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Glacier National Park: flaw in reservation system?

Posted at 5:55 PM, Aug 29, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-30 14:09:50-04

Is there a flaw or loophole in Glacier National Park's reservation system? Watch the video above for Ryan Gamboa's report.

On a recent camping trip to Two Medicine Lake Campground, a conversation sparked with local campers from East Glacier and Kalispell.

Aaron Anderson is the father of two fifth-generation Montanan daughters. He fears that with the route Glacier National Park is headed, his daughters will have limited access in the future.

“The problem that I see is that many of the campers don't occupy any, and so it leaves a significant number of the campsites available for other people who show up and are just potentially looking for a first come first serve basis,” he said.

That’s what I noticed on my camping trip as well. Several empty campsites with reservation tags on the paper clip, but no campers. Next to my camp alone, three vacant sites led me to track down a potential Anderson.

Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park requires a Park Pass and Vehicle Reservation to enter the park. The window to purchase Vehicle Reservations can be narrow during the peak season and passes are available on the day of purchase. The loophole in the reservation system is wise but detrimental to other park-goers in the area.

The National Park Service regulations for entry into Glacier Park do not require a vehicle reservation if another reservation is booked inside the park such as camping, rafting, or horseback riding.

According to local campers, visitors potentially from Montana or beyond who have missed the purchase window for a vehicle reservation are purchasing vacant campsites and not occupying the lot. I saw what these campers were saying at the number of campsites that were vacant in my area, but no conclusion could be drawn without asking the Park administration for their perspective.

The National Park Service declined an interview with MTN News but released this statement: "We have heard some folks discuss that this is happening in theory, but currently we do not have any data that would support or refute this claim. “

Without the park keeping track of this data, it can easily slide under the rug. What other disgruntled campers told MTN News, is that they believe campsite hosts enjoy the low campground numbers to mitigate the need for extra cleanup, etc.

Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park

Still, reservations to get into Glacier National Park can be a tedious and stressful process.

“For instance, at Two Medicine - if you want to get an extra spot, you have to leave the park, which has no cell reception, no WiFi, go to a location that has WiFi and then hope that you might get an extra night just so you can come back in. There's really no thought or process by which we can accomplish that,” explained Anderson.

Two Medicine Campground is in its first year of reservation-only camping and it appears that in the past two years, all extracurricular activities inside Glacier Park have moved to that system.

The National Park Service issued this statement to long-term campers:

There is also the question of whether campsites were in fact "no shows". We can't say with any certainty whether someone is simply away, delayed in arrival, or departed early when these observations are made. As I talked with park staff after receiving your call, one employee saw that while working the west entrance vehicle reservation filter station, they spoke with visitors who had extended campground reservations but arrived several days into their camping trip.
In this instance, there is a high likelihood that their site was not canceled after 24 hours of no-show (as was typical when campgrounds were actively managed by in-person staff) so the site would be sitting empty while reserved by someone who intends to camp but has not arrived.
For example, a visitor will come through with a 2-week Fish Creek reservation, and staff may mention ‘Oh you’ve been camping in Fish Creek, looks like you have a nice long stay planned’ and then they say ‘Oh, it’s actually our first-day camping’ when the reservation shows they should have been there 5 days ago.

The park does not keep track of who shows up and who doesn’t, therefore the reason they have no record of this happening.

The outcry comes from Montanans who live near the park and want to do a weekend trip but have more hoops to jump through. On the phone, a Glacier Park spokesperson told MTN News that the term “local” is relative and questioned how many of the “locals” have lived in Montana for more than a brief period.

The spokesperson explained to MTN News that as a federal entity, the National Park Service can not favor any group, even if they live right next door.

“The park currently does not collect data on whether campsites are utilized after a reservation is used to enter the park. In the past, prior to the use of, park staff were actively managing campgrounds and would cancel reservations for "no-shows" and refill them with other campers. However, this involved dedicated campground staff who had a strong pulse on who was coming in and out of campgrounds. While not the entire reason for going to, the reservation system helps the park with staff shortages by not requiring someone to physically manage the reservations on site,” issued the NPS in an email.

“We’ve been here for many years and have had relatively easy access to Glacier Park. The problem that I see is that it has completely limited access for locals, whether it be the reservation system for coming over the road.” Anderson said, adding, “Whether it's the new reservation systems for Many Glacier, or for Two Medicine, or for even the North Fork. It really is limiting the availability of our public lands for the very people who live here.”

The National Park Service is soliciting feedback to enhance the reservation services; click here for details.

Click here to learn more about the park's Visitor Use Management Strategy.