Glacier records busiest summer ever

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Traffic piles up at Oberlin Bend in Glacier National Park on July 23. Visitor numbers released Thursday show Glacier has just had its busiest summer ever with 1,985,258 visitors in June, July and August. (Scott Crandell/Daily Inter Lake)

Barring what would be the lowest September turnout in more than 35 years, Glacier National Park is likely to set a new annual visitation record three months before the year ends.

A monthly report released by the National Park Service Thursday estimates 736,868 visitors came to Glacier in August, putting year-to-date visitation 18 percent ahead of 2015 and setting an August visitation record.

The total visitor count during the first eight months of this year is at 2.25 million, just 110,186 visitors shy of the annual record set last year. From September through December 2015, 455,547 people visited the park.

The National Park Service’s centennial year has helped boost tourism to Glacier, which broke monthly attendance records in May, June, July and now August.

Last month capped the park’s busiest summer ever: a total of 1,985,258 people flowed through the gates during the past three months.

That broke the record of 1,708,843 visitors during summer 2014.

Glacier spokesman Tim Rains said that after a bustling July set the park’s all-time record for visitors in a single month (818,481 people), rangers and other employees reported that visitor impacts appeared consistent with the above-average year.

“They’re having normal peak-season numbers in the post-peak season,” Rains said.

He added that the park’s shuttle service had already exceeded its 2010 record for ridership by the last weekend in August, with a total of 181,757 visitors using the free transit service.

Shuttles stopped running on the east side of Going-to-the-Sun Road after Labor Day, but west-side service to Logan Pass will continue until Sept. 17.

The park keeps track of visitation at seven of its entrances, each of which posted increased visitation compared with the first eight months of 2015. The largest increase has been at St. Mary, although that entrance was plagued last summer by the Reynolds Creek Fire burning along the east side of Sun Road.

The West Glacier entrance is up 6.7 percent, and visitation via Polebridge and Camas is up 16.4 percent and 11.6 percent, respectively.

Since January, overnight stays in developed tent campgrounds, backcountry campground and recreational-vehicle sites have all posted double-digit increases from last year. Overnight stays in lodges dipped by about 6 percent, but about half of Many Glacier Hotel’s 215 rooms have been closed this summer due to construction.

In terms of popularity, Glacier is typically a league apart from its better-known neighbor to the south, Yellowstone National Park.

But Glacier’s August visitation nearly came within 100,000 visitors of Yellowstone’s August total of 841,036.

Multiple wildfires burning in Yellowstone this summer likely took a toll on visitation, but Glacier also pulled unusually close in July, when it welcomed 818,481 visitors compared with Yellowstone’s 995,917.

Glacier’s struggles with sky-high visitation could become more acute, however, given its more limited infrastructure and smaller size. Multiple thoroughfares divert Yellowstone’s visitors to different regions of the park, while Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road creates a concentrated artery of traffic that has necessitated the development of a corridor plan for the road.

Park Superintendent Jeff Mow touched on that dilemma during U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s visit to Glacier on the Park Service’s 100th birthday last month. Last year’s record crowds, coupled with the sudden traffic complications during the Reynolds Creek Fire’s breakout, provided a preview of what a normal Glacier summer could begin to look like, he said.

Planning for the future will require a delicate balance, however. He also noted that Glacier attracts a different type of visitor than Yellowstone, with a greater emphasis on a quieter, wilderness experience increasingly at odds with the growing crowds.

“What we learned was [for] so many of our visitors that have been waiting a lifetime to come to a place like this, that’s OK,” Mow said, later adding, “But we’re definitely on that independent-traveler end of the spectrum.”

Later this fall, the park is expected to release an environmental impact statement for its Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor plan, which will lay out a range of alternative approaches to handling Glacier’s growing popularity.

Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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