Last spring, when Glacier National Park announced the launch of a pilot program requiring reservations for motorists accessing the Going-to-the-Sun Road, gateway communities and neighboring public land agencies braced for an upsurge of overflow visitation.
“Prior to ticketed entry, we’d already reached the point where we couldn’t meet summertime demand for outdoor recreation, particularly on our water-based parks,” said Jim Williams, regional supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP). “So going into ticketed entry we were pretty nervous because we were already full. Here we are in October and it’s finally starting to slow down but it was a very busy summer.”
According to the most recent data available, 2.35 million visitors passed through Glacier’s gates in the eight-month period through August 2021, amounting to fewer people than were recorded during the same periods in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
But for neighboring public land agencies and stakeholders in gateway communities, the most telling figure isn’t the number of visitors who did access Glacier, but the number of visitors who did not.
Predictably, the reservation system crafted to cut down on congestion inside the park delivered unintended consequences outside the park, mainly by diverting ticket-less visitors to areas that didn’t require a reservation. Those included more remote corners of Glacier, as well as neighboring sites managed by other land agencies, such as FWP and the Flathead National Forest, both of which are less equipped to deal with surges in visitation, traffic and crowds, and which encountered a variety of problems.
Still, the new park data reveals a 12% decrease in vehicles traveling along the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road during the peak summer months compared to 2019 figures, “reflecting the park’s goal to shave off spikes in traffic volume,” and contributing to a better overall visitor experience, said Mary Riddle, chief of planning and environmental compliance at Glacier.
Moreover, according to preliminary results from a Utah State University social science study, 70% of visitors surveyed favored some sort of reservation system for the Sun Road corridor moving forward, although Riddle emphasized the system would be refined if it’s implemented again next summer.
“We learned a lot from this season, including some of the unintended consequences,” Riddle told attendees of a recent webinar hosted by the Montana Access Project. “Our tickets sold out very quickly. We thought we would have tickets available throughout the day and that was not the case. They sold out within the first 10 to 15 minutes of going online each morning, and some days they sold out much faster than that.”
Not only was the online portal through which visitors purchased tickets overloaded, Riddle said, but Glacier’s page on that website, recreation.gov, was by far the most visited site of all other National Park Service units.
“It crashed a lot,” Riddle said. “Accessibility was a concern not only for our elderly and non-tech savvy visitors, but for all users because there was such a huge demand and volume of users.”
Moreover, COVID-19 restraints prevented the park from hiring all the employees needed to operate a ticketed-entry system, including personnel who manned a “visitor filtration” site just outside the West Glacier entrance station to vet visitors who had reservations from those who did not.
“We ended up needing staff all summer to support the effort and spent over 10,000 hours in staff time on the reservation system alone,” Riddle said. “The valleys became overloaded, and there were a number of other unintended consequences that we hope to work out to improve visitor experience in the future.”
Options for next year include extending some version of the ticketed entry system as a pilot program, although permanent implementation would require a more extensive period of public involvement and analysis.
“In looking at 2022, it is pretty clear that our visitation is not doing anything but going up, and so we are looking at how to manage access for next year,” Riddle said. “We know that this came at a cost to everybody, and it certainly came at a cost to our visitors. So we are trying to look at how to mitigate those costs as much as possible. But the issue of managing visitation is something we are all going to face going forward. We have become a very popular place. We’ve been found. So now we’re trying to put together how to put the puzzle together.”
Diane Medler, executive director of Explore Kalispell, said the challenges created by Glacier’s ticketed entry system were significant, but that coordinated messaging and outreach helped alleviate the strain. That outreach worked, as evidenced by a diminished visitor diversion rate at the West Glacier entrance, which officials pegged at 15% by the end of the summer, down from 20%.
According to Medler, the park’s late notice of its decision to implement the reservation system was especially problematic, as visitors often plan their trip six months to a year in advance. There was also significant confusion from visitors about what park services exempted them from needing a ticketed entry to the Sun Road, including visitors staying at the Many Glacier Hotel who believed their lodging reservations would double as an entry ticket to the Sun Road. However, only service reservations along the Sun Road corridor provided visitors motorized access to the scenic byway.
“It was a tough summer, and the late notice was very impactful to our visitors,” Medler said, adding that lodging capacity was at an all-time high throughout the Flathead Valley, with short-term rentals doubling the traditional lodging inventory. Occupancy rates were consistently at 90%, while Glacier Park International Airport added three new carriers and six new destinations during the summer. In July, the airport recorded more than 70,000 enplanements, a record number.
“We fully support the park’s effort to manage traffic volumes, and for those people who got reservations it made for a better experience,” Medler said. “But sooner is certainly better in terms of making a decision for next summer.”