Montana State Parks Welcomed 3.1 Million Visitors in 2023

Montana FWP reports 2023 visitation increased 2.4% from 2022, and 17.4% increase from pre-pandemic levels

By Micah Drew
Somers Beach State Park on the northern shore of Flathead Lake on July 19, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The 55 state parks spread across Montana welcomed 3.1 million visitors in 2023, a slight increase from the previous year, but still short of the all-time high set in 2020 amid the heart of a pandemic that spurred interest in outdoor recreation and saw natural areas overrun with record numbers of outdoor enthusiasts. The data by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) shows a continued long-term trend of increased visitation to the state’s recreational gems.

“The visitation numbers for 2023 showed a 2.4 percent increase from 2022, a 17.4 percent increase from pre-pandemic levels in 2019 and a 42 percent increase over the past 10 years,” according to the 2024 Montana State Parks Annual Visitation Report, which was released May 6.

Since 2013, overall state park visitation in Montana has grown by 42.3%, or just under 1 million visitors. By comparison, visitation to Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park has increased by 41.2% and 33.9% during the same period, respectively.

“We are happy to see many people getting outdoors and enjoying our parks,” FWP’s Parks and Outdoor Recreation Division Administrator Deb O’Neill said. “I encourage anyone who hasn’t been to a state park to visit at least one and experience what so many people love.”

Paddlers at Wayfarers State Park in Bigfork. Beacon file photo

While Flathead Lake State Park’s six units, known for their pristine beauty and easy access to camping and water recreation, saw a 6.5% increase in visitors in 2023 compared to 2022, visitation remained below levels recorded in 2019, 2020 and 2021. However, Somers Beach State Park on the lake’s north shore was designated in 2022 and is not included among the Flathead Lake State Park units. Combining the 34,268 visitors to the new state park with the 332,063 visitors to the Flathead Lake units makes 2023 the second-highest year for visitors to the lakeshore, despite record-low water levels.

Flathead Lake State Park held its position as the second most-visited state park in Montana last year, and drew the highest visitation in the agency’s Region 1, comprising northwest Montana. The region’s nine state parks recorded 904,637 visitors, an estimated 2.1% increase from the previous year, and a 17.5% increase from pre-pandemic levels. The region makes up 29.1% of the state park system’s total visitation.

Seven of the nine parks in northwest Montana saw increased visitation in 2023 compared to 2022, with Logan State Park and Whitefish State Park declining by 37.8% and 44.1% respectively. Thompson Falls doubled its visitation last year, while Lone Pine and Les Mason also reported record years. Of the 10 parks in the state that registered visitation levels exceeding 100,000, three are in Region 1 — Flathead Lake, Thompson Chain of Lakes and Lone Pine.

“The important public access these parks provide is underscored by their continued visitation, especially as the Flathead Valley grows in population,” according to the visitation report.

Among Flathead Lake’s six state park units — Wayfarers, West Shore, Big Arm, Finley Point, Yellow Bay and Wild Horse Island — four units surged to double-digit year-over-year growth, with West Shore and Yellow Bay setting all-time records. The most popular access point, Wayfarers, saw a 6.6% drop.

Park officials say sustained growth in visitation to state parks over the last decade goes a long way toward supporting Montana’s recreation industry, which accounts for 4.3% of the state’s gross domestic product. But it has also altered how public land managers approach their work to maintain both the pristine nature of the parks and the public’s experience when visiting. Educating the influx of park visitors has become a critical focus, echoed by the national “Recreate Responsibly” campaign. Meanwhile, infrastructural needs mount “as systems are put to the test, and staff retention and housing challenges are exacerbated,” the report states.

The most visited state parks in 2023 were:

  • Giant Springs (Great Falls) 584,810
  • Flathead Lake – six units (Kalispell) 332,063
  • Spring Meadow Lake (Helena) 169,348
  • Lake Elmo (Billings) 165,041
  • Cooney Reservoir (Roberts) 148,344
  • Thompson Chain of Lakes (Marion) 134,990
  • Lone Pine (Kalispell) 132,054

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