So you want to visit Glacier National Park: Are you sure about that?

Admittedly, we didn’t put a ton of planning into our visit to Glacier with everything else going on, but it turns out Glacier has become quite the zoo over the past few years.  Because there was such a dramatic surge in visitors in 2020, Glacier National Park (GNP) decided to create a ticketing system for entry onto the Going to the Sun Road (GTSR) between the West Glacier entrance and St. Mary’s entrance on the east side of the park.  The surge in popularity and the new ticketing system has created some interesting results.

First off, we did get a ticket, but didn’t realize that it wasn’t just to drive on the road, but that you cannot even enter the park at these two entrances without it.  So, you think, “OK, no problem, I will reserve a place to stay and get tickets well in advance.”  Not so fast.  They release tickets only one or two months in advance, depending on seasonality.  Thus, you need to know exactly when you will be there and get tickets exactly one or two months prior to those dates if you want to enter the park at those entrances.  Granted, they also have a limited number (approximately 400) released within 48 hours of the ticketing date available for purchase, but you have to get online at 8am sharp, and the demand is so high that they sell out in a matter of 1-2 minutes as if you’re trying to get tickets to the concert of a lifetime.  However, the good news is the tickets are good for 7 days from the date on the ticket, so you have a week to enjoy the park at these two entrances.

When we first attempted to enter the park, they turned us right around, so we decided to check on our upcoming reservation at the West Glacier RV Park just outside the park and ask a few questions.  They shared with us that the goal was to limit vehicle traffic in the park during the day, but that you have a few other options:

  • You can park outside of the West Glacier or St. Mary’s entrances and walk or bike into GNP.
  • You can enter the park before 6am without a ticket.
  • You can enter the park after 5pm without a ticket.
  • You can enter the park at any other entrance that does not take you on the Going to the Sun Road, as long as they aren’t closed due to fire.  Thus, you can visit North Fork, Walton, Two Medicine, Many Glacier, Belly River and Goat Haunt sections of GNP without a ticket.
  • You will automatically get passes into the park if you reserve one of their campsites, including backpacking campsites for the dates you have reserved.
  • You can reserve a shuttle (such as the red jammer in my pictures), but they also can only be reserved 48 hours in advance and spots fill up fast

While we have been here, they closed North Fork due to fire and part of Goat Haunt due to the Canadian border crossing restrictions.  And, there has been a rush hour of sorts from 5-6am and 5-6pm resulting from the way they set up the ticketing hours.  

Well, you are super organized and get that ticket, so you think, “No problem.  I’m all set.”  Nope.  Many people have shared experiences where even if they get into GNP early, open parking spots along the Going to the Sun Road (GTSR) are still few and far between.  I read one account on Reddit of a family that drove the entire length of the road from one end to the other, found no parking along the way or at either end of the park, spent 8 hours in the car and then finally gave up.  Our current neighbor drove at least 2 hours before finding a trailhead to park at so she could do a hike.  Sadly, unless you get up early bird, you may have limited options.

Part of this is caused by people entering the park before 6am and filling up parking spots to do the most popular hikes, thereby clogging the parking lots all day.  Second, backpackers are also given passes into the park for the dates they are backpacking, so they will be parked at the trailheads for multiple days.  Logan Pass and Many Glacier are two of the most popular places to hike, so their lots fill up between 6-7am.  

Speaking of backpacking, about half of the camp sites are reserved in advance.  Due to high demand, if you want to snag wilderness camping permits after you have already arrived at GNP, you need to line up around 5-6am at one of the permitting offices and wait until 8am when they open to try and get permits.  So, bring a good book and maybe a camp chair and get comfortable.  The permitting process takes between 1-3 hours, so be prepared to have a first, second, and third choice for your backpacking trip.  However, the person I spoke with at the office did say everyone who lined up got back country permits.  But even if you get the passes, if your hike starts at a popular trailhead, you will need to get up early bird again if you are going to find parking nearby.  😵

This all sounds a bit nutty, right?  Well, it hasn’t been all bad, but certainly not what we expected.  We did bike into the park, and nearly had the bike paths to ourselves, which was quite pleasant, though the paths are only to the West Glacier visitor center and a few other places on the west side of Lake MacDonald.  NOTE: Although you can technically bike the GTSR, do NOT attempt this from 11-4pm, due to high vehicle traffic.  There are sections of the GTSR that are closed to cyclists during those times.  I am an avid cyclist, but I would not want to bike a super steep, windy road with a bunch of tourists either looking at the sites or looking for parking and not looking at the road and put my life in their hands.  

We got the information we needed at the visitor center and back country permitting offices, and then biked over to the Fish Creek camp site along Lake McDonald.  The next day, we drove to Two Medicine, about a two hour drive from Columbia Falls, and had no problem getting a parking spot to hike the Scenic Point trail.  However, this part of the park is quite exposed, so bring your sunscreen!  At the top of the hike, we met another couple that lives part time in Florida and part time in Whitefish, and they gave us a bunch of hiking recommendations, most of which were in Many Glacier.  

Because we were made aware of the competitive nature of finding a parking spot at Many Glacier, we booked a campsite on the east end outside of GNP and got up early to do a hike there, arriving at the trailhead parking lot at 5:45am and saw several cars there already.  Finally, our current RV park neighbor has passes into the park, and was so kind to invite us hiking with her on multiple occasions.  

I will share more details on our hiking experiences soon.  Stay tuned and good luck with your GNP planning if you are so inclined to visit.  😊

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