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Park Officials Say Glacier's Road Reservation System Alleviated Crowding

Cars line up at the west entrance into Glacier National Park on June 12, 2021.
Aaron Bolton
/
Montana Public Radio
Cars line up at the west entrance into Glacier National Park on June 12, 2021.

KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) — Glacier National Park’s reservation system for the Going-to-the-Sun Road ended Monday after a three-month trial run. For the remainder of the 2021 visitor season, all that’s required to get on the scenic thoroughfare is a standard park pass.

While the reservation system caused countless headaches for locals and outsiders who struggled to secure $2 tickets, park officials say it worked as intended, alleviating traffic congestion inside the park and preventing long lines of cars from spilling onto U.S. 2.

“Generally we do feel it was a success because it met our major goals,” Glacier spokesperson Gina Kerzman told the Daily Inter Lake.

Kerzman noted the park never had to close the west entrance, as it has been forced to do in past seasons, and there were never more than about 15 cars backed up on the highway. In recent years, she said, traffic jams have stretched for miles from West Glacier to Coram.

Additionally, the reservation system helped ensure that many visitors could find parking and access their desired trailheads and campsites.

“We feel that we were able to manage the number of visitors and be able to ensure a good experience for everybody,” Kerzman said.

Of course, not everyone was enamored by the new approach to crowd control.

One recent review on tripadvisor.com called the reservation system “a disgrace” that made it “impossible” to access the park and prompted the author to cancel their visit, losing money on their hotel booking in the process. A few other online reviews have registered similar complaints.

“By all accounts, the entry system has relieved a bit of the overcrowding we’ve seen in the last few years. That’s a plus for those who are able to get into the park,” Kevin Gartland, director of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, told a U.S. Senate subcommittee during a hearing in late July.

However, Gartland said at the time, some visitors had traveled thousands of miles and “paid tens of thousands of dollars in hotel and airfare and rental car reservations only to see their vacation ruined because they can’t get that $2 ticket to see Glacier National Park.”

Gartland said the main problem was that the reservation system was introduced “very late in the game,” causing confusion for many who already had planned their park visits for the summer.

Laura Gadwa, director of the Columbia Falls Chamber of Commerce, echoed that in a phone call last week. As frustration mounted in the spring, Gadwa said, many local businesses took it upon themselves to share information about the reservation system on their websites for incoming customers.

“Initially, it definitely was a huge change,” Gadwa said. “I think one thing that the businesses all had to get used to was how to market it — how to let people know before they got here that the system was in place.”

Gadwa said park officials had to do something to manage traffic as Glacier continues experiencing sky-high visitation, and feedback to the Chamber of Commerce indicated many visitors enjoyed being able to move about the park more freely.

“That being said, obviously there were quite a few that weren’t able to get those tickets,” she said. “And so I think there was increased traffic up the North Fork and around the (Hungry Horse) reservoir than in previous years.”

The owners of several businesses along the U.S. 2 corridor also voiced mixed feelings about the effort to control the flow of vehicles in the park.

Andy Hergesheimer, who owns the Amazing Fun Center near Coram, said his business benefited from visitors who had tried to access Glacier, only to be turned away because they didn’t have Sun Road tickets. When they couldn’t get into Glacier, they stopped by his amusement park to drive go-karts and bumper boats and navigate a giant wooden maze.

“I met quite a few families that got turned around in the park,” Hergesheimer said. “They didn’t have a reservation and thankfully I’m only 5 miles away, so I am reaping the rewards of that.”

Hergesheimer said this has been the busiest summer on record for the Amazing Fun Center, which has been in business for more than 30 years.

“We’ve shattered all kinds of attendance records here,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s directly or indirectly related to the park entry system, but I think it definitely has affected us positively.”

Likewise, James Willows, owner of Willows Huckleberry Land, said it’s difficult to parse whether the reservation system drove many customers to his huckleberry-themed gift shop in Hungry Horse, but a few he met were “irate” after being turned away from Glacier because they didn’t have Sun Road tickets.

Willows sympathizes with those who struggled to find available tickets at recreation.gov.

“In my experience, I wanted to get a ticket myself, and we jumped right on it as soon as they were ready,” he said. “Within an hour they were all gone already.”

Like many locals, Willows said he wishes there were a way to improve access for those who live near and cherish the park year-round.

Kerzman, the Glacier spokesperson, said park officials still are gathering and reviewing data to figure out how the reservation system might be improved in the future. It’s a complicated challenge involving some guesswork and extrapolation, as a traffic counter in the Many Glacier area wasn’t functioning throughout June and July due to roadwork.

Kerzman emphasized the system was a pilot program this year, and no decision has been made on whether to implement it again next year. That decision “won’t be made in a vacuum,” and park officials will involve local business owners and others who stand to be affected, she said.

“Whatever the decision is for 2022, we want to get that out there as soon as possible,” she said.