It’s time to dust off those bikes and hiking shoes as Glacier National Park’s spring hiker-biker shuttle begins this weekend, kicking off the start of the upcoming summer season.
The free shuttle, complete with bike trailers, will run on weekends from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., as well as on Memorial Day May 28, to bring visitors from the Apgar Visitor Center to Lake McDonald Lodge and, once the snow-covered road is clear, to Avalanche Creek. It will operate on weekends until Going-to-the-Sun Road officially opens.
“The shuttle is a great early season recreational opportunity,” said Lauren Alley, management assistant at the Park.
Near-record snowfall and a cool spring are creating challenging conditions for crews plowing roads, parking areas, and campgrounds. As of Thursday, west-side plow crews had made it beyond The Loop and are working through slides near Haystack Creek, while east-side crews have recently passed Rising Sun.
“They typically meet at the Big Drift just east of Logan Pass,” Alley said. “That’s an area that can be extremely deep, given the high winds. With the wind loading, you can get 30- to 40-foot drifts that are really technical to clear.”
At this point, only the Apgar Campground is open, with about 195 sites. Historically, it hasn’t started to fill until late June, although it has been known to be at capacity during Memorial Day weekend.
“Given the significant growth in visitation between 2015 and 2017 — we saw an additional million people in the park last year — we recommend people be aware of what other sites are available,” Alley said, noting that attendance last year topped 3.3 million visitors. “People need to have backup plans.”
Carol Edgar, who coordinates membership services for the Flathead Convention and Visitor Center, said the area is ready for the annual influx of tourists heading to Glacier. She noted that 2016 was the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, which ramped up publicity, and doesn’t think the crowds will be quite as large this year.
However, she added that this is the 50th anniversary of both the creation of the Wild and Scenic River and National Trails acts, which could boost attendance.
“Part of the Flathead River is designated ‘Wild and Scenic,’” Edgar said. “People are advertising those events nationally, so there’s probably going to be a lot more interest in those two things.”
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Sprague Creek and Bowman Lake campgrounds on the west side of Glacier, and Two Medicine and St. Mary campgrounds on the east side of the Park typically open in mid-May, but Alley said they expect that some campgrounds or campsites, including some reserved campsites, will not be available by their projected opening dates. In those cases, anyone with reservations will be contacted about alternative spaces.
“People can click on individual campgrounds to find more information,” Alley said. “We’ll have to see how the spring melt goes; right now it’s very snowy, so some may not open by their projected dates.”
Alley adds that early season hikers should consult the park’s trail status page to see trail clearing activity and projected trail clearing start dates.
And if it’s springtime, that means it’s construction season. In May, crews will resume work on paving and the road bed between the West Entrance Station and the area east of the four-way intersection in Apgar known as the “Apgar Curve.” A pilot car will be used on that stretch, beginning on Monday, and up to 30-minute delays can be expected.
No vehicle or pedestrian access is allowed during the week while crews finish installing a culvert and replacing the road bed on a section of North McDonald Road between Going-to-the-Sun Road and the bridge over McDonald Creek. While open on the weekends, pedestrians need to avoid holes and other hazards marked with cones as they navigate through the construction area.
The closure is expected to last only a few short weeks, but will impact the Trout Lake, McDonald Lakeshore, and McDonald Creek trailheads. These routes instead can be accessed from the Rocky Point Trailhead.
The park plans to use its Twitter page to communicate live congestion updates throughout the season.
Visitors also are reminded that park workers will be continuing the cleanup work from the 2017 Sprague fire, which destroyed the Sperry Chalet dormitory. Crews will be doing additional stabilization work this summer, before reconstruction of the dorm in 2019. Campgrounds in that area are expected to open later in the season, but the trail may be closed at times when pack trains bring in construction materials.
Before that happens, however, the trails need to be cleared of downed and hazardous trees from the fire.