The Morning Eagle is moored at a dock on Lake Josephine in Glacier National Park on Sept. 13, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Glacier National Park Shatters Visitation Record for September

Ticketed-entry requirement for Going-to-the-Sun Road was lifted on Sept. 6

By Tristan Scott

After lifting its ticketed-entry requirement on the Going-to-the-Sun Road Sept. 6, Glacier National Park went on to record its busiest September in history, according to recently compiled visitation data showing 710,661 visits for that month.

The record-breaking figure marks a 47% increase over the previous high mark for visitation in September, which occurred in 2016, the year the National Park Service’s centennial celebrations drove record crowds to Glacier’s gates, including 482,592 that September. This year’s monthly record in September was more than double the number of visitors who arrived in Glacier during that same period last year, when visitation numbers saw a steep decline due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Although the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor has been closed to the public since last month, Glacier National Park officials recently released their monthly data tracking visitation through September. The data revealed that most visitors flocked to the park’s two entrances that required a reservation to access during the height of this summer — the West Entrance, which received 427,820 visitors in September, and St. Mary, which saw 101,023 visitors. By comparison, 219,267 visitors passed through the West Entrance in September 2019 while 106,033 arrived at St. Mary that same month.

Park officials report ushering 3.06 million visitors through Glacier’s gates in the nine-month period through September of this year, amounting to more visitors than were recorded during the same periods in 2018 and 2019, but fewer than in 2017 and 2016. Moreover, the 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.

This year’s debut of a temporary ticketed-entry system on the Sun Road was at times divisive, but park officials point to the decrease in visitation during July and August as evidence that the pilot program accomplished what it set out to do — blunt the high-volume spikes in traffic that have historically caused gridlock and untenable levels of summertime congestion on the Sun Road corridor while still accommodating the public’s growing demand to drive on the scenic byway.

In 2020, a concentrated period of 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 park officials. “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.”

Currently, visitors can drive 15.5 miles from the West Entrance to Avalanche Creek, and one mile from the St. Mary Entrance to the foot of St. Mary Lake.