Monday, July 1, 2013

Is Glacier's Shuttle System in Jeopardy?

Within the last two weeks Glacier National Park has published two press releases concerning the shuttle system along the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The second of those two releases has a few people on some of the social media outlets a little upset. Some have expressed dismay with the fact that the park will no longer be offering the 7am express from Apgar to Logan Pass. Others complained about the 40-60 minute interval times between shuttles on the east side.

However, a press release published two weeks ago should be cause for even more consternation among fans of Glacier's shuttle system. The June 17th release announced the proposed Going-to-the-Sun Road Corridor Management Plan, which could change the way visitors recreate along the Going-to-the-Sun Road. In particular, the announcement states:
Popular trails along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, such as Avalanche Lake Trail, have seen an increase in use by as much as 250% in the last 25 years. These increases are resulting in significant congestion and resource impacts on vegetation and wildlife. Additionally, a recent financial analysis indicates the park's shuttle system, implemented in 2007 to reduce construction delays during road rehabilitation, is not financially sustainable considering the future need to replace buses.
Reading between, or within the lines, it's fairly clear the park is seeking to end the shuttle service, or at least curtail its scope. I, for one, hope they keep the service. Moreover, I think they should increase the number of buses on the east side in order to decrease the interval times between each bus.

Last week the park held a series of public open houses. Conversations with visitors will also be hosted throughout the park between July 19th and August 9th. The public also has the opportunity to provide written comments on the plan through September 6th.

Obviously there are two main issues the park seeks to address: overcrowding and costs. I think the cost issue is fairly easy to solve. The park should begin charging a fee to use the shuttle. I think most hikers wishing to hike from point-to-point along the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor would be more than happy to pay a fee for the convenience and ability to do one-way hikes. Also, I think many visitors, for a variety of reasons, would be willing to pay a reasonable fee to ride the shuttle and see the sights along the road as well. The National Park Service needs to do a cost analysis to see what a proper fee would be, and implement it next year, or once the rehabilitation project is complete.

The second issue, concerning crowds along the corridor and on the trails, is probably a much broader problem. However, I think there are things Glacier could do to disperse visitors along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, as well as throughout the park.

Between Apgar and St. Mary there are ten major stops on the road. Looking at the map, it appears there's one area along the road that's underutilized. This is known as Packers Roost - located just below the The Loop. As is, there's not a lot of reasons to visit Packers Roost, unless you're backpacking or horseback riding on the Flattop Mountain Trail. However, what if the park created a new attraction at this location, with the purpose of helping to ease traffic on the other trails along the Going-to-the-Sun Road? What if they built a new trail that led hikers to the top of Heavens Peak?

Another thought I had was for the park to begin doing a better job of highlighting some of the other areas of the park. This could be done through the use of photos and videos, which could be published on their social media outlets. Ranger-led hikes could also be used to help promote different sections of the park. For instance, why not use some of these tactics to help promote hiking at Bowman Lake, Belly River, Cut Bank, along Camas Road, and off Highway 2 which runs along the southern border of the park. I would venture to say that most visitors know almost nothing about these places, but if promoted, would give them a reason to spend some time in these less-visited areas, while helping to alleviate traffic from the most popular areas of the park.

Finally, I think the park should use some of the tactics mentioned above to promote hiking along the Going-to-the-Sun Road where there's already plenty of parking. This would include less-known hikes such as the Beaver Pond Loop at St. Mary, Otokomi Lake at Rising Sun, or Trout Lake and Arrow Lake from Lake McDonald. In fact, it might be possible to build a trail that leads to Heavens Peak, or even Mt. Vaught, using the West Lakes Trail.

If you would like to express your opinions on this issue, please visit the Park Planning website.

Hiking Glacier National Park


  1. We visited the park last year just after shuttle service stopped. That made some of the hikes impossible for us to do, which we were aware of. Absolutely agree that hikers would be willing to pay for the service (it's astonishing that it's free), and abandonng it would surely increase the congestion at pinch points rather than alleviate it.

  2. National parks with a single road to access the interior of the park have done very well at relieving congestion with the shuttle system.

    Zion in particular comes to mind. Prior to implementation of shuttles, the Zion Canyon Road was a traffic nightmare and there were more cars than there were parking places. Shuttles are still free in Zion, but I suspect the cost is rolled into the park entrance fee.

    My only time visiting Glacier was 25 years ago before the shuttles were started. Even then, our drive over the Going to the Sun Road was nearly bumper to bumper.

    In high traffic parks, and on single access roads, shuttles are a near necessity. Fees are definitely an option, as well as aid from various Friends groups.

    The National Park Service is suffering financially because it is being spread so thin. Congress keeps mandating more and more national park units that honor some long forgotten hero in a popular congressman's district, yet continues to limit funding for major park units that were established nearly a century ago.

    The parks' infrastructure is crumbling, as are our bridges and roads. Use fees will help sustain the broken infrastructure until a more logical and far-reaching solution is approached.

    While I certainly enjoy it, I'm amazed that GSMNP still has free entrance. They could raise tens of millions annually with even a $5-10 entrance fee.

  3. Jeff - great comments!

    With regards to GSMNP, there isn't an entrance fee because the small landowners who gave up their properties for the park, made sure there would never be a fee. In other words, they had a no-fee stipulation set into law.


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