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Glacier Park cracks open Friday, with lots of COVID-19 restrictions

Glacier Park cracks open Friday, with lots of COVID-19 restrictions

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Parts of Glacier National Park open to the public on Friday for those willing to bring their own beds.

The challenges of keeping people safe from COVID-19 infection have piled onto the routine hassles of lingering snowpack and maintenance to-do lists to make 2020 one of the most unusual years in the park’s 110-year existence. There isn’t enough housing to give the usual complement of seasonal employees separate bedrooms and bathrooms needed to protect against virus spread. The resulting 25% reduction in seasonal hires has rippled throughout Glacier's ability to offer visitor services.

And the Blackfeet Indian Reservation has closed roads to all non-essential travel, including entrances to Glacier’s east-side hotels and campgrounds, to combat the pandemic. Thursday, the Blackfeet COVID-19 Incident Command posted on its Facebook page that the tribes will close the eastern border of Glacier National Park "for the protection of the residents of the Blackfeet Reservation" for the remainder of the 2020 tourism season. The closure includes the following roads: Two Medicine, Chief Mountain, St. Mary's, Cut Bank and Many Glacier.

“The Secretary of the Interior directed park superintendents to work with counties, states and tribes on reopening the parks,” Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow said on Thursday. “The Blackfeet are still very, very concerned about the threat COVID-19 poses to their residents on the reservation.”

That means the only major entrance to Glacier Park is through West Glacier. And due to staffing shortages, Mow is only able to open the Fish Creek campground at the southwestern tip of Lake McDonald to front-country campers on Friday. The backcountry camping permit office also opens Friday at 8 p.m. for those who want to haul their sleeping bags on foot to established sites on the west side of the Continental Divide. The park’s central mountains remain so snowpacked, no trail crews have made it through the passes to east-side campgrounds yet.

That’s also true of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, Glacier’s most popular tourist feature. It’s currently open to motorized traffic as far as Avalanche, but the campground there is not open for overnight use. Foot and bicycle travel is allowed up to the Loop, and beyond to Logan Pass when road crews are not actively plowing. However, travel above the Loop is discouraged due to early-season avalanche and rockfall danger.

“We’re prepared for the possibility that Going-to-the-Sun may be open as a one-way-in/one-way-out experience,” Mow said. The winding, two-lane mountain road has limited parking and restroom facilities in the best of times. If it becomes the park’s main — and only — major attraction, Glacier may have to develop a timed-entry system to spread visitor use out to manageable levels.

The Inside North Fork Road is open to motorized traffic from Lake McDonald to Camas Creek, but foot and bike travel only are allowed from Camas Creek to Logging Creek Ranger Station. Motorists can reach the northern sector of the park via the main North Fork Road to Polebridge. But the Kintla Lake and Bowman Lake campgrounds are available for day-use only.

Private commercial facilities inside the park have also been curtailed. Social distancing requirements have prevented operation of Glacier’s iconic red “Jammer” buses as well as the Glacier Park Boat Co.’s tour boats. It has also forced the suspension of the Going-to-the-Sun shuttle bus service. While some restaurants and businesses on the west side have opened, including the Lake McDonald Lodge and Village Inn, most other hotels won’t open before July 1. East-side lodgings such as the Rising Sun Motor Inn may open after the Going-to-the-Sun Road is completely opened, but won’t be accessible from the St. Mary-side entrance.

The St. Mary Campground will also open after Logan Pass is cleared, but it and Fish Creek will be the only two out of Glacier’s 12 campgrounds to operate this summer, Mow said. St. Mary likely won’t be available before July 9.

Canada’s closure of its border with the United States to all but essential travel means tourists can’t cross over to Waterton Lakes International Peace Park either.

These plans presume that the pandemic remains relatively stable — something not likely to occur.

“It’s like slowly turning on a tap, and keep in mind the tap may have to dial some things back,” Mow said. “It was on the news yesterday that Yosemite National Park is having to step back from overnight campground reservations, because of the trajectory California is on with COVID-19. That’s where flexibility comes in. This is just a tough time for everybody.”

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