Glacier Park Transitions to Fall After Historic Summer

By DILLON TABISH for the Flathead Beacon

Like a flash flood, visitors flocked to Glacier National Park for the brief yet wildly popular summer season, and for the first time as superintendent, Jeff Mow was swept up in the unique phenomenon.

“This is one of the shortest, most intense visitor seasons that I’ve experienced,” said Glacier’s first-year chief, who has spent more than 25 years working at various sites in the National Park Service. “It’s striking to me.”

Mow had quite the introduction to tourism season in the Crown Jewel of the Continent.

June’s drizzly weather, which held visitation at bay and delayed the opening of the Going-to-the-Sun Road by two weeks, quickly transitioned into July’s sunny conditions, which led to an historic deluge of people.

Nearly 700,000 visitors explored Glacier Park in July, the most in any single month since statistics were first kept in 1979.

2014-09-07_1130

Fall foliage in Glacier National Park Friday, Oct. 18, 2013. For more photos visit www.FlatheadBeacon.com. Greg Lindstrom | FlatheadBeacon

August figures are being tallied this week and early estimates are that it was yet another jam-packed month, meaning 630,000 or more people visited.

“My sense is it may not be far behind July. The first two weeks of August seemed to be on pace to be a record,” he said.

If that holds true, and if the extended opening of the Sun Road into October provides an added bump as expected, that could mean 2014 could go down as the busiest year in Glacier Park’s long history.

Through the first seven months of the year, Glacier attracted 1.21 million visitors, a 4.6 percent increase over the previous year. Combined, July, August and September historically welcome three quarters of all visitors to Glacier. If the final five months track last year’s figures, the year-end visitation could reach 2.23 million people for 2014. The two busiest years in Glacier’s history were 2010 and 1983; both years saw roughly 2.2 million visitors.

“This visitor season was very compressed because of the delayed opening of the road,” Mow said. “If we come up with a record visitor year, what does that tell us about the dynamics at work? What does it tell us about the visitors themselves and their ability to adapt? It is pretty fascinating.”

Those dynamics, and the ballooning visitation, are being studied through the ongoing corridor study that the National Park Service launched last year as a way to craft a management strategy for Glacier’s bustling western core. In June, the NPS began reviewing nearly 400 public comments and a draft plan with several alternative proposals, including potential changes to the park’s free shuttle system, will be released later this fall, Mow said.

As part of its long-term planning effort in Glacier, the park service is analyzing travel trends in general, and that means reviewing alternatives to vehicle traffic. Bicycling in Glacier, for example, is an increasingly popular activity, Mow pointed out.

“Right now it’s very popular with local residents. Will it become a destination season on its own?” Mow said. “My sense is that visitors want to be more active when they visit the park. They want to engage in some other activity. Biking is certainly a big one. So there are some fascinating things to look at.”

As planning efforts continue, Mow said he expects plenty of input from the public.

“I am amazed at just how much interest there is at what goes on at Glacier,” Mow said.

“Being new, I talked to so many visitors and local landowners and just listening to their stories and their connections to Glacier, it’s just amazing. The stories are amazing and go back multi generations. In my career I really haven’t worked at a park that enjoys so much popularity.”

Businesses across the valley reaped the benefits of a banner year at the region’s ultimate tourist magnet.

Darwon Stoneman, a co-owner of Glacier Raft Company on the doorstep of the national park, welcomed a flood of clients this summer seeking rafting and fishing trips in the national park.

“I think it’s probably our busiest year ever,” the longtime outfitter said. “We were full all summer.”

The City of Whitefish collected a record amount of resort taxes for fiscal year 2014, which spanned July 2013 through June 2014. Roughly $2.09 million, a 5 percent annual increase, was gathered from a 2 percent tax on dining, lodging and retail businesses, marking the first time the city has surpassed $2 million in a fiscal year.

Glacier Changes Operation Hours for the Fall

Barring any major blizzards or government shutdowns, the Sun Road will remain open through most of October along the west side of the park, meaning the so-called shoulder season between summer and winter could shrink.

Glacier Park is transitioning into the autumn season with new operating hours for many visitor services, including campgrounds, concessions, boat inspections and backcountry permits.

Crews are continuing rehabilitation work of the Sun Road on the east side between Rising Sun and Siyeh Bend, and 30-minute delays are expected to continue until Sept. 21, when the road will be closed to Logan Pass along the east side. Vehicle traffic will be restricted near the St. Mary Campground beginning Sept. 22.

There is no road work on the west side this fall, marking the first time since 2007 when vehicles will be able to drive the main thoroughfare from West Glacier to Logan Pass through most of October. Last year the iconic road was slated to stay open for a month longer than previous years but the federal government shutdown closed the national park for 16 days, from Oct. 1 through Oct. 17.

Vehicle access to Logan Pass will be available from the west side through Oct. 19, weather permitting, park officials said.

The free shuttle system accessing Logan Pass and other locations along the Sun Road ended Sept. 8. The Logan Pass Visitor Center will stay open through Sept. 21. The Apgar Visitor Center and the St. Mary Visitor Center are open through Oct. 5.

The Many Glacier and Two Medicine ranger stations are open through Sept. 19. Ranger-led activities such as guided hikes and evening programs are offered throughout September.

Fall visitors to the Many Glacier area of the park should be aware that the replacement of the Swiftcurrent Bridge will begin at the end of September and continue into November. The replacement of the bridge will begin shortly after the Many Glacier Hotel closes for the season on Sept. 21. Visitors can expect short delays beginning Sept. 26. As of Sept. 29, there will be no vehicle or pedestrian traffic as the bridge is replaced. It is anticipated that the work to replace the bridge will continue through mid-November.

For a complete listing of campground operating dates and other services in Glacier, visit the park’s website.

*****