Park Officials Look at Impacts of Record-Breaking Visitation in Glacier

Longer tourist season presenting challenges for park services, infrastructure

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A crowd of hikers waits to cross a snow field along the trail to the Hidden Lake Overlook near Logan Pass on July 22, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

For the first time in the Lake McDonald Lodge’s 103-year history, every room was occupied the night before the hotel closed for the season.

The fact that all 82 rooms were occupied on Sept. 27 exemplifies just how busy Glacier National Park has been this summer. While in years past visitor numbers dropped significantly in the park after Labor Day, officials said that hasn’t been the case this year.

“September is starting to look a lot like August around here,” said Marc Ducharme, general manger of Xanterra Park and Resorts operations in Glacier.

From January to August of this year, more than 2.3 million people visited Glacier, an 18 percent increase over 2015. In July, 818, 481 people visited the park, making it the busiest month on record. In August, 736,868 people came to Glacier, making it the second-busiest month in park history.

Last year, a record-breaking 2.36 million people visited the park,  a record likely broken last month.

Spokesperson Tim Rains said park officials are attributing some of the increase to the National Park Service’s centennial, but added that Glacier is also attracting more and more people every year.

“This summer gave us a really good look at what a 20 percent increase in visitation looks like,” Rains said. “We’re still a locals’ park, and we’ll always be a locals’ park, but we’re also becoming a destination park, too.”

Rains said the increase in visitation is putting a strain on services; the parking lot at Logan Pass has been filling up with vehicles earlier and bathroom lines there are longer than ever. Popular paths like the Avalanche Lake Trail were also extremely congested over the summer, so much so that the park often assigned a ranger there on busy days.

While park advocates say more visitors mean more public land supporters, Rains said it provides officials with new challenges.

“We have to ensure that we maintain those experiences of solitude in the wilderness while also welcoming the masses,” he said.

A new Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor management plan due out in early 2017 could address some of the concerns. Rains said it’s too early to tell what its authors will propose, but suggested that reservation systems and expanded shuttle services are both possibilities.

The park is sending a survey to its employees gathering input on this year’s crowds and to get suggestions on how to deal with it better in the future. Rains said officials would spend the winter studying what worked and what didn’t.

“We’ll be taking a long look at this past summer,” Rains said.

Among the considerations will be how to deal with the growing shoulder season. Traditionally, crowds thin out after Labor Day and services shut down.

However, simply keeping facilities open later into the season is easier said than done, Ducharme noted. None of the plumbing at the historic lodges is insulated. If a cold snap were to hit while there was still water in the system, it could have disastrous impacts.

While the lodges have to close early, the Red Buses are still rolling up and over the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Three years after Xanterra began offering Red Bus tours into October, Ducharme said the extended season is starting to pay off and some trips are already selling out.

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