Glacier National Park is revising its ticketed entry system once again to handle the ever-growing influx of visitors during the busy summer season.
Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic spurred a sudden spike in visitations to national parks, Glacier managers have been trying to figure out how to safely handle the increased popularity. Nearly 3 million people visited the park in 2022, making it one of the most popular national parks in the country.
Beginning in 2021, in order to gain access to the Going-to-the-Sun Road during the summer, visitors needed to purchase a $2 ticket good for three days via Recreation.gov, either about four months in advance of their visit or 24 hours in advance. In 2022, the ticketing system was expanded to the Polebridge entry, and this year it was expanded to Many Glacier and Two Medicine. Tickets were only required between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m. until September.
That system was heavily criticized by locals and business leaders who said it was clumsy and unfair to people who live nearby. Gone were the days of being able to just head up to the park on a whim when the weather was good. One of the biggest critics of the system was Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, who called for major changes, including reducing the hours a ticket was needed even further.
This fall, the U.S. Park Service held a series of public meetings on the east and west sides of the park to gather public input. It also allowed people to submit comments online. With that information in hand, park managers revised their plans for 2024.
Glacier Park officials held back-to-back open-house meetings — one on the east side at St. Mary and another on the west side in Columbia Falls — to gather input on the ticketed entry system it has used to manage visitation during the peak summer months.
Beginning on May 24, 2024, tickets will be required to access the west side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road at West Glacier, between the hours of 6 a.m. and 3 p.m., until Sept. 8. What will be different, however, is that tickets will not be required to access the Apgar Village area at the foot of Lake McDonald. Tickets will not be required for the east side of the Sun Road at St. Mary. Near Polebridge, a ticket will be required to access the North Fork area from May 24 until Sept.8, which is unchanged from the preview years. Tickets will also be required for the Many Glacier entrance from July 1 until Sept.8. Tickets will not be required to access the Two Medicine area next year, a change from the 2023 season.
But perhaps the biggest change is that reservation tickets will only be good for one day instead of three days. Park officials said that data from this year showed that only 2% of three-day reservations were used for all three days. By making it a one-day pass, park officials said they will be able to sell more tickets.
There will be two booking windows to get tickets on Recreation.gov. A portion of the tickets will be available 120 days in advance on a rolling basis starting on Jan. 25, 2024. The remaining tickets will then be available the day before at 7 p.m., for next-day entry beginning May 23, 2024.
In a press release, park officials said they wanted to give the public ample time to prepare for next year’s changes (last year, NPS officials did not announce changes until December).
“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,” Superintendent Dave Roemer said in a press release. “We also heard that knowing what park operations and access will look like sooner, rather than later, is important.”
During this fall’s public meetings, Roemer said he believed the ticketed entry system was working to help alleviate congestion and make the park safer (park officials have long worried about congestion during an emergency like a wildfire). It’s also helping prevent unplanned closures, especially in tight areas like the Many Glacier Valley where there is only one road in and out.
“I think the system is working,” he told Montana Free Press in August. “We really want to prevent unplanned and unintended closures in the park.”
But not everyone agrees. Last week, the Republican-held House of Representatives passed HR 4821, which would block Glacier from using money for a “vehicle rationing system.” The bill, backed by Zinke, is not expected to pass the Senate.
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