Montana State Parks See Decrease in Early-year Visitation

Late-season cold spells during the first quarter of 2022 cited as contributing to 13.5% decrease in Northwest Montana

By Micah Drew
Wild Horse Island as seen from Big Arm State Park on Sept. 19, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

If early-season numbers are any indication, Montana State Parks are once again poised to be popular destinations for recreation, according to new statewide data tallying visits to state parks during the first three months of 2022.

Officials with Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) on May 11 reported first-quarter visitation exceeded 358,230 statewide, amounting to an 8.6% decrease from 2021’s all-time high, but still a 62% increase over the same time period in 2019.

“We’re grateful for the cooler temperatures and some moisture along with the benefit that has for the habitat and resources at our sites,” said Hope Stockwell, administrator of the Parks and Outdoor Recreation Division at Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. “While that may have contributed to a decrease in visitation this quarter, our numbers remain high compared to historic levels.

Across Northwest Montana’s 13 state parks, officials reported more than 71,980 visitors, down 13.5 percent from 2021. The report noted that several late winter cold snaps may have depressed early spring visitation.

Flathead Lake State Park’s six units drew the highest visitation in the region, and third highest in the state, with an estimated 28,612, almost on par with 2021.

At its peak in 2020, the six units that 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 — had a total visitation approaching a half-million visitors. Last year’s numbers were reportedly smaller due to the closure of the Finley Point and Yellow Bay units for several weeks due to the Boulder 2700 fire.

Visitation to Flathead Lake could get a boost this year with the official opening of a seventh unit, Somers Beach State Park, on May 12. The new 106-acre park offers access to a half-mile stretch of shoreline. By the time FWP finishes building the park’s amenities, there will be roughly 50 parking spaces and a restroom.

With the addition of Somers Beach, Flathead Lake has 14 public access sites along its approximately 185 miles of shoreline, 89% of which (excluding islands) is predominantly private land.

Two parks, Whitefish Lake State Park and Lake Mary Ronan saw record early-year numbers, exceeding 9,172 and 6,154 visitors respectively. Lake Mary Ronan saw a particularly large jump, breaking 2020’s record by 51%.   

Lone Pine State Park in Kalispell saw the largest decrease in first-quarter visitation, logging 13,015 visitors, down 41% from last year, and 1,700 fewer visitors than in 2019. Still, Lone Pine was the eighth most visited park statewide.

The busiest months for state park visitation are June, July and August, and northwest Montana’s parks’ proximity to water helps fuel that trend — all 13 parks are along lakes with the singular exception of Lone, which notably saw the smallest decrease in visitors between 2020 and 2021.

Of the six administrative regions in the Montana State Parks system, only the eastern region saw increased growth compared to last year.

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