Glacier Park sees record October, spike in November

Overall visitation was more than 50 percent down in 2020 from 2019

A view from the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park. Overall visitation dropped more than 50 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, according to a park spokesperson. But October hit an all time record. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

Everybody wants to be first in line to make a reservation for the historic Granite Park Chalet or Sperry Chalet inside Glacier National Park.

That was one observation Monday from Kevin Warrington, chalet coordinator, the day the backcountry lodges opened for reservations for the 2021 season.

“So it’s not unusual for there to be thousands of people all hammering on that (reservation) website,” Warrington said.

Reservations opened at 8 a.m., and just five minutes later, 420 people had submitted requests. By early afternoon, Warrington was looking at more than 3,000 requests staff would process for spots in one of the chalets.

“We are neck deep in it at this time … we’re going to be at it all week,” Warrington said.

Granite Park Chalet is a historic lodge in Glacier National Park. (Provided by Glacier National Park and the NPS Archive)

Last summer was the first time Sperry reopened after crews rebuilt the iconic structure from the 2017 Sprague fire, and Warrington said the concession saw reservation requests skyrocket.

“Public interest in the chalets was huge last year,” Warrington said. “Back in January, before anybody was even saying the word ‘pandemic,’ we got the largest volume of requests we have ever seen. It was tremendous.”

Alan McCormick of Missoula was among the hikers who nabbed a Sperry reservation last year – and put in for one this year. In a tweet Monday, he noted there were 2,412 reservation requests by 8:15 a.m.

“Sperry had been on my bucket list since first hiking in the park 27 years ago,” McCormick said in a direct message. “We finally made a commitment to try and get reservations, but that was the year it burned.

“We were actually in the park the day it burned. The mood at Freda’s Bar (in West Glacier) was very somber as the news started spreading. But I was fortunate to get a reservation last September.

“The chalet was beautifully restored and, not having had a prior experience, (I) would never have known it burned. Its setting is phenomenal and obviously takes a lot of work to get to, which heightens the appeal.”

Sperry Chalet was rebuilt after a 2017 fire. (Provided by Glacier National Park and the NPS Archive)

The concession website describes the trek to Sperry as 6.7 miles long and climbing 3,300 feet: “It is a strenuous hike that takes about 4.5 hours on average.”

Compared to 2015, Warrington estimated that 2020 saw three times more demand. This year? The reservation site was busy, but he said it was too early to tell whether the chalets were growing in popularity — or if some people might get frustrated at being declined and look elsewhere.

In 2020, Glacier itself saw tourist numbers plummet more than 50 percent from the 3.05 million visitors the year before, said Gina Kerzman, public affairs officer for Glacier National Park. East side entrances were closed to protect elders of the Blackfeet Tribe from the coronavirus.

But data also show pressure on the park mounting. In November, the Camas entrance saw 77 percent more visitors, or 3,444, compared to 2019.

The park altogether saw a 47 percent hike in November from the year before at 29,366, Kerzman said. She said that’s roughly 10,000 more than in an average November the last 40 years.

One month earlier, she said 125,544 people descended on the park, an all-time high for that month.

“It was our highest October on record, and it was a 62 percent increase from 2019,” Kerzman said. She put the 40-year average at 71,000 for the same month.

The coronavirus that caused the shutdown of the east side of the park also drove more people outdoors. Kerzman said Glacier is seeing more visitors who haven’t ever gone camping or even visited a national park.

Whether the eastern entrances open or not, she anticipates a busy 2021, with the same COVID-19 mitigation tools in place, such as plexiglass between park staff and guests. She also said the park will have new ways to manage high traffic volumes, with no silver bullets but some lessons learned from last summer.

“Public lands have been hit extra hard,” Kerzman said. “ … We do predict we’re going to be hit just as hard this summer.”

The rise in park guests won’t change the number of visitors staying at the chalets, though. Granite has 12 rooms open from June 28 to Sept 12; Sperry is open July 11 through Sept. 12, and the Crown of the Continent notes it has just 17 rooms. Basically, the figurative “no vacancy” signs have been hanging on the lodging built by the railroad for decades.

“Ever since the 1970s, the chalets of Glacier have been 100 percent sold out every summer,” Warrington said. He added, “We are literally the smallest hotels in Glacier park.”

At any given moment this week, he said, one to four staff members will be working on the complex summer schedule. Many people will be declined, but sooner or later, maybe later this week or next, every person will get a response.

“Being patient helps. These are very small hotels with very high demand,” Warrington said.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shift with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”