State Park Visitation Remains Near Record High

Late summer smoke led to slowdown of visitors after record-breaking numbers

By Micah Drew
The Northern Rockies Paddlefest at Wayfarers State Park in Bigfork. Beacon file photo

Coming on the heels of a record-breaking first half of 2021, visitation to Montana State Parks slowed down toward the end of the summer, according to statewide data tallying visits to state parks during the first three quarters of the yar.

After an eye-popping 20% increase in first quarter visitation, and double-digit growth at the midyear point, Montana State Parks officials last week reported third quarter visitation had slowed, and year-to-date data showed a 2% decrease from last year with just over 2.9 million people visiting state parks this year, which remains a substantial (27.1%) increase from 2019.

The slowdown is attributed to periods of heavy smoke that limited outdoor recreation during August and September, including at Flathead Lake State Park’s Finley Point and Yellow Bay units, which were briefly closed due to the Boulder 2700 fire in early August.

“As we look back on another summer of extremely high visitation at state parks across Montana, it’s clear they provide not only extraordinary cultural, historical and recreational experiences for our users but also play a vital role in their health and well-being,” Hope Stockwell, the administrator of the Parks and Outdoor Recreation Division at Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, said. “I can’t say thanks enough to our incredible staff, volunteers and partners who work tirelessly to make our parks safe and accessible places to recreate and to ensure that our parks will tell the story of Montana for years to come.”

In Region 1, which encompasses Northwest Montana, visitation among all 13 state parks through September was 755,278, representing just over a quarter of all Montana park visits, a 17.1% decrease from the more than 900,000 visits in 2020. Flathead Lake State Park drew the highest visitation in the region, and second highest statewide, with an estimated 307,815 visits, a 29% decrease from the same period in 2020.

The only year-over-year growth in Northwest Montana came from Whitefish Lake State Park, which saw almost 100,000 visitors, a 20% uptick from last year.

On Flathead Lake, where six units comprise Flathead Lake State Park — Wayfarers, Yellow Bay and Finley Point on the east side of the lake, and West Shore, Big Arm and Wild Horse Island on the west side — FWP reported total visitation approaching a half-million visitors in 2020. If visitation in the last three months of 2021 holds steady, annual numbers will be down by more than 25%.

Next year, Flathead lake State Park is likely to get an added boost in numbers from the addition of the Somers Beach unit along the lake’s north shore, which Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks acquired this fall. A grand opening for Somers Beach will be held next spring. 

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