Glacier National Park continues ticketed entry, with changes

The back end of Kintla Lake north of Polebridge in Glacier National Park. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

You’ll need a ticket again to drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road next summer, and you’ll need one for the Polebridge entrance to the North Fork as well, Glacier National Park announced Monday.

“You can still go to Polebridge, go to the Mercantile and get a huckleberry bear claw,” said Gina Kerzman, public affairs officer for Glacier park. “But then you’ll need a ticket to get into Bowman and Kintla lakes.”

Last year, in a quest to keep gridlock at bay and traffic moving on the scenic and historic road between West Glacier and St. Mary, the park launched a pilot program for a ticketed entry system. Basically, tourists in cars needed to buy a $2 reservation ticket for Going-to-the-Sun in addition to their park pass.

The ticketed system served its purpose, in part: Kerzman said the park didn’t have to shut down the road for congestion at all during the period tickets were required, which last year was Memorial weekend through the end of August. However, the system also rankled many people who tried to get tickets but found them quickly sold out.

So for summer 2022, Kerzman said the park has made changes to the program, still in pilot phase, and it’s also continuing to iron out other tweaks, to be announced at a later date. For example, yet to be determined is how far in advance and staggered tickets will be released, and the daytime hours tickets will be required.

Also, the park is mulling whether to issue any tickets 48 hours in advance, or if it will instate another strategy for people who may live nearby and want to make a last minute visit to the park.

“We’re looking at doing something a little different than that,” Kerzman said.

One sure change this year is that a ticket on the main road will be good for three days instead of seven because Kerzman said the park found that’s how most people use it — but North Fork tickets are good for just one day, again, because she said that’s typically a day trip for many visitors.

As a result of the pilot, the park estimated that it didn’t have to fully close down Going-to-the-Sun Road in 2021 an estimated 35 times during ticketed entry.

“This was a major accomplishment despite 2021 visitation numbers currently boasting the second highest on record for the park,” said the news release. “Avoiding gridlock also ensured access to emergency vehicles and prevented severe vehicle back-ups onto Highway 2 outside the park.”

However, 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.

Additionally, Kerzman said the week after the pilot ended, the park had to shut down Going-to-the-Sun, maybe three times, because of high traffic. So tickets will be required an extra week in 2022, from May 27 to Sept. 11.

“That’s part of the reason why we extended the ticket season beyond Labor Day,” she said.

Last summer, the park managed roughly 4,600 cars and trucks in the corridor a day, including ones that don’t need tickets such as service vehicles, so Kerzman said the number of tickets is fewer than the capacity and accounts for enough room to let emergency vehicles through.

The new approach for the North Fork is partly because the management plan’s call for preserving the area’s remote character has been in direct conflict with the flood of visitors who have been heading there the last several years, in many cases without a good idea of what to expect, Kerzman said. She said the park closed the gate nearly every day last summer because of excessive capacity.

“It used to be a place that was a little bit unknown to visitors, but the North Fork was discovered a few years ago,” Kerzman said.

But many people aren’t prepared to be out of cell service or driving on an unimproved road with the wrong tires or a vehicle that doesn’t have enough clearance, she said. Some even end up there by accident, thinking they’re heading to Going-to-the-Sun Road.

“So it’s also a way to alert our visitors of the type of experience they will have in the North Fork,” Kerzman said, although she noted the community of Polebridge is open.