Glacier reports year-to-date dip in visitation

·4 min read

Sep. 16—Officials said Thursday that Glacier National Park tallied more than 2.35 million visitors from the start of the year through the end of August — fewer than the park welcomed during the same eight-month period in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Park officials also said they had made an error in a previous announcement about opening-day traffic on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. In July, the park issued a news release incorrectly reporting a 41% increase in Sun Road traffic over the opening day of the 2019 pre-pandemic visitor season. In reality, officials said Thursday, the number of vehicles on the road was only 10% higher this year.

"In our attempt to use real-time data to monitor the traffic on Going-to-the-Sun Road, we discovered a data error that made it appear as though we had a larger increase in traffic over 2019," Pete Webster, the park's acting superintendent, said in a statement. "Although the reported increase in July was not accurate, overall ticketed entry has met the goals we set out to achieve."

Glacier implemented a ticketed entry reservation system for the Sun Road this year in an effort to alleviate traffic congestion inside the park, prevent long lines of vehicles from backing up onto U.S. 2, and eliminate the need to close the West Glacier entrance whenever the park reached capacity.

Officials say the system succeeded in that regard, though it caused headaches for many locals and visitors who struggled to secure the $2 tickets on recreation.gov. They haven't yet announced whether the system will be implemented again next year.

"Park officials will use the information gathered during the 2021 pilot to determine how to move forward in 2022," they said in a news release Thursday. "The park is holding discussions with stakeholders and hopes to announce a decision by late fall."

The Sun Road remained open during the entire three months the reservation system was in effect. But since it ended Sept. 6, officials said they've had to close the west entrance three times to avoid gridlock — once on Sept. 7, once on Sept. 8 and again on Tuesday.

Last year, officials said they had to close the scenic thoroughfare 28 times between June 8 and Sept. 9 to avoid gridlock, and they believe that number would have been higher this year if the reservation system weren't in effect.

"Based on the number of arriving vehicles, in the absence of the ticketed entry system, the park would very likely have had to close the west entrance gate at least 35 times during the summer season," the park said in its news release. "It also provided certainty to visitors with an entry ticket that they would be able to enter the park rather than being turned away due to closure of the west entrance because of congestion and gridlock."

THE RESERVATION system did seem to limit overall visitation to the park. Officials reported the number of vehicles on the Sun Road from the Memorial Day weekend through the end of August was 12% lower than in 2019.

"An average of 19% of vehicles arrived at the West Glacier and St. Mary entrances without a Going-to-the-Sun entry ticket or other reservation between Memorial Day and Labor Day," officials said. "This number continued to trend downward and was closer to 14% at season's end. Every diverted visitor was provided an opportunity to speak to a park ranger and receive information on how to experience the park without a ticket."

Parkwide, the number of visitors through August was calculated at 2,354,475, about 3.8% lower than in 2019.

"While Going-to-the-Sun Road vehicle entry decreased this year, alternate entrances to the park saw increased visitation, resulting in frequent closures," officials said. "Vehicle entry during June through August at Two Medicine was up almost 33%, the highest on record, and the North Fork almost 20% over 2019 numbers."

Some numbers were difficult to crunch this year because construction activity caused a traffic counter on Many Glacier Road to malfunction throughout June and July. Officials said that device has been fixed and data will be collected for the remainder of the season.

"Alternative calculations based on current and previous year trail counts and visitation needed to be developed to estimate the traffic counts, which delayed the park's reporting on visitation statistics for June and July," officials said.

Assistant editor Chad Sokol may be reached at 406-758-4439 or csokol@dailyinterlake.com.

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