GLACIER NATIONAL PARK – Lake McDonald was smooth, and the sunlight soft, on a recent early morning. But Jim Foster took little solace in the scenery.
“It's not a relaxed environment during the summer at all,” he said, driving along the lake’s shoreline. As Glacier’s Chief of Facility Management, Foster oversees a summer staff of about 100, tasked with the mundane but vital maintenance duties that make any trip comfortable.
With Glacier’s annual visitation topping 3 million, they’re in higher demand than ever.
“Back when I first started there were hardly any work orders, it was just a few here and there,” Foster remembered. “Now… it's probably hundreds in the course of a week.”
The park drew 1.66 million visitors in 2003, his first year. Most of the following years saw steady increases until 2016, when visitor numbers shot from 2.3 million to 2.9 million. Theories abound as to why; Foster suspects it was the “Find Your Park” publicity campaign that marked the National Park Service’s centennial. But whatever the cause, he and his staff found themselves struggling to keep up.
“It was like the pressure cooker relief valve popped in '16, when we just got slammed,” he said. “All of a sudden, now you can't keep things clean, you can't keep things fixed, you're using more water.”
To illustrate the challenge, he raised an example few guests dwell on for long: the park’s 50-odd vault toilets. “They have to be pumped,” he explained, driving past one of the outhouses. The Logan Pass restrooms, he said, once required two visits by a pumper truck every day. Now, he said four are barely enough.
“Essentially, our truck driver has to come up, fill the pumper truck, go down, empty, come back up to basically repeat that constantly throughout the day.”
Discussing that difficulty led Foster to others, all of which compound one another. When the sewage pumper truck arrives at Logan Pass, it has to squeeze through a parking lot that’s usually full by mid-morning. “Sometimes people park in the place that we bring our pumper truck in to pump, so we have to clear them out and wait for that to happen, so it adds a lot of time to the clock.”
It’s also expensive. “If that truck goes down, we absolutely have to have a backup, so now all of a sudden I'm out looking for $200,000 trucks to be backups.”
The park’s rising needs are outstripping an annual budget that’s hovered between $13 and $14 million for several years. Fundraising by the Glacier National Park Conservancy has helped, but unmet needs remain. In Foster’s view, “there isn't a division in our park that has enough people on the ground to do what's required of this kind of visitation.”
Other National Parks have also been caught in this trap of soaring popularity and stagnant budgets. A solution hasn’t yet emerged. Last year, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke proposed sharp fee increases at the system’s most popular parks, including Glacier. A public outcry ensued, and the parks eventually adopted more modest hikes.
Another proposal, the National Park Restoration Act, would use some of the revenue from oil and gas production to fund maintenance projects in the Parks. Introduced in March, it’s since lingered in committee.
But funding alone isn’t likely to solve one of Glacier’s biggest challenges: The popularity of its central corridor.
“This road is considered... probably the most dangerous road in the Park Service,” Foster explained as he drove. Park crews spend months plowing it each spring, often working beneath avalanche paths, and risks remain throughout the summer. “You can look, there's rocks in the road right now,” he pointed out.
Traffic was sparse as Foster drove uphill, but a two-lane mountain artery with thousands of drivers can clog easily. On July 5, a crash blocked both lanes at a tight spot called Triple Arches. Drivers sat on the road for three hours while tow trucks made their way to the accident site.
It was “a relatively minor incident,” said park spokesperson Lauren Alley, riding along with Foster, “but given the number of people on the road, it quickly becomes a much more major incident.”
“When we talked about that after the fact, there was definitely a realization that we'll see that more, that kind of spider web of congestion.”
Traffic woes aren’t confined to the road itself. After almost an hour of driving, Foster pulled into the Logan Pass Visitor Center. Perched atop the Continental Divide, it offers access to two of Glacier’s most popular trails — and just 231 parking spots.
Those had long been taken. “We got into the parking lot here around 8:30 and couldn't find a place to park,” said Gary Cassier of nearby Kalispell. His wife had dropped him and another family off while other drivers circled the lot, waiting for a spot.
Glacier is considering approaches like more shuttles and timed entries to ease the glut, but in Cassier’s view, “it’s a tough situation.” Looking out over the alpine meadows and near-vertical slopes, he chuckled that “they obviously can't expand the parking lot, and nobody wants to see a multilevel parking garage here either.”
Not all guests have been so sanguine.
“We get fistfights in the parking lot,” said visitor service assistant Emlon Stanton. “We've even had people that get out of their vehicle, jump into a space and stand there (to claim it,) and then their vehicle is nowhere to be found, and then somebody tries to pull into them and bumps 'em.”
Stanton and his colleagues try to stave off these episodes. “As long as traffic is controlled it takes out most visitor conflicts,” explained lead visitor service assistant Louis Gutenberg in an email. “When it’s not, we do see altercations and significant arguments over spots.”
Glacier works to forewarn visitors, using social media to announce when high-demand lots fill up. But some of its tactics are lower-tech. At 9:45 a.m., Stanton placed traffic cones across the lot’s entrance and told one driver after another that the lot was closed. To use the Visitor Center, they would have to try to find parking at the next pullout, three miles away, and take a shuttle back. Gutenberg said these closures can happen three to five times each day.
“From a staff perspective, it’s hard,” said Alley, standing nearby. “‘Service’ is in our name, and to tell people, over and over, all day long, ‘We’re full, you’ll have to wait’... it’s a real challenge.”
But even as Glacier’s struggles with visitation were on full display, so were the reasons for its appeal: above the cones and traffic towered its fin-shaped peaks, threaded with waterfalls and spaced out by turquoise rivers.
“It's spectacular,” said Matthew Kreuter on his way back from the Highline Trail. A St. Louis resident, Kreuter has been summering in Montana and hiking in Glacier for 20 years. “It’s crazy how busy it’s become” in that time, he said, echoing the park’s employees.
As the park’s staff and planners seek ways to better manage Glacier’s crowds, Kreuter said the task of finding true tranquility falls to visitors.
“You can still find solitude in the park, but you gotta get eight to 10 miles in, I think, and most people who come into the park either aren't willing or able to do that,” he said.
"If you've got the time and the ability to get further in... you can still get, I think, kind of a classic Glacier mountain experience.”