A park ranger greets visitors at the West Entrance to Glacier National Park. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon
Glacier Journal

Getting into Glacier National Park

Now in its fourth year, Glacier’s ticketed entry system has helped manage congestion problems in and around the park, boosting visitor experiences

By Micah Drew

It began a decade ago. 

In 2014, 2.3 million visitors passed through the entrance gates of Glacier National Park, breaking a record set back in 1983. In 2015, visitors broke the record again. And again in 2016, as well as in 2017 when an astounding 3,305,512 tourists flocked to the Crown of the Continent. 

That 41% increase in just four short years was part of a nation-wide trend of increased pressure on U.S. national parks, but it began to stress the unique infrastructure of Glacier, which offers few entrances, limited parking lots and just one main thoroughfare. 

Visitation to Glacier has hovered around the 3-million mark ever since, with the exception of 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered many services and access to the park’s east side. The following year, as the world emerged from lockdowns and further renewed the desire to get out and explore, park officials implemented the first ticketed-entry system in Glacier to manage surging crowds. Subsequently, National Park Service units around the country have followed suit, managing access in Yosemite, Rocky Mountain and Arches national parks, among others. 

In its first iteration, tourists planning to drive the iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road through the heart of the park had to obtain a free vehicle reservation in advance. Frustrated visitors locked out of the lottery system, spontaneous travelers on a last-minute trip and locals looking for a weekend getaway opted to visit different areas of the park, stressing systems not set up to handle the masses. 

Each year, park officials have revised the pilot program based on feedback from local communities, visitor surveys and data, which last summer included hosting a trio of civic-assessment sessions in August and collecting 1,408 written comments. The 2024 version of the vehicle reservation system is the simplest and most user-friendly version yet, allowing expanded access without reservations while still meeting the goals of minimizing traffic congestion and overrunning some of the park’s more remote reaches. 

“Our balanced approach for the 2024 pilot reflects feedback from Tribes, the public, partners, and stakeholders, particularly regarding access to the Apgar Village area and Two Medicine,” Glacier National Park Superintendent Dave Roemer said when the operational plan was released at the end of last year.  

Here’s a quick rundown of how to get in and around Glacier this summer. 

While previous summers required vehicle reservations to access all six main entrances to the park, in 2024 visitors only need advanced reservations to access the North Fork area at Polebridge, the Many Glacier Valley and the West Glacier entrance to the Going-to-the-Sun Road. 

The biggest change to the reservation system is centered on Going-to-the-Sun Road, which the majority of visitors use to funnel into the park’s interior. Travelers are allowed to enter the park via the West Entrance (with a valid entrance pass — separate from a vehicle reservation) and visit Apgar Village, which includes the visitor center, lodging, camping and transportation, without a reservation. To travel past Apgar along Going-to-the-Sun Road beginning May 24, vehicle reservations will be required between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m. 

Access to the North Fork area at Polebridge and the Many Glacier Valley will require a one-day vehicle reservation between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m. beginning May 24 at Polebridge and July 1 at Many Glacier.

The park entrance at Two Medicine will not require a vehicle reservation in 2024.

“We will be testing vehicle reservations proactively in areas where congestion most frequently occurs — the North Fork, Many Glacier, and through the West Entrance to Going-to-the-Sun Road — and will take a wait-and-see approach at other locations and manage adaptively if needed,” Roemer stated. “In all locations, our goal is to learn how effective these systems are at improving visitor experiences and protecting park resources.”

All vehicle reservations this year are valid for one day only, which lets the park provide an increased number of reservations. 

The vehicle reservation system at Glacier is managed through the recreation.gov website. While there is no cost for a reservation, a $2 processing fee is charged on each transaction. Starting in January, a portion of all reservations became available on a rolling basis 120 days in advance of their applicable date. All remaining vehicle reservations become available at 7 p.m. for next-day entry beginning on May 23.

Any visitor entering Glacier National Park is required to have a valid entrance pass, separate from a vehicle reservation, which can include a seven-day vehicle pass, an Interagency Annual/Lifetime Pass, or a Glacier National Park Annual Pass. Visitors can enter the park through all entrances before 6 a.m. or after 3 p.m. without a vehicle reservation, and tribal members and landowners inside the park are exempt from the reservation system.

Cars line up at the West Entrance to Glacier National Park on June 13, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Construction Woes

Once inside the entrance gate to Glacier, motorists are likely to encounter delays as road crews finish up several construction projects throughout the park. 

Going-to-the-Sun Road A utility and pavement rehabilitation project along Lake McDonald is expected to finish up by the end of June. Crews are paving 2.8 miles of road from Sprague Creek Campground up to North Lake McDonald Road. Visitors can expect delays of up to 30 minutes during construction hours. 

The replacement of the upper McDonald Creek Bridge, which accesses trailheads and the Lake McDonald Ranger Station will be underway all summer, closing North Lake McDonald Road for the entire season. This closure applies to vehicles, bikers and hikers, including hikers on the Johns Lake Loop Trail. 

West Glacier A rehabilitation project of the roads and parking lot outside park headquarters will start in August and continue through the fall. Visitors should be aware of construction vehicles, workers and possible wait times if entering headquarters.

Swiftcurrent and Many Glacier Starting Sept. 16, the road past Many Glacier Hotel at the T-intersection will be closed due to construction on the Swiftcurrent Water Distribution System as well as road rehabilitation. Construction will begin after Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, Many Glacier Hotel and Many Glacier Campground close for the season. Visitors will still be allowed to access trails to Ptarmigan Tunnel (and points beyond), Iceberg Lake, and Swiftcurrent Pass. However, visitors will need to park in the Many Glacier Hotel parking lot, walk to the closure point and use the horse trail to bypass construction. Signs will indicate the detour. Cars will not be able to pass through the construction zone.

Polebridge and the North Fork Outside the Glacier National Park boundaries, visitors can expect delays due to road construction continuing on Glacier Drive in Polebridge that began in 2023 will continue in 2024. Visitors to the Polebridge area should expect 30-minute delays before arriving at and departing from the park entrance. Visitors are encouraged not to drive all the way to the North Fork entrance unless they have a vehicle reservation to decrease traffic in the work zone. Information regarding the ongoing construction work will be posted at the Polebridge Mercantile.