A year marked by unprecedented crowds has shattered another visitation record in Glacier National Park, where the 2,946,681 visitors to enter the park in 2016 eclipsed the previous year’s all-time high by a staggering 24 percent.
It’s the third annual attendance record set in Glacier in as many years.
Last year’s attendance toppled the 2015 record before the end of September, following a surge in park visitors during last year’s peak tourist season that brought the highest attendance ever recorded for the months of May through September.
One of the quietest months in the park, December’s visitation tacked an extra 12,877 onto the year-end total. The December record was set in 2015, with 13,357 visitors.
The historic year was also reflected in visitor totals at the park’s main entrances. West Glacier’s 1.3 million visitors was the highest total since the park started keeping track at individual entrances in 1998 — as were the year-end totals from the St. Mary, Many Glacier, Camas, Two Medicine and Polebridge entrances.
Yet despite the massive year-to-year visitation spike, Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow is expecting the new year to bring similar crowds flocking to the million-acre park.
“My best guess would be, it’s going to be similar visitation to what we saw last year,” Mow said in a December interview. “What’s kind of interesting about last year is this idea that we had so many visitors, but they didn’t seem to mind that the park was busy, packed and overcrowded.”
As evidence, he said visitor feedback to park staff, online reviews and concession-company ratings indicated that customer satisfaction was above average.
Crowding issues will see renewed attention by park officials this spring, however, when Glacier plans to unveil a set of visitor-management proposals contained within the Going-to-the-Sun Road Corridor Management Plan.
Years in the making, the corridor plan’s most recent update came in the spring of 2015. It outlined possible solutions to congestion along the park’s scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road, visitor centers and hiking trails. The most moderate planning alternative advanced in the update included possible restrictions on vehicle and foot traffic that would be triggered by preset visitation thresholds.
“We said that in 2012, the baseline for which we would need to implement whatever the alternative is in that corridor management plan would be when we exceeded 2012 visitation by 20 or 25 percent, which we did this year,” Mow said. “In theory, you could look at the visitation we saw this year as potentially being ‘year one’ in the three years we identified.”
The unprecedented congestion in 2016 allowed the park to experiment in a few small ways, Mow added. After holding off on scheduled road-repair work until later in the season, the park set up a temporary traffic light west of Logan Pass where the Sun Road was reduced to a single lane in August.
“If you don’t have any vehicle restrictions, vehicles continue to flow into that parking lot non-stop,” he said. “But when we implemented that 10-minute delay because we were doing road construction ... there were periods where the pressure on the parking lot would relax a little bit, and people would catch up on parking and there wasn’t that constant inflow.”
Park spokeswoman Lauren Alley said the draft environmental impact statement for the corridor plan should be finished within the coming months, followed by a public comment period.
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at email@example.com.