GLACIER NATIONAL PARK — At 9 a.m., there was plenty of parking at Logan Pass.
With just 231 parking places, Glacier’s highest-altitude visitor center fills up early; the park usually announces its closure by 9:30. But as the business day began Tuesday, about a third to half of the lot remained empty.
Any visitor could see why: Smoke from the Howe Ridge fire, burning on an estimated 2,500 acres near Lake McDonald, had obscured all but the closest peaks, and a roadblock kept drivers from continuing westward.
“We’re bummed we’re not going to see Going to the Sun Road,” said Pete Paznokas of Seattle, who had arrived on Sunday with his wife Brianna and son Owen on their first visit to Glacier.
“We originally had four nights… planned at Lake McDonald,” he said. With much of that area evacuated, they instead spent the previous two nights in Babb, planned to spend the next two in Whitefish, and were hiking in areas away from the fire.
In and around Glacier, businesses are feeling the effect of adjustments like these. While the Howe Ridge fire is burning a tiny sliver of Glacier’s million acres, it’s prompted the closure of Going to the Sun Road’s vertiginous western stretch, and the lodgings and hiking trails alongside it. As the Howe Ridge fire burns on, it’s showing how closely the plans of visitors and the fortunes of the firms that serve them are tied to this part of the park.
The effects aren’t all bad, explained Darwon Stoneman, owner and manager of Glacier Raft Company just outside the park. “Our numbers grew quite a bit today” — by about 10 percent over what was expected, he estimated. With the road closed, he said, “the people that are here are looking for some form of recreation, looking for something to occupy their time.”
But as today’s visitors hop aboard Glacier Raft Co.’s boats, tomorrow’s are starting to shy away from the entire area. “We are starting to see more cancellations and people who are concerned,” Stoneman said.
“We’re starting to see people back out of coming to Glacier because Going to the Sun Road is closed, so they’re fearful that they won’t have a good experience here, and it’s hard to blame them for that.”
In Apgar Village, the staff of Glacier Outfitters often see a similar sequence of responses. Just after the closures, explained co-owner Dave Hampton, visitors dropped in to the yurt-housed rental shop asking, “What do we do now?”
The store, like other businesses in and near the park, can equip visitors seeking alternatives. “Paddling the lake is still a beautiful option,” said Glacier Outfitters’ co-owner, Shelby Handlin, who is married to Hampton. Staff also recommend biking and fishing.
But by Tuesday, traffic had waned. Apgar Village was far from deserted, with most of the parking spaces taken. But the lines out the front gate were far shorter, and the stream of foot and vehicle traffic to Lake McDonald far thinner, than they had been on Monday.
“Now,” said Hampton, “the effect [of the fires] is, ‘We’re going to cancel our trip.’”
He remembered that it took about a week for that effect to set in during last year’s fires, but it’s seemed to hit faster this time. Checking the numbers, Handlin said the store’s total business was 61 percent lower than an average August day.
Just down the road, smoke hid the fire and Lake McDonald’s far end from view, and the can’t–miss roadway remained closed. But some visitors still found something to enjoy.
One of them was Fritz Howard of Spokane, preparing inner tubes by the lakeside. He said he had planned this trip to Glacier, where he was joined by his daughter and their family, over eight months ago. “We were just going to tour, take the highway to the Sun, and see the sights,” he said.
But with that roadway closed, “We're just going to play in the water, enjoy the Apgar Village, probably going out to dinner tonight.”
He’d been surprised by the number of RV parking spots available at the nearby KOA campground, and recognized that “it's kind of hard on the people who make their living that way.”
But as a visitor, “I'm not disappointed at all, it's just we change and we adapt and we enjoy what we have.”