While summer officially starts on June 20, most people in northwest Montana would say it doesn’t really begin until Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road is open. When the 50-mile alpine highway through the park did finally open on the morning of July 13, the parking lot at Logan Pass was nearly full at 5:30 a.m., a stark sign that this was not going to be a normal summer in the beloved national park.
Managing a national park that attracts more than 3 million people annually from around the world is never an easy task, and it was even harder during a global pandemic that has upended normal life and sparked renewed interest in outdoor recreation, said Superintendent Jeff Mow.
“This has been a summer like no other, and I hope it stays that way,” Mow said, adding that the summer of 2020 could provide lessons for the future as the park faces ever-increasing visitation.
Glacier closed in late March as COVID-19 cases began to increase in Montana and nationwide. When it reopened to the public on June 8, one of Mow’s top priorities was to make sure the Sun Road, a major tourism draw, was plowed and open to traffic. But the Blackfeet Nation threw a curveball at that plan in late June when it announced it would close its border to the park for the remainder of the summer, cutting off access to popular areas like Many Glacier and Two Medicine Valley, essentially closing half the park.
Mow said the tribe’s decision to close the eastern border was a “surprise.” Park staff had to change gears and figure out how to do something that had never been done before: open and operate the Sun Road from only one end. On July 13, the road opened from West Glacier to Rising Sun (about 6 miles west of the eastern boundary), where cars were turned around. Adding to the challenge of keeping traffic moving through the park was the fact that there were no public shuttles or Red Bus tours, both of which were canceled due to the impossibility of keeping people socially distant on those vehicles. In July and August, it wasn’t unusual for park officials to restrict access to the Sun Road and other areas as tens of thousands of people descended on a partially closed park. There was only one campground open in the entire park during those two months — Fish Creek Campground, with 178 campsites — and all visitor centers were closed.
While the travel industry as a whole has taken a hit from COVID-19, anecdotal evidence suggests that many people opted to take road trips in 2020 to visit outdoor destinations they deemed relatively safer during a pandemic. A University of Georgia study reported a surge in RV sales and rentals in 2020.
Not long after the Sun Road opened, park officials considered utilizing emergency powers granted by the Interior Department to implement a ticketed entry system. Mow ultimately decided against using the system to limit the number of cars in the park because he said it would be hard to implement with the season already in full swing (although he admits such a system would likely have prevented hundreds if not thousands of visitors being turned away at the gate over Labor Day weekend, because they would have known ahead of time whether they could get in).
In July, traditionally the park’s busiest month, 453,977 people visited Glacier, down 48.4% from the same month in 2019, according to data from the National Park Service. In August, the first full month the Sun Road was open, visitation was down 40.5% from the same month a year earlier.
But those numbers don’t tell the full story. In August, 365,352 people passed through the park’s western entrance in West Glacier, down just 0.2% from the previous year. A little farther north, at the often-overlooked Camas entrance along the North Fork of the Flathead River, 43,842 people entered the park, a 46.7% increase over the previous August. And at the Polebridge entrance, visitation was up 23.4%.
“We were really busy, there’s no doubt about it,” said Will Hammerquist, owner of the Polebridge Mercantile. “Having the east side of the park closed was a different dynamic.”
Because there were few public restrooms open in the park, Hammerquist said more people used the Mercantile’s facilities. To handle the spike in visitors at the small, century-old building, Mercantile employees limited the number of people inside the structure to 15 at a time. Hammerquist estimates more than 100,000 people passed through the doors this summer.
While he said the summer went well — or as well as it could during a global pandemic — it did raise some age-old questions about how the park and the surrounding areas can handle Glacier’s increasing popularity. In the last decade, annual visitation has jumped from about 2 million to 3 million annually, with most of those people accessing the park during the three months between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
“We need to find the balance between letting people enjoy these public lands, while also making sure they don’t love them to death,” Hammerquist said.
Mow said park employees found more human waste in the park this year than in past years. Rangers also had to deal with an increase in illegal campers throughout the park, brought on in part by the lack of open campgrounds. Mow said he spoke to one resident along Lake McDonald who said they had never seen so many campfires along the lake every night. Mow said it was not unusual for rangers to tell families in RVs camped along the road they had to move.
In West Glacier, a group of residents have gotten together to explore how the gateway community can handle increasing visitation while maintaining its historic character. Mary T. McClelland said the Glacier Park Gateway Project began before the pandemic — earlier this year it received a grant from the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program to create a vision plan for its future — but this summer has further crystallized its necessity. McClelland, whose father worked for the National Park Service, and who has lived in near Glacier most of her life, said this summer brought many of the same challenges as past ones, including increasingly crowded roads and rivers, but that the virus added a new layer of concern for locals as hundreds of thousands of people from around the country came to town.
McClelland said one silver lining from this summer, however, is that more locals have wanted to become involved with addressing the community’s challenges.
Mow said the experiences of 2020 will undoubtedly guide park managers’ decisions in coming years, especially as visitation rebounds. One thing he thinks might help is improved communication between park officials and visitors about acceptable behavior in the park and what roads and parking lots are open or closed at any given time. The latter is particularly challenging because there is limited cell service in the park, but Mow thinks there are creative solutions to be considered.
The park is also looking at how it manages the Going-to-the-Sun Road. In 2019, it released a long-awaited corridor management plan that called for permitted parking and expanded shuttle service, among other changes. The park is still considering how it would implement the plan, and lessons from 2020 will likely color those conversations.
But ultimately, Mow said, the problems posed by increased visitation in the park and the region as a whole can’t be solved entirely by park managers.
“How to deal with these big crowds is an issue that is bigger than the park itself,” he said. “The Flathead Valley and the surrounding areas need to help respond to this.”
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