Glacier Park

Are Online Reservations the Key to Solving Montana’s Campground Crunch?

As Glacier National Park follows a nationwide shift toward an online model for advance campground reservations, new research raises concerns over equity and access in outdoor spaces

By Tristan Scott
Hayden Henson and his wife Nina set up a tent at Avalanche Creek campground in Glacier National Park. Beacon File Photo

At 8 a.m. on March 15, Glacier National Park’s advance online reservation window opened to a groundswell of prospective backpackers eager to nab a prized wilderness campground permit, affording them an opportunity to engineer a bucket-list traverse of what has long ranked among the National Park System’s most in-demand al-fresco accommodations. Within 10 minutes, however, the park’s most coveted campsites had filled, and the reservation window slammed shut on a host of highly sought-after multi-day itineraries.

The new online process signals a departure from the previous system for managing access to Glacier’s 223 vaunted wilderness campground sites, which prior to this year employed a manual lottery system that took weeks to sort, and is part of a nationwide shift toward online, contact-less reservations to access outdoor spaces. Under the new system, Glacier accepts advance wilderness permit reservations for trips starting between June 15 and Sept. 30, a range of 106 dates spanning prime hiking season in the Northern Rockies, which begins in earnest when alpine trails become mostly snow-free, around mid-July, and runs through early- to mid-September, when temperatures, especially overnight, can dip below freezing and early-season snowstorms are possible.

“We think it went as well as could be expected,” Gina Kerzman, Glacier’s public affairs officer, said of the newly minted system. “One of the advantages to the new process is that users knew within minutes whether or not they were successful rather than being notified weeks later. We provided tips like being prepared with a second or third itinerary in case their first selection wasn’t available. Users have reported that they were successful with their back-up plans. Also, not applying for the most popular hikes increased their chances.”

Even so, social media sites lit up with complaints lodged primarily by users who were denied access and view the new system as exclusionary, prompting calls for a point-based lottery to more equitably allocate the rarefied inventory of wilderness sites.

“I have been denied dozens of permits over the past few years,” Nathan Goldschlag posted to Twitter. “Just failed again, in a new way. @GlacierNPS set up a hunger games for permits this year. We weren’t quick enough.”

Grievances such as Goldschlag’s have become a common refrain as demand for Glacier’s wilderness backpacking sites continues to surge, tripling in just the past three years, according to park officials. Previously, park staff issued advance reservation permits using the website Pay.gov to administer the lottery. This year, they’ve transitioned to Recreation.gov for advance reservations, replacing “the labor-intensive lottery with a more efficient, user-directed online service,” according to a newsletter announcing the changes.

For visitors who have experienced Glacier’s backcountry, the reason for its growing popularity is obvious — backcountry sites afford physically able visitors an opportunity to experience the park’s rugged one-million-acre interior away from the congestion of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, where vehicle access is similarly managed through an online reservation system, and to explore a broader swath of the park than most visitors can manage in a day. But with visitation demands growing at such a rapid clip, even visitors hopeful to pitch camp at one of the park’s popular frontcountry sites must now navigate a cutthroat system for online booking, locking in dates up to six months in advance of their trip, a requirement that has proceeded in gradual increments to include nearly all of Glacier’s frontcountry campgrounds, including Apgar, Avalanche, Fish Creek, Rising Sun, St. Mary, Two Medicine, and Many Glacier.

As with the allocation of the park’s backcountry sites, 30% of which remain available for walk-in permits available to visitors the day before or the day of a trip’s starting date, a portion of Glacier’s frontcountry sites in each campground are held for visitors who wish to finalize arrangements four days in advance “to accommodate visitors with more spontaneous itineraries,” according to park officials.

Still, the days when visitors could cobble together an impromptu overnight stay in Glacier’s backcountry or frontcountry are either waning or extinct. 

Will Rice, head of the Wildland and Recreation Management Research Lab at the University of Montana in Missoula, said demand is increasingly outstripping supply at many of the National Park Service’s most popular campgrounds.

“These popular national park campgrounds are harder to get into than a Beyonce concert,” Rice told the National Parks Traveler Podcast last year, speaking broadly about the shift toward online reservations. “Right now, some of the most exclusive tickets you can get in the world are to camp in a national park campground, especially those that are really iconic and difficult to get into.”

In recent years, Rice and his colleagues have occupied the frontlines of research into outdoor recreation and wildland management, with a focus on the socioeconomic consequences of a nationwide shift to advance online camping reservations.

Last year, Rice, along with UM Associate Professor Jennifer Thomsen and graduate students Jaclyn Rushing and Peter Whitney, released a landmark study that digs deeper into the issue of online camping reservations systems and their impact on the demographics of national park campers.

“There is a massive push right now to go to online reservation systems,” according to Rice, who noted that multiple areas of Glacier National Park are now online for the first time. “It’s just more efficient for the park agency.”

For Rice and his colleagues, the thrust of the ongoing research is aimed at helping campground managers understand the “potential unintended exclusionary impacts of these reservation systems on rural residents, on low-income residents, on communities of color.”

Using federal camping data and mobile device location technology — with funding secured from UM’s Center for Population Health Research — Rice was able to more closely correlate the ethnicity and income of campers with their ability to access campground sites. The research looked at five national park campgrounds across the country that offered campsites both through the park system’s reservation platform, Recreation.gov, and on a first-come, first-served basis. The national park campgrounds included: Buckhorn Campground in Chickasaw National Recreation Area (Oklahoma); Green River Campground in Colorado National Monument (Colorado); Loft Mountain Campground in Shenandoah National Park (Virginia); Oak Ridge Campground in Prince William Forest Park (Virginia); and Saddlehorn Campground in Dinosaur National Monument (Utah).

“Across all five campgrounds, we found that those folks camping in campsites that required reservations were coming from home locales with higher median household incomes than those camping in campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis,” Rice told National Parks Traveler. “And in three of the campsites we looked at, the difference was statistically significant.”

For example, the findings at one of the campgrounds revealed a difference in median household income of $6,000, or about 10% of the median household income in Montana.

Like Glacier’s allocation of campsites, those that Rice’s team studied are often fully reserved only minutes after they’ve been released for online booking. 

“For example, one popular campground with 57 campsites saw close to 19,000 people all trying to reserve the same campsites for the same dates immediately after they’re released for reservation,” the study notes. “This leads to sites booking up in seconds to minutes as the demand greatly exceeded the number of available campsites.”

Although online reservation systems such as Recreation.gov allow for improved trip planning for campers and efficient allocation of campsites for managers, Rice said the high demand for some campsites, paired with the ability for users to book remotely, has led to a market for campsites where supply regularly fails to meet demand. 

“There’s fewer ways to allocate these public goods,” Rice said. “We can’t just raise the price, because that would be inequitable for a public good, and that’s what makes it so interesting. Right now, we’re focusing our efforts on developing guidelines and best practices for campground managers on how to improve allocation of campsites more equitably without sacrificing efficiency. Understanding there is no perfect solution, a big part of that is thinking about how we can diversify the mechanisms we use to allocate campsites. So, for instance, some campgrounds offer campsites on a first-come, first-served basis as well as a reservation-only basis. That’s diversity in how we’re allocating these public goods. That meets different people’s preferences.”

To that end, Glacier’s system hews to Rice’s recommendations, setting aside 30% of its backcountry sites for 24-hour advance walk-in availability, and “several” frontcountry sites at each campground for four-day advance reservations.

A paddleboarder makes his way toward shore at sunset at Wayfarers State Park on Flathead Lake in Bigfork on July 23, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

But Glacier isn’t alone in its shift toward online advance campground reservations, which Montana State Parks has allowed for years. But as state parks administered by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks endure the same explosive growth that has buffeted other outdoor-recreation resources in recent years — a trend that accelerated during the pandemic — residents have complained of being crowded out by out-of-state visitors.

A new legislative measure sponsored by Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, aims to limit the number of locals being locked out of state campgrounds by requiring that 20% of all campsites be set aside for walk-up availability.

According to reservation data from Montana State Parks, however, the lion’s share of reservations to the state’s most popular campgrounds were being snatched up by state residents. As of March 15, 76% of this year’s reservation orders (560) for the Big Arm unit of Flathead Lake State Park had been made by state residents, compared to 174 reservations from out-of-state visitors. At Finley Point campground on Flathead Lake, 75% of the reservations (404) were from residents, and at Lake Mary Ronan State Park, 86% (375) of this year’s reservation orders were from residents.

Incoming cars seek parking spots in the full parking lot of the Logan Pass Visitor Center in Glacier National Park on Sept. 11, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Helping the crush of visitors navigate Montana’s campground crunch has become part of a standing order at Glacier Country Tourism, where visitors can access a call center to parse their options.

“We give advice, we help people navigate the whole process and it’s made a difference,” Lucy Beighle, director of communications at Glacier Country, said. “We can say, ‘have you tried boondocking in this area’ or ‘are you aware of these options for car camping,’ and that helps people gain a better understanding of their options.”

But the migration of Glacier’s backcountry permit system from the lottery at Pay.gov to online reservations at Recreation.gov still leaves users with questions and doubts, especially given the compressed timeline of the public evaluation process. 

“It feels as though the decision to move has already been made, so this public involvement is just box-checking,” read the National Parks Conservation Association’s (NPCA) comment to Glacier, which announced its decision to move forward with the online reservation system just days after closing a public comment period required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). “A real public process, that is planning to take concerns and questions raised into account, would not occur with a 15-day comment period that ends a month before the proposed change is going to happen. If (Glacier) were serious about this, either the comment period should have been done in summer/fall of 2022, or this open period should be for the changes to take place for the summer 2024 season.”

The NPCA’s feedback was among 152 comments submitted to park officials during the scoping period, the majority of which opposed the shift.

According to Rice, the UM researcher, the shift to online reservations has created issues surrounding equity in outdoor spaces, but it’s only because land managers are navigating a complex landscape while trying to accommodate unprecedented demand.

“There are extremely dedicated people in our National Park Service and at Recreation.gov who are trying to address the frustrations that have been aired about how difficult it is to get a campsite, and they are well aware of this at a national level,” according to Rice. “It’s a fascinating time to be able to see under the hood and witness how the National Park Service is working to improve its system for allocating campsites.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story failed to correctly attribute several of Rice’s quotes, an omission that misrepresented their context. The Beacon regrets the oversight.