Tourists head to Montana, and state park visits are steady, but some communities hurt

By: - July 6, 2022 5:22 pm

A camper at Finley Point paddles Flathead Lake at sunset. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

The tourism season in Montana started with a clobbering.

Flooding in Yellowstone National Park and neighboring communities. Avalanches and a still-not-fully-open Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park.

Inflation, of course, plus high fuel prices.

“It’s one hit after another, isn’t it?” said Barbara Neilan, executive director of Destination Missoula, the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Still, visitors are heading to the Big Sky, and at least for the time being, economic security is generally strong, said Patrick Barkey, head of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana. Some people might forgo a meal out, for instance, in order to still keep a trip to Yellowstone on the calendar.

“Consumers have pretty high savings rates, so they have some money to push through some of these higher costs,” Barkey said.

In 2020, Montana State Parks saw record visitation, with 3.4 million people, a tally that fell just 1.3 percent the following year, according to data from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. In the summer of 2020, the great outdoors felt relatively safe to many people as the coronavirus spread, but tourism this year might slow a hair; the first quarter shows an 8.6 percent drop across state parks compared to last year, although it’s still up from 2019 and 2020.

“I don’t think it’s going to be quite the rip, roaring year it was last year,” Barkey said of tourism in general.

At Makoshika State Park, the state’s largest, park manager Riley Bell said it’s still pretty busy, and while he doesn’t have official numbers yet, he’d guess figures so far hit roughly the same level as last year or dip just a bit. Last year, he said Makoshika counted a record number of visits, roughly 150,000 for the calendar year.

This year, he’s seeing many out-of-staters, especially from Minnesota, and also from California, Washington, and Idaho. The park’s badlands landscape and fossils are a draw to people around the world, and he’s seeing a lot more tourists from Germany, Sweden and other European countries since COVID-19 first stymied international flights.

“We’re starting to see a lot more international travelers,” Bell said.

Barkey agreed the gradual reopening of international travel, which had been dormant, is going to affect the Montana economy. For one thing, he said, it means Montanans can finally take their own trips to Europe, but it also gives foreigners a chance to head here, and he said demand for airline flights is still “pretty strong.”

“By the way, from the economic side, those international (visitors) spend more money,” Barkey said.

On the other hand, he said for individual communities, such as Red Lodge and Gardiner, the economic hit is serious this summer, although he said people who have Yellowstone National Park on their bucket list will find a way to get there.

(Provided by the Red Lodge Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center.)

Sherry Weamer, executive director for the Red Lodge Area Chamber of Commerce, said the community needs through traffic again to Yellowstone, but in the meantime, Red Lodge itself is bustling. The Fourth of July weekend brought a record breaking rodeo, she said, and a Beartooth motorcycle rally is coming up July 14-17 as is a car show July 22-23.

“The downtown is vibrant and hopping, and everybody is open,” Weamer said. “We just need those visitors to come back and hang out with us and enjoy our mountains that are five minutes from the edge of town.”

She said the town reopened quickly after the historic floods in June, and support from the governor and president will help. Nonetheless, she said she’s eager for U.S. Highway 212 between Red Lodge and Cooke City to open, although she said travelers can take the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway for a beautiful drive.

“The floods and closure will have a major impact on us,” Weamer said. “There’s no way you can discount the pull of Yellowstone National Park, and all that coverage of the flood has gone to the whole country. Now, getting word out is almost impossible, that we are back open, so that’s another challenge.”

In an email, Yellowstone noted visitor numbers were down in June because the park closed immediately after the flooding. But the park said a “modified reopening” is taking place.

“Numbers will also be affected because only three of the five entrances are open,” the park said.

In western Montana, Neilan said occupancy was up 7 percent in Missoula the month of May this year compared to last, but June was down about 4 percent. She said it’s an interesting year for tourism in Montana, too.

For one thing, the tourism industry is watching to see how much of the recent spikes in Montana can be attributed to the “COVID bubble,” she said. But Neilan said she thinks some of the change is permanent.

“I think Montana as a whole has kind of been discovered,” Neilan said.

In Missoula, events such as concerts and the Missoula Marathon are coming back, and occupancy is around 80 percent, she said. Some Montanans are finally flying to New York and San Francisco again for vacation, but with inflation, she said others are staying closer to home for “staycations,” and Canadians are returning to Montana too.

“I think there’s so much pent up travel that people want to do that it’s not going to stop travel,” Neilan said. “I think what it’s going to do is maybe just change it a little.”

In Glacier, the Going-to-the-Sun Road won’t open until July 13 at the earliest, said Gina Kerzman, public affairs officer for the park. That’s later than usual, but so far, the visitor numbers show some entrances are still up compared to last year, and the popular West Glacier entrance is down, but not by a lot.

“Our main numbers that we just posted make it look as though we are starting the season strong,” Kerzman said. “We’re on track for another busy year.”

She said Glacier never predicts an opening date because weather is unpredictable, but plows did cut through the Big Drift, and Tuesday, they started widening the gap through it and digging out the visitor center at Logan Pass. Glacier saw record visitation in fall 2020.

Brian Paul, road supervisor, talks with reporters and photographers on a media tour of Logan Pass. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

“You get people, you’ve got to have bathrooms. There’s just no way around that,” Kerzman said.

She said visitors don’t need reservations for the St. Mary entrance on the east side of the park until Going-to-the-Sun Road is fully open. That means by marking an earliest possible opening date of July 13, people are assured that if they roll in on July 12, they can still get on the road without a ticket.

Kerzman also said Glacier experienced flooding. Although it wasn’t to the extent that Yellowstone saw, it means hikers should check the status of trails on the park’s website and prepare to make alternative plans if necessary, or crawl over debris if a trail is open but messy.

“Some of the trails are heavily damaged, so you may be walking through mud,” Kerzman said, noting that trekking down a muddy trail is preferable to hiking to the side of a path and damaging vegetation.

Generally, Barkey said inflation is driving purchasing power down, and it will impact tourism in Montana. However, he said it’s still a question as to whether negative forces will push people to stay put or other factors will drive them out of their homes to play.

“It remains to be seen whether they’re going to win,” Barkey said of the stresses on pocketbooks.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Keila Szpaller
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-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

MORE FROM AUTHOR