Polebridge Mercantile in the North Fork on June 30, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon
Summer Preview

Glacier Park Pilots Vehicle-Reservation Program into Second Year

Surging summertime crowds have prompted a ticketed-entry strategy to manage congestion problems in and around the park, and persistent overcrowding could mean it’s here to stay

By Tristan Scott

There were points last summer when Ranger Jim Dahlstrom felt more like a traffic controller than a public lands manager but given the throngs of visitors who converged on his North Fork District in a remote corner of Glacier National Park, the most pressing business most days was figuring out where to put everyone.

That won’t be the case this summer, Dahlstrom hopes.

For the second year in a row, motorists who want to drive through the heart of Glacier National Park during the high summer season will need a reservation to do so. New this year, however, the park has extended its vehicle-reservation requirements to include the North Fork area, which is accessed via the Polebridge Ranger Station and isn’t joined with the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor.

Last summer, Polebridge remained one of the few exceptions to the reservation requirement, releasing a deluge of unwitting visitors on the normally quiet corner of the park and prompting park officials to liken the overcrowding problem to a big balloon — pinch it in one area and it bulges out in another. In 2020, that balloon got pinched at the park’s east entrances, which were closed through a joint decision between the park’s top brass and the Blackfeet Nation, a reservation community that abuts the eastern edge of Glacier, and whose vulnerability to COVID-19 spurred a more restrictive response.

Last year, the pinch occurred due to the debut of Glacier Park’s reservation system, which required visitors purchase an advanced reservation online in order to enter the popular Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor at its two access points in West Glacier and St. Mary, between the hours of 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. Visitors who showed up without a reservation were turned away, and were often encouraged to head toward the entrances where a ticket wasn’t required, including Polebridge.

“For a lot of our visitors Polebridge was an afterthought,” Dahlstrom said of the experience last summer. “It was a Plan B. Polebridge was never intended for the spontaneous visitor. You need to have a plan. If you start your day in West Glacier, get shut out and end up here as your alternative, you’re probably not going to get in. And you’re a lot less likely to enjoy the experience.”

To help relieve bottle-necking congestion in Dahlstrom’s district this summer, a separate reservation is required to access the North Fork area via the Polebridge Entrance Station. The North Fork vehicle reservations are good for a single day and are much more limited due to space. According to Glacier Spokesperson Gina Kerzman, the reservations are selling out immediately each day.

“The North Fork used to be the best kept secret in Glacier National Park and it’s no longer a secret,” Kerzman said. “It’s managed to a different level than the rest of the park and a lot of visitors should adjust their expectations for what they will encounter up the North Fork. It is primitive. It’s much more roughing it than other sections.”

Indeed, the park’s North Fork District isn’t known for pampering visitors. For one thing, it takes at least an hour to reach Polebridge from the nearest main highways, towns, or park headquarters, furnishing the North Fork with a degree of remoteness that once served as a natural deterrent to the uninitiated, “keeping the riff raff at bay,” as one year-round resident recently put it.

Again, that’s no longer the case. 

In the last five years in particular, the pressure of increased visitation and its consequences have come to bear on the region, which has neither the infrastructure nor the resources to accommodate the transformation, which was accelerated by the pandemic and an unprecedented public appetite for outdoor recreation. It’s a reality that, like it or not, has come into crisp focus for park managers, particularly at the height of last summer, when the crush of visitation completely overwhelmed them, prompting them to add the North Fork to the reservation system.

Between Memorial Day and the end of July last year, administrators closed the road to Bowman Lake every day due to congestion.

“We tried to manage for one-in, one-out as parking spots open up, but honestly after 10 a.m., pretty much without fail, we just can’t pack any more cars in here,” Dahlstrom said last summer. 

Beyond the changes up the North Fork, a 2022 reservation to access the Going-to-the-Sun Road is good for three days (compared to last year’s seven-day reservation window) and must be furnished in addition to a park pass. These passes could include any one of the following: a $35 Glacier National Park pass purchased at the gate or online (valid for seven days); a Glacier National Park Annual Pass; or an America the Beautiful Interagency Pass, including the annual, senior, military access, volunteer, or fourth grade passes.  

Visitors with service reservations along the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor do not need a vehicle reservation. Valid service reservations include lodging, camping and commercial tours in areas located inside the West Entrance, Camas Entrance and St. Mary Entrance. Proof of a valid service reservation will serve as a vehicle reservation for the day of the service reservation only.  

Similar to last year, the reservations are available through the park’s online portal at recreation.gov and will be required at both eastern and western entrances to the Sun Road. 

One vehicle reservation per vehicle will be required to travel beyond the West Entrance Station and the Camas Entrance Station from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. from May 27 to Sept. 11. 

New this year, a vehicle reservation will not be required at the St. Mary Entrance. Once snow removal and road preparations are complete and the Sun Road opens to vehicle traffic to Logan Pass, vehicle reservations will be required starting at the Rising Sun area, located 5 miles west of the St. Mary Entrance, through Sept. 11.  

Starting May 27, additional vehicle reservations will be made available 24 hours prior to the effective date, allowing visitors the opportunity to book reservations the day before they plan to visit. All 120-day advanced vehicle reservations have been released for the year.

Visitors will also have the option of driving the Sun Road without a reservation so long as they do so after 4 p.m. or before 6 a.m. And while the evening hours still provide motorists plenty of opportunity to drive the entire expanse of the scenic byway, early-morning visitors to the West Glacier entrance will encounter construction closures along Lake McDonald beginning June 1. The utility project will require closures along the west side of the Sun Road until September while crews replace seven miles of sewer force main, electrical and telephone lines along Lake McDonald. The nightly closures between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. will restrict access along the Sun Road from the foot of Lake McDonald to just west of the Sprague Creek Campground. Vehicles will have one opportunity at midnight to be piloted through the nightly closures. During the day, traffic lights will control a single lane through the construction area. Please see the park’s Construction Page for more information.  

“These are long-overdue improvements that need to be made and we were finally able to secure the funding for the project,” Kerzman said. 

Although the early-morning access issues will likely inconvenience wildlife photographers and peak-baggers who enter the park in the pre-dawn darkness, access to the Sun Road from the east side will still be possible.