Montana State Parks visitation has climbed for the fifth straight year and is on track to set a record in 2015.
This follows a national trend toward greater outdoor recreation use, said Betsy Kirkeby, public relations specialist for Montana State Parks.
“We’ve broken the record for the last four years,” Kirkeby said. “And it’s steadily going up.”
Kirkeby attributed the increase in part to the variety of recreation options available. Fishing and hunting aren’t the only activities that get people outdoors anymore, she said. Increases in the popularity of mountain biking and paddleboarding help fill the parks with people.
Another reason for the increase was the warmer winter and hot weather in June, followed by cooler weather, providing perfect conditions for people to be outside, Kirkeby said.
Amy Grout, Flathead Lake District Park manager, said the increase in activity has been marked.
“We’ve had weekends where our day-use parking area was so full that people had to park outside and walk in,” she said. “I can’t remember that happening before.”
An 85 percent increase at Finley Point State Park in the past year is the most of any park in western Montana.
Overall, Montana State Parks visitation is up 25 percent in the past decade.
This year through June, visitation was up 21 percent over the same period in 2014. More than 1 million visitors entered the parks during the first half of the year, compared with 850,000 in 2014.
Only two parks in western Montana saw decreases: Beavertail Hill, east of Missoula on the Clark Fork River, was down 3 percent; and Placid Lake, near Seeley Lake, was down 5 percent.
Kirkeby said in-state and out-of-state visitor numbers won’t be available until the end of the year, but in 2014, 81 percent of visitors came from Montana, compared with 19 percent from out of state. She expects a similar number this year.
After four straight years of growth, the increase in visitation is to be expected, Kirkeby said.
“It’s not really surprising to us,” she said. “But the numbers are so high – that’s a little surprising.”
The high numbers aren’t overwhelming park staff though. Seasonal employees start early in the spring and have plenty of time to hire additional help, Kirkeby said.
“They’re hopping,” Kirekeby said. “And they always are. But this is par for the course for the season.”
Loren Flynn, manager of Travelers’ Rest, Fort Owen and Painted Rocks state parks, said he’s noticed the visitation increase in the past few years and said staff can be a bit stretched.
“Everyone’s very busy and everyone’s continually using all their resources,” Flynn said.
Travelers’ Rest sees the most visitors of the three parks he manages, Flynn said, due to its historical connection to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, established infrastructure and proximity to Missoula.
Visitation at Glacier and Yellowstone national parks is also up so far this year, with a nearly 14 percent increase at Yellowstone and about an 11 percent increase at Glacier, according to National Park Service statistics.
In Glacier, the increase comes despite Going-to-the-Sun Road being closed for 2 1/2 weeks because of the Reynolds Creek fire.