Sun Road resulted in congestion and required 28 closures of the road between June 8 and Sept. 9 to dissolve the gridlock.

“This year, ticketed entry successfully dispersed entry and exit patterns on the Going-to-the-Sun Road at peak times, allowing the West Entrance to remain open throughout the main portion of the 2021 summer season,” according to the press release. “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 35 times during the summer season. It also provided certainty to visitors with an entry ticket that they would be able to enter the park rather than being turned away due to closure of the West Entrance because of congestion and gridlock.”

An average of 19% of vehicles arrived at the West Glacier and St. Mary entrances without a Going-to-the-Sun entry ticket or other service reservation between Memorial Day and Labor Day, according to officials. This number continued to trend downward and was closer to 14% at season’s end, reflecting the steep learning curve. 

“Every diverted visitor was provided an opportunity to speak to a park ranger and receive information on how to experience the park without a ticket,” the news release states.

Now that the pilot program has ended, congestion on Going-to-the-Sun Road is being managed through temporary closures of the West Entrance as necessary. So far, the West Entrance has had three closures that occurred on Sept. 7, 8, and 14.

Park officials will use the information gathered during the 2021 pilot to determine how to move forward in 2022. The park is holding discussions with stakeholders and hopes to announce a decision by late fall.

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