Big Sky Roundup

Glacier sees drop in Going-to-the-Sun traffic with ticketed entry

By: - September 16, 2021 5:32 pm

After implementing a new ticketed entry system this year, Glacier National Park saw a 12 percent decrease in vehicles on Going-to-the-Sun Road from Memorial Day weekend through the end of August compared to 2019, according to a news release Thursday from the park.

Generally, Glacier National Park reported 2,354,475 visitors through August, a busy year but 3.8 percent drop so far compared to 2019. The park said the drop in traffic on Going-to-the-Sun reflected its goal to shave off spikes in traffic volume. It did not say in the news release whether it would adjust the ticket program next year based on outcomes this year, such as number of tickets available or entrances where they are required.

While Going-to-the-Sun Road vehicle entry decreased this year, alternate entrances to the park saw increased visitation, resulting in frequent closures. Vehicle entry during June through August at Two Medicine was up almost 33 percent, the highest on record, and the North Fork almost 20 percent over 2019 numbers.

Park officials will use the information gathered during the 2021 pilot to determine how to move forward in 2022. The park is holding discussions with stakeholders and hopes to announce a decision by late fall.

The pilot ticketed entry system was implemented on Going-to-the-Sun Road to help manage high traffic volumes during a predicted high visitor season; avoid traffic back-ups onto U.S. Highway 2 during construction; and operate with reduced staff and services due to COVID-19 mitigations. The goals of ticketed entry included shaving off the high peaks in traffic to reduce congestion on the Going-to-the-Sun Road and avoiding gridlock that could block emergency traffic, the news release said.

On opening day for Going-to-the-Sun Road, there was a 10 percent increase in vehicles over 2019. In a July press release, Glacier National Park incorrectly reported a 41 percent increase of Going-to-the-Sun Road traffic over 2019 on opening day, the park said;  this inaccuracy occurred because of a data error that has been corrected.

“In our attempt to use real-time data to monitor the traffic on Going-to-the-Sun Road, we discovered a data error that made it appear as though we had a larger increase in traffic over 2019,” said acting Superintendent Pete Webster in a statement. “Although the reported increase in July was not accurate, overall ticketed entry has met the goals we set out to achieve.”

Construction on Many Glacier Road throughout the season caused the traffic counter to malfunction in June and July, a situation that has been remedied for the remaining season, the news release said. Alternative calculations based on current and previous year trail counts and visitation needed to be developed to estimate the traffic counts, which delayed the park’s reporting on visitation statistics for June and July, the park said.

The table below shows visitation for the months of June, July, and August over the last several years according to IRMA, the National Park Service’s reporting tool:
2021 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016
Polebridge 70,766 72,571 59,032 55,027 82,266 57,568
Saint Mary 349,072 Closed 481,301 486,677 745,461 483,394
Camas 87,121 110,627 89,206 89,141 93,575 81,288
West Entrance 916,493 876,322 1,011,138 864,798 983,780 887,824
Goat Lick/Walton 137,704 56,279 113,919 141,042 112,379 113,172
Two Medicine 193,289 Closed 145,886 155,323 146,079 124,171
Many Glacier 261,287 Closed 256,192 267,339 291,191 276,843

The list below shows the year-to-date visitation trends through August since 2016:

2021 – 2,354,475
2020 – 1,171,847
2019 – 2,447,377
2018 – 2,399,298
2017 – 2,803,044
2016 – 2,344,592

In 2020, high visitation on Going-to-the-Sun Road resulted in congestion and required 28 closures of GTSR between June 8-Sept. 9 to avoid gridlock, the park said. This year, ticketed entry  dispersed entry and exit patterns on the Going-to-the-Sun Road at peak times, allowing the West Entrance to remain open throughout the main portion of the 2021 summer season. Based on the number of arriving vehicles, in the absence of the ticketed entry system, the park would very likely have had to close the West Entrance gate at least 35 times during the summer season, the news release said. It also provided certainty to visitors with an entry ticket that they would be able to enter the park rather than being turned away due to closure of the West Entrance because of congestion and gridlock.

An average of 19 percent of vehicles arrived at the West Glacier and St. Mary entrances without a Going-to-the-Sun entry ticket or other reservation between Memorial Day and Labor Day, according to the park. This number continued to trend downward and was closer to 14 percent at season’s end. Every diverted visitor was provided an opportunity to speak to a park ranger and receive information on how to experience the park without a ticket, the park said.

Now that the pilot program has ended, congestion on Going-to-the-Sun Road is being managed through temporary closures of the West Entrance as necessary. The West Entrance has had three closures, on September 7, 8, and 14 since the ticketed entry program ended.

As a reminder, construction continues in and around the park. Visitors can check the Montana Department of Transportation website for updates on Highway 2 construction.

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