Sun Road plan eyes dramatic changes to parking, trail use

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Vehicles travel by the Weeping Wall along Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park on Aug. 18. The park recently released a management plan for the scenic highway. (Matt Baldwin/Daily Inter Lake)

Day-use parking permits, switching Avalanche camping spots to parking spaces, and one-way travel on a section of the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park are three of the many proposals in the Going-to-the-Sun Road Corridor Management Plan — a sweeping 184-page document that aims to address challenges that have surfaced amid unprecedented use of the popular road.

The famed 50-mile-long highway links the east and west sides of Glacier National Park. The Going-to-the-Sun Road management area, as defined in the 1999 General Management Plan, contains approximately 173 miles of trails, Granite Park and Sperry chalets.

Since the road’s opening in 1932, annual visitation to the park has increased from 53,000 visitors to approximately 3.3 million in 2017. From 2015 to 2017 alone, visitation numbers increased by almost 1 million. In the plan, traffic engineers have described the Going-to-the-Sun Road as having “volumes near capacity.”

After six years, Glacier Park officials have released a management plan that aims to address these challenges. And officials have asked the public to review the plan and share their thoughts. The public may comment on the plan until Oct. 6 and a public meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Flathead Valley Community College Arts and Technology Building.

“The public, local businesses, and elected officials have played an important role in this project from the beginning,” Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow said. “Maintaining a quality experience while sustaining the park for generations to come will continue to be a community conversation as we develop tools and implement strategies to address substantial increases in visitation to our park and surrounding local areas.”

For those who may not have the time or resources necessary to review the plan before the public comment period ends, the crux of the monster document zooms in on three main challenges: traffic and parking congestion, trail maintenance and the visitor experience as a whole.

Chief among the concerns is how park officials will address traffic issues such as overcrowding on roads, limited parking spaces and more. In surveys from visitors, parking shortfalls and congestion while driving were frequently cited by park visitors, according to the plan.

One proposal is an expansion of the park’s popular shuttle service — an alternative form of transportation that launched in 2007. By 2012, ridership had increased 61%, according to the plan. The proposal suggests adding to the shuttle fleet as necessary and as funding is available. New shuttle stops would be added at locations, including the park’s Fish Creek Campground, Johns Lake Trail and Big Bend. Another option is to allow alternative commercial transportation services to bring guests to various locations along the corridor, sans a guided tour element.

To further address transportation pains, the plan suggests multiple actions for private vehicles as well.

Proposals include restricting overnight parking during peak season and implementing a phased day-use parking permit system beginning with Logan Pass and St. Mary and Virginia Falls Trailhead while using certain design parameters. A portion of the lots would be reserved for those who purchase a short-term parking permit in advance.

The plan also lays out multiple plans for expanding parking — a point of contention for many visitors as some of the more popular lots tend to fill up in the early morning hours during peak season.

The document primarily addresses the Avalanche area, stating “dynamic parking configurations and uses would be implemented seasonally,” resulting in a range of 128 to 269 available parking spaces. The plan proposes converting camping spaces in the area into parking areas during peak season and “restoring a historic exit” to improve circulation.

Another recommended action calls for the construction of a 100-car parking lot on the west side of the park and an expansion to parking near St. Mary on the east side. These proposals, along with many others aimed at tackling parking, would add up to approximately 400 additional parking spaces in the corridor.

Second to actions related to transportation are several that would ease congestion on trails at popular hiking destinations and lessen human environmental impact.

For the Avalanche area, which has seen a 250% increase in use since 1988, the plan suggests to not allow commercially guided hikes during peak season and to limit them to two trips per day and 25 people per trip during other seasons.

For Logan Pass, another extremely popular hiking area, one action calls for the introduction of one-way travel on the Highline Trail to Big Bend, and the implementation of a timed-entry permit system in order to manage use levels.

Other actions involve adding trails — ranging in size and length — to areas such as Siyeh Bend, Lunch Creek and the St. Mary Visitor Center. The new trail proposals would bring up to 7.5 miles of new hiking and biking trails, according to the plan.

Finally, other focuses of the plan look to how the overall visitor experience can be improved, namely by extending daily operating hours at the high-traffic St. Mary and Apgar visitor centers. Other proposals include providing better access to brochures, newspapers, websites and social media to educate park guests and help them improve trip planning.

Officials also wish to “use emerging technology to connect visitors with in-car information systems to find available parking, identify congested areas, shuttle stops and orientation information.” To accomplish this, the plan suggests mobile-friendly apps and the installation of charging stations.

The 184-page plan can be reviewed at parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?documentID=98289. Comments can be submitted online on the National Park Service website, or can be sent to Glacier National Park’s Superintendent at P.O. Box 128, West Glacier, MT 59936, Attn: GTSR Corridor Management Plan.

Reporter Kianna Gardner may be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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