The national parks are crowded, or rather, they have been. The pandemic reduced and altered visitation in potentially unexpected ways which are worth pondering. Anecdotally, visitation is back close to or has exceeded the previous records, which were generally set in the latter half of the last decade. This seems to be the COVID outdoor boom complimenting and exacerbating the already-in-progress parks and hiking boom, itself set in motion by the yet to be fully quantified combination of social media culture, industrial tourism, and urban malaise.
Glacier National Park has, this summer, been both an exception and an adherent to this trend. This spring Glacier responded to government COVID policy, pandemic related staffing challenges, and the long standing crowding issues in the park with a ticketed entry and shuttle bus system. Advanced tickets are required to go through either of the main park entrances between 0600 and 1700, and additional tickets are required to ride the shuttle buses which service Going to the Sun Road, and have historically made parking and point to point dayhikes easier to manage. The number of total tickets made available in unclear, with the park claiming various numbers at various times, and suggesting the totals may be revised upwards as possible. The caveat, which the park service was strident in advertising, has been that they did not anticipate parking shortages in popular areas to be much addressed by the tickets, rather they were attempting to prevent the cluster of last summer, when cars backed the .86 of a mile to the highway, with safety concerns requiring road closures
The tickets entry system appears to have exceeded expectations here. M and I visited the park on a weekly basis from 2010 to 2016, when we lived in either Whitefish or Kalispell, and have never seen parking along the road as widely available as it has been in the past month. Traffic in the park generally appears to be reduced, as well. We’ve found mid-day weekend parking at Logan (not Logan’s) Pass on multiple occasions with less than 5 minutes of circling, ready parking at Sunrift Gorge at 1000 on a Sunday, and scored a campsite at Two Medicine having arrived just before noon on a Saturday. Conclusive evidence this is not, but for me also far exceeds the threshold of the mere anecdote. Rocky Mountain National Park implemented a broadly similar system this summer, and other parks with similar crowding and traffic issues, such as Arches, are considering it.
Glacier has been quite candid that the pandemic is simply the catalyst, or excuse, to put this into practice. It is past time. As I wrote four years ago, the park service has for decades been failing in its full mission, providing a volume of experiences increasingly lacking in quality and depth. This is a global phenomenon, with places as diverse as Venice and New Zealand publicly debating how to make tourism a sustainable basis for their economies and ways of life. The NPS’ mandate is not explicitly financial, but visitor management will be intimately tied to the policies and futures of the states and communities in which the parks reside. No one, no one who can find a room or table that is, will prefer the Springdale, UT of today to the one of 15 years ago. Crowding in the front country flattens the economy of a place into sameness, plain, efficient, reassuring, sameness. The same crowding in the backcountry takes away, past a certain point, the unhuman novelty from which parks (and wild places, generally) get their appeal.
The question now is which way forward. In Glacier, lots of people are protesting, about the inconvenience of more carefully planning their trip, of having to bend their schedules to that of anything else, or loosing money to the tourists that go somewhere more “free.” This is the myopic American ideal of freedom, which can’t see out of its cloud well enough to avoid large trees. My hope is that the NPS will continue their current path, and let the details evolve while the assumption of limited, higher quality visitation slowly becomes taken for granted.