Officials at Glacier National Park are bracing for a “perfect storm” as ever-increasing visitation meets a series of major construction projects inside and out of park boundaries that could snarl traffic on its roads this summer. In an effort to mitigate the impacts of those challenges, the National Park Service is doing something it has never done in Glacier: instituting a ticketed entry system for the iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road for the summer. 

Visitation to Glacier Park has dramatically increased in the last decade, and even the pandemic didn’t slow the flow of tourists during what park officials called “a summer like no other” in 2020. This year, as the country slowly emerges from the depths of the pandemic and starts to travel again, park officials are bracing for what they predict to be one of the busiest summers on record. 

“We have the making of a perfect storm this season,” said Park Superintendent Jeff Mow. “Not only do we have ongoing COVID-19 mitigations and reduced staffing, but we are also facing construction delays inside and around the park.”

To handle the anticipated influx of traffic, the park will start requiring that people who want to drive Going-to-the-Sun Road from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day obtain a vehicle entry reservation ticket that will cost $2. The tickets will be available at recreation.gov starting April 29. The number of tickets available each day will be based on road capacity and campground and lodging reservations (people with reservations will not need a ticket). About two-thirds of the tickets will be released for purchase 60 days in advance, and the remaining tickets will be released for purchase about 48 hours ahead of specific dates. Tickets will not be required to enter the park before 6 a.m. or after 5 p.m. The $2 ticket is required in addition to the standard per-vehicle entry fee. Visitors who have an annual park pass will still need to purchase a vehicle reservation ticket. 

“We’re telling people to plan ahead, be flexible, and have a backup plan.”

Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Dylan Boyle

The system will be used only along the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor, and tickets will not be required to enter other areas of the park, including Many Glacier, Polebridge and the Two Medicine Valley.

Officials hope the ticket system will reduce the number of temporary area closures this year. In 2020, the park was forced to close the West Entrance at West Glacier 29 times in 25 days because there were too many people in the park, resulting in traffic jams on U.S. Highway 2. 

Since the system was first announced on March 31, the park’s social media accounts have buzzed with comments from worried visitors and frustrated locals who may no longer be able to take a spur-of-the-moment drive up Going-to-the-Sun Road this summer. 

Cassie Baldelli, co-owner of Glacier Raft Co., which offers lodging in West Glacier, said her phone has been ringing off the hook in the last week with summer guests asking questions about the new system. Baldelli said her staff is trying to push a positive message, but notes that it’s too early to know how well the new system will work. 

This week, the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau is distributing fact sheets to its members, particularly those in the lodging business, on how to communicate with visitors who might have questions about the system. Executive Director Dylan Boyle said he’s hopeful the ticketed system will improve the park experience for visitors and locals alike — instead of getting to the park and finding a line of traffic, people will know ahead of time if they’ll be able to get in — but that success will depend on messaging from the park and its partners. 

“We’re telling people to plan ahead, be flexible, and have a backup plan,” he said. 

Mary T. McClelland, a West Glacier resident involved with the Glacier Park Gateway Project to preserve the community’s historic character in the face of increasing visitation, acknowledged that some locals aren’t happy about the system. But she believes most understand the necessity of doing something to address congestion around the park. 

“We’re really hopeful that this will alleviate some of the pressure on the park,” she said. “We have to try something, because we can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting different results.”

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.