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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

You can take your dog to a National Park, but you’ll both need to be very, very good

An undated photo provided by Ely MacInnes of herself and her dog Alaska at Grand Canyon National Park. With expanded park programs and new online resources, planning a park-centric trip with a dog — or a dog-centric trip to a park — has gotten easier in recent years.

By Lauren Sloss

Ely MacInnes and her husband, Tom, began traveling in the western United States with their 85-pound mutt, Alaska, in March 2020. Driving and living in a recreational vehicle, they visited White Sands and Petrified Forest National Parks in New Mexico and Arizona before heading to California, Oregon and Washington. They sometimes struggled to figure out where Alaska could and couldn’t roam, but often found that they could have wonderful experiences.

“We could have a great time viewing the park from the car and doing the limited options that allowed dogs,” said MacInnes. “Most people think you can’t bring your dogs to national parks, but many national parks actually make it very welcoming.”

In June 2020, the couple started a Facebook group, U.S. National Parks With Dogs, to exchange advice and information about their travels and provide a forum for others to share their experiences, both positive and negative. The group now has nearly 5,000 members.

“We want to make sure everyone can enjoy the parks, whether or not they have a dog,” said MacInnes, adding that another pup, a blue heeler named Smoky Joe, is now part of her family.

For humans who like to enjoy the outdoors with their canine pals, planning a park visit has gotten easier in recent years thanks to a host of online resources, as well as expanded programs courtesy of the Park Service.

Here’s what you need to know about bringing your pup to the parks.

Yes, dogs are allowed in most national parks

First things first: Dogs are, by and large, allowed in national parks. But there are rules intended to conserve the land, protect the wildlife and keep dogs safe. In all parks, dogs must be on leashes no longer than 6 feet, and picking up and disposing of pet excrement is a must. Then specific destinations may have their own rules. In Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks, dogs are largely restricted to developed car campgrounds and paved roads, while others, including White Sands, have more areas open to dogs, although they must be leashed.

Whatever your destination, do your research

The Park Service website has a section dedicated to pet visitors, including a map that illustrates which parks allow dogs, and then most individual parks have sites with dedicated pet pages, offering the most reliable and current sources of information.

Danielle LaFleur and her husband, Brodin Ramsey, have been traveling with their dog, Chia, since March. They make a point to speak to park rangers on arrival to get the most up-to-date information and suggestions on which areas to visit.

“In Joshua Tree, the rangers directed me to a four-wheel-drive road that no one goes on,” LaFleur said. “We were able to do quite a bit of exploring there.”

Other resources include sites such as AllTrails and apps including BringFido (for dog-friendly hotels and more). And keep in mind that the rules exist for a reason: Breaking them can be detrimental to your dog and to other visitors’ experiences, and may even lead to more restrictions on dogs in the future.

Join the BARK Rangers

Another reason to chat with rangers is to find out if the park you’re visiting is a part of the BARK Rangers program, an initiative that started about 20 years ago with free books, badges and bandannas aimed at promoting good dog and park stewardship.

“The program encourages pets and pet owners to engage in responsible behavior in their national parks,” said Kathy Kupper, a public affairs specialist with the Park Service.

Those principles are the following: Bag your pet’s waste. Always leash your pet. Respect wildlife. Know where you can go. Individual parks may have additional canine-friendly activities, including ranger-guided adventure walks.

Other federal lands are often more dog-friendly

Chris Chao and his wife, Melanie, have traveled with Pyro, their Siberian husky, to 51 national parks. But the couple have consistently found that other public lands, including areas overseen by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, are more open to dogs. While national park sites are specifically chosen for conservation purposes, other federal lands are more multipurpose, often allowing hunting and livestock grazing. As such, many national forests and BLM sites allow dogs to be off-leash with their people, and trails are largely accessible to dogs when compared with those in national parks. Of course, even if your dog is allowed off-leash, they still must be under control; your dog should not chase wildlife, livestock or other hikers.

“Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks,” Chao said, “are very dog-restrictive, but in Sequoia National Forest, all the trails are dog-friendly.”

Adjust your expectations

“It’s a bit like traveling with a child. You’re going to have to plan stops and potty breaks,” said Chao.

In national parks with more restrictions, this may mean skipping attractions and hikes, hiring a pet sitter (Rover is one app for that), boarding your dog for the day, or tag teaming with a partner or travel buddy.

Halef Gunawan and his partner, Michael Demmons, sometimes take turns exploring while the other stays with their German shepherd, Kana. When the family visited Joshua Tree, Demmons went on a solo hike that he was eager to try, while Gunawan walked Kana around the visitors center. However, they try to prioritize destinations where they can do things together.

“We don’t just want to leave her behind in the van; we want to include her,” said Gunawan. “I can’t imagine traveling without her now. It’s been such a wonderful experience for the three of us.”

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