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Glacier Park

Glacier Park Adopts Early Access Lottery for Backpacking Reservations

The shift comes within a year of Glacier’s new digital permit process for advanced wilderness campground reservations; park officials attributed the change to public feedback

By Tristan Scott
Trail signage at Pitamakan Pass in the Two Medicine Area of Glacier National Park on Oct. 8, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Last spring, would-be Glacier National Park backpackers struggled to navigate a new digital permit process that had replaced the park’s former manual lottery for assigning backcountry campground reservations. The new first come, first served online reservation system was engineered to streamline an outmoded apparatus that had become unwieldy for permit administrators, who spent weeks sorting through applications, a task that grows more onerous every summer as demand for Glacier’s remote wilderness sites far exceeds availability, with applications reportedly tripling in recent years.

But the revised system created logistical headaches for campers as sites quickly filled and they were left to pick through a depleted inventory, while parties unfamiliar with the dramatic scale of the park pieced together impractical backpacking itineraries, sometimes squandering prime wilderness sites due to cluelessness. Moreover, a permit stipulation capping standard group sizes at four individuals meant that groups of five or more campers were forced to spread out across multiple permits as a workaround.

Shortly after the new system debuted, a torrent of complaints to the wilderness permit office overwhelmed staff as they scrambled to correct trip itineraries, drowning the office in the same clerical work the new process was designed to modernize.

“Last year, we were trying to move away from all the manual work that the previous lottery system caused us, but we didn’t save the time we thought we would because we were fielding so many requests for application changes,” Gina Icenoggle, the park’s public information officer, said.

Upper Grinnell Lake and Grinnell Glacier as viewed from the summit of Mount Gould in Glacier National Park on Sept. 9, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In hopes of correcting those shortcomings and limiting competition for site availability, park officials on Monday detailed changes to the 2024 system that include doubling the number of individuals allowed on a single permit from four to eight and debuting a pair of early-access lotteries, which will allow visitors to apply to be selected to book their permits before the inventory of sites is released to the greater public.

“Returning to a partial lottery system is in line with the public comments we received about the transition of the park’s advance wilderness camping reservation system [to the Recreation.gov system],” Icenoggle said. “We also based the changes on lessons we learned this year.”   

Sarah Lundstrum of the National Parks Conservation Association said her organization flagged a number of issues during the public comment phase that preceded the reservation system’s latest overhaul, including predicting that the first come, first served process would “result in people just grabbing campsites with no real idea of what they were doing.”

Lundstrum said she’s optimistic the changes to the 2024 process will alleviate the administrative strain of fixing so many trips.

According to Glacier Park Wilderness Permit Supervisor Brian McKeon, the lotteries will be based on a fair and randomized process to provide equal opportunity for each applicant. Participants will be limited to a single reservation during the early access period but may create additional reservations during the general on-sale period from May 1 to Sept. 30, or by walk-in. The general on-sale system will be the same Recreation.gov system used in 2023.

“Being awarded early access allows visitors the opportunity to obtain a permit before inventory is released to the public,” McKeon said. “This means that awardees will experience limited competition to availability, allowing the user to get their first choice of dates, sites, or to create a complete itinerary more easily.”

Under the lottery system, visitors can make 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.

The new system also allows permit holders to modify their reservations so long as they do so before the early access period closes on April 30.

The two lotteries will occur March 1 and March 15. One early access lottery will be available for standard groups of one to eight people and the second lottery will be for large groups of nine to 12 people. The new standard group size of one to eight campers will be an increase from what was allowed in 2023.  

After the lottery application period is over, all applications, whether successful or unsuccessful, will be notified of their award status by email. Successful applicants will be notified of their starting date and time within the early access period. Each applicant will be assigned one of six daily time slots that open up every two hours between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m.

The first wave of successful lottery applicants will begin submitting their reservation requests on March 21, when the inventory is at its peak, while the final phase of applicants will make their requests on April 30, when the stock of sites reaches its nadir.

Although McKeon conceded that the system favors applicants who are selected for dates closest to the beginning of the early-access period, and that applicants whose early access period begins later will have slimmer pickings, he emphasized there will be additional chances.

“If you got the April 30 time slot, you didn’t really win much in the lottery,” McKeon said. “It’s mostly crumbs. But that’s why we have additional opportunities during the general sale period and with our walk-in availability.”

Stars, meteors and the Milky Way over Kinnerly Peak on Upper Kintla Lake in Glacier National Park on July 30, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Early Access Lottery Details

On March 1, from 12 a.m. to 11:59 p.m., lottery applications will be accepted for a chance to secure an advance reservation for a large group of 9-12 campers. A total of five large group advance reservations will be selected from all submissions. 

On March 15, from 12 a.m. to 11:59 p.m., lottery applications will be accepted for a chance to secure an advance reservation for a standard group of 1-8 campers. A total of 3,000 standard group advance reservations will be selected from all submissions. 

There will be a $10 non-refundable fee to enter each lottery regardless of success. Successful lottery applicants will not have to pay an additional permit fee to book their reservations because the $10 lottery application fee will rollover to become the permit fee for bookings.  

General On-Sale Period Details

The general on-sale period (first come, first served online reservation system, as used in 2023) will begin on May 1 at 8 a.m. and run through Sept. 30 at 11:59 p.m.

Fees for the general on-sale system will remain the same as in 2023 ($10 permit fee; $7 per person per night camping fee). 

All advance reservation campsites not taken in the large and standard group lotteries will be available for online advance reservations on Recreation.gov on May 1 at 8 a.m. 

Walk-in Permit Details

Approximately 30% of wilderness campsites parkwide will be available on a walk-in basis (day before or day of a trip start date) from May 1 through Sept. 30 at wilderness permit office locations throughout the park; this is the same as the current system used for walk-in permits. 

Any advance reservation sites not booked during the early access lotteries or general on-sale period (more than 48 hours in advance of trip start date) will be added to the available pool of walk-in reservations. 

Lottery, permit, and camping fees will be applied to operation of the lotteries at Recreation.gov as well as funding the wilderness management and wilderness permit programs at the park.  

For full details, please visit the Glacier’s Wilderness Camping Advance Reservations page. https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/backcountry-reservations.htm

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