The streambed of Lolo Creek is exposed while what water remains flows beneath a bridge at Travelers’ Rest State Park in 2015. 

HELENA – Montana State Parks had another banner visitation year in 2015, setting a record for the third consecutive year.

Parks saw more than 2.48 million visitors last year – up 11 percent from the previous record in 2014 and 34 percent above the 10-year average. Parks officials cite strong visitation in “shoulder seasons” from February to April and October and November as a major factor in the record.

“We’re encouraged to see our state park visitation continue to set record numbers in 2015,” said Chas Van Genderen, Montana State Parks administrator. “Increased park visitation is positive news for Montana’s families, communities and local economies as well. Montana’s residents and out-of-state visitors understand the value that our park system brings to our great state.”

Montana State Parks has faced increasing demand, but has a smaller budget than the state parks in most other western states. The department has a $16 million maintenance backlog and a less than $8 million annual budget.

The funding issue is at the center of the recently released strategic plan for the parks, which calls for prioritizing significant sites and the possible divestment of less significant sites.

In a response to the financial woes, parks supporters launched the Montana State Parks Foundation last year. While the association likely will not directly raise funds, organizers hope it can bring new money and programing into the system while also developing an organized constituency.

While the visitation is reason to celebrate, the shift in seasonal interest presents a challenge, said Pat Doyle, Montana State Parks communication and marketing manager.

“It was such a warm shoulder season ... the weather was just incredible,” he said. “But when we have really warm shoulder seasons we may not be adequately staffed for that level of visitation. So it’s really great to have so many people coming out, but it’s a challenge for us with how to balance that.”

Montana residents made up the bulk of visitors with more than 1.9 million visits.

North central Montana had the highest number of visitors regionally, with nearly 728,000.

Giant Springs State Park near Great Falls was the most-visited park statewide, with 419,800 visits. Rounding out the top five were Flathead Lake State Park with 281,000 visits, Cooney State Park near Roberts with 184,790, Lake Elmo State Park near Billings with 172,200 and Spring Meadow Lake State Park near Helena with 172,000.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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