LOGAN PASS — The morning’s smoke-filtered sunlight pouring over the overlook just below Logan Pass doesn’t offer much warmth from a bone-biting breeze sweeping over the lone visitor taking in the majestic view.
Dressed in a pair of shorts and sweatshirt, Steve Birch doesn’t seem to care.
His son had already retreated to the warmth of the pair’s vehicle in the parking lot. Staring through his binocular, the Minneapolis, Minnesota man is tracking a pair of hikers as they made their way along the same Highline Trail that he and his son had walked the day before.
“They look so tiny against this landscape,” Birch said. “It’s just beautiful and so immense. It’s a true national treasure. I’ve been to all 50 states and I would have to say that this is right there at the top of the list of the prettiest places I’ve ever seen.”
Birch isn’t alone in his newfound love for Glacier National Park.
In July, the park set a record when more than a million people came to visit in a single month. The 1,009,665 visitors marked a 23 percent increase over last year’s record-setting numbers.
“A million people may seem like a lot, but if the infrastructure can support it, I don’t think it’s too many,” Birch said, as his eyes tracked another group of hikers navigating the narrowest portion of the Highline Trail that offers a cable to hang onto for folks afraid of heights. “From what I’ve seen, this is a place where people come together and put their differences aside for a little while to enjoy their natural surroundings.”
How many are too many? That’s the challenge facing park officials who deal with overflowing parking lots, growing numbers of medical emergencies and not enough places for people to sleep.
Glacier Park’s Lauren Alley said park officials recognized the need to address issues of congestion and crowding after last year’s visitor numbers neared 3 million for the first time ever.
“Visitor numbers have always gone up and down over the last 30 years,” Alley said. “In 1982 and '83, we cracked 2 million visitors a year for the first time, but then the numbers went back down….Certainly over the last five years, we’ve seen those numbers on their way back up.”
There are a lot of theories on what’s driving that growing interest in the park. Some say it’s due to a general improvement in the economy or lower gas prices. Others point to all those beautiful photographs of the park finding their way onto different social media sites.
Longtime campground host volunteers Russ Vance and Pamela Smith believe a lot of people are drawn to the park for a chance to see climate change at work.
“People tell us that they want to see glaciers before they’re gone,” Smith said. “They have come here to see the impacts of climate change for themselves. They tell us that.”
After experiencing a record number of visitors last summer, Alley said park officials knew they needed to develop a plan to address the potential for congestion and overcrowding at some of the most popular areas in the park.
As a result this summer, there have been times visitors were stopped from entering places like Many Glacier or Kintla and Bowman lakes after parking lots filled. On different occasions, park officials allowed one car to enter those sites only after another car left.
“Last year, we definitely saw some situations that developed that we didn’t want to see happen again,” Alley said. “There were times that places were so congested that we couldn’t get an emergency vehicle in if we needed to. That prompted the restrictions on the North Fork, Two Medicine and Many Glacier.”
Standing at the entrance to the Logan Pass parking lot in his national park uniform, Emlon Stanton said he’s certainly seen the impacts of more people visiting the park in his five summers at this popular destination.
“By 8:17 this morning, the parking lot was full,” Stanton said. “And then people started circling hoping to find a spot. I’ve seen it before, but I think this year it might be a little bit worse.”
At times this year, when there are too many cars circling the lot, officials have pulled a rope across the entrance and waved people off until traffic slowed inside the parking lot.
“We recommend that they use the shuttles to come up here during the middle of the day,” Stanton said. “It’s a lot easier on everyone. People tend to get a bit frustrated when they can’t find a place to park.”
That challenge of finding parking places seems to fuel most of the complaints park officials hear.
“From the visitor comments we receive, people, by and large, are still pretty happy with their experience,” Alley said. “The people who come from more urban areas are used to more crowded conditions. Local people aren’t quite as happy…This year, we have received more feedback from visitors in general who are expressing more frustrations that the park isn’t meeting their expectations.”
The park is in the midst of developing a new Going to the Sun Corridor Management Plan that will identify different visitation scenarios and develop alternatives for management that could include everything from a reservation system or timed entries on the popular Going to the Sun Road to hardening some of the most used trails in the park.
“The Going to the Sun Road is definitely the iconic drive for people who visit the park, but we’ve found that repeat visitors often find their own secret spots where they can get away from the crowds,” Alley said.
One of the challenges of bringing more people into a rugged landscape is an uptick in medical emergencies that park officials have to address. So far this year, there has been an increase of 29 percent in emergency medical calls.
At one point in July, Stanton said there were 15 calls that required people to be carried out in 15 days.
One of those was Randy Wasikowski’s wife, Fran, who broke her ankle in two places while on the trail to St. Mary’s Falls. The untimely accident put a big dent in the South Bend, Indiana couple’s trip they had been planning and training for over the past year.
On Thursday, Wasikowski was stopping often to film the mountain views and wildlife he saw along the trail to Hidden Lake above Logan Pass so he could share it with his wife who was stuck in their timeshare room back in town.
“We’ve both been looking forward to this trip for so long,” Wasikowski said. “I don’t want her to miss anything that I see. We’ve been walking like crazy to get ready for this and just one wrong step changed it all…She felt like I needed to get out here even though she couldn’t.”
“Even though this happened, it’s what I love about being able to come to this national park,” he said. “You’re pretty much on your own. I want to keep it that way.”
When his wife was injured, Wasikowski was surprised by the response of nearly everyone who came by and saw her being walked down the trail in a wheeled litter.
“People kept stopping to ask what they could do to help,” he said. “When she was being carried out, they all were saying ‘We’re so sorry. We’ll pray for you.’ People here have all been so nice.”
At the Avalanche Campground where Vance and Smith have spent their summer helping people find a place to stay, they’ve seen that same generosity over and over again. When the campground fills to capacity and people are desperate to find a place to sleep, the couple has noticed that campers have sometimes shared their campsite with complete strangers.
The pair has certainly noticed the uptick in visitors this summer.
Instead of having some down time in the afternoon for a hike on a nearby favorite trail, they often find themselves pulling out maps on their picnic table to show visitors where they can find dispersed camping sites on nearby national forest lands.
The couple has served as camp hosts for the last five years in Glacier.
“We have noticed we’ve been seeing more people every year, but I think it was 2015 when it was a really an in-your-face kind of situation,” Vance said.
The 86-site campground at Avalanche Creek almost always is full before 9 a.m. Their friends at Sprague Campground said they have people waiting to get in as early as 5 a.m.
“I’m sure we have people here as early as 6 a.m.,” he said. “There is a lot more competition for campsites this year…There’s certainly some frustration when people can’t find one, but, for the most part, people are pretty good about it.”
The two are members of a large contingent of volunteers who help keep the park running as smoothly as possible. They both worry the ownership of the park shared between both paid and volunteer help will be lost if the decision is made to privatize the operation of the campground facilities.
“We’ve seen the people who work here just keep giving, giving and giving some more because of the love they have for this place,” Smith said. “I don’t think you will have the same sense of ownership if this is run by a private concessionaire.”
“This really is the people’s place,” Vance said. “This park belongs to the people. That’s why we all feel strongly that we need to protect it and be there to help those who come to visit.”
The park has a way of bringing people together in ways that they don’t see in the outside world.
“We see more and more campers reaching out to help one another,” Smith said. “They share things with each other, including their camping spots. There’s something about this park that just brings out the best in people.”