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How to Still Enjoy National Parks when Traveling with a Dog

It has happened to most U.S. families with a dog at some point. You are on a road-trip and want to stop at a national park. You quickly review the pet regulations at the park you want to visit and find that your dog is not allowed on most trails and can’t be left unattended.

So how do you enjoy a visit to a national park when your dog is traveling with you?

After visiting over 40 national parks with my two pups, here are my tips for making the most of a national park visit with dogs.

Read the Rules Ahead of Time

Before visiting a national park, I find it is helpful to either print or download the national park’s pet policy page. Almost all of the national parks have a page dedicated to making sure you know where your pet can and cannot go within the national park boundaries.

On a computer, the pets policy is easy to find underneath Plan Your Visit > Basic Information >Pets.

On a phone, you have to look for the 3 little horizontal lines that indicated an expandable menu. They will be located in the upper right hand corner of the webpage. Click on that menu, then the pet policy information will again be under Plan Your Visit > Basic Information >Pets.

Many of the pet policy pages indicate areas that you may not know about unless you research ahead of time.

For example, at Yosemite, the pet policy page indicates that there are a few very obscure and unsigned places where pets are allowed. These are described on webpage, but could potentially be missed if you had not researched ahead of time.

Other national parks, like Redwoods, describe dirt roads that can double as good dog-friendly hiking trails. We found some great dog-friendly alternate trails from reading the pet policy pages ahead of time.

Ask the Visitor Center Staff

When you get to each park, stop by a visitor center and ask about where dogs are allowed within the park. Not all visitor center staff will be knowledgeable about this. And we found some staff members that said things that contradicted the online pet policy page.

However, we also were told of some lovely dog-friendly options within the parks that we were unaware of from reading the website alone.

An example of a nice walk we found this way, is this dirt road we walked along in Kings Canyon National Park. It is not listed as a dog walking option on the website, but the Visitor Center staff let us know that it was a good place to allow our pups to stretch their legs.

At the visitor centers, we also were able to ask about policies on leaving pets unattended. This was important if we wanted to leave the dogs in the RV while we took a short walk to an overlook for example. Some parks state that dogs can not be left unattended at all, but if you aks on an appropriate weather day (not too hot), many parks are okay with dogs waiting for their owners in an RV for a short period of time.

Walk Your Dog Ahead of Time

Most of the national parks will have limited opportunities for your dog to leave the parking lots and roadsides. So if you know that there are not dog-friendly hiking options inside the park, I highly recommend that you walk your dog before entering the park. If your dogs are appropriately exercised before you visit, they will be more content to hang in the car while you drive around.

At least for us, have relaxed dogs in the RV made us feel less guilty when we stepped outside without them to check out short sightseeing trails that the dogs were not allowed on.

Consider Alternatives Outside the Park

And since we are discussing walking/hiking with your dog before entering the national park, this is a great time to remind you about all the wonderful dog-friendly alternatives to national parks.

Many national parks are near national forests, bureau of land management (BLM) areas, or state parks. And often all three of these public lands are dog-friendly. Some state parks may require an admission fee, but most national forests and BLM areas typically have no fees for hiking trails or, if they do, they accept the same America the Beautiful Pass as the national parks do.

We love to take advantage of the fantastic national forest trails. For example, at Sequoia National Park, we had to leave the dogs in the RV to see the largest tree in the world – General Sherman. But afterward, we drove a couple of miles outside of the national park to take a hike in the adjacent national forest. It was wonderful to have miles of dog-friendly hiking trails just outside the national park entrance.

Take Turns Watching the Dogs

I have mentioned leaving the dogs in the RV a couple of times, but if the weather is too hot or cold or the park you are visiting doesn’t allow dogs to be left unattended in vehicles, consider traveling with other people so you can take turns watching the dogs and sightseeing.

It is important to follow each parks regulations about leaving dogs unattended. These rules are in place to keep dogs safe and some national parks are very strict about this regulation.

For example, at Wind Cave National Park, I went into the visitor center to get maps and double-check dog policies and left the dogs in the RV with my travel partner. She was sitting in the back of the RV and park staff saw the dogs before they saw her with them.

She heard them discussing the unattended dogs, so she let them know she was there. But it just goes to show that I was only away from the RV for a total of 10-15 minutes and the dogs were noticed. So make sure to follow the rules and not leave your dogs unattended if the park doesn’t allow you to.

Don’t Forget the Dirt Roads

As mentioned above, dirt roads can often double as hiking trails at many national parks. They are often less trafficked and have a more remote feel than the paved roads. Several national parks, including Redwoods (mentioned above), Death Valley, and Joshua Tree, have specific dirt roads mentioned on their website that they recommend as dog-friendly hiking trails.

We didn’t take advantage of as many of these as we could of, as we were a little limited in the types of roads we could drive to. RVs are not as rough road friendly as an AWD SUV. But if you have a good vehicle to get you to these roads, don’t forget about them as a dog-friendly option when available.

Campgrounds Can Double as Paved Hiking Trails

Another good place for your dogs to walk and stretch their legs are the campgrounds. Many of the national park campgrounds are quite large and offer a mile or more of paved or gravel walking if you walk up and down the campground loops.

Maybe the best sights aren’t in the campgrounds, but walking your dog around the campground can give them a chance to stretch their legs in a low traffic area.

Glia posing on a downed tree along our campground road in Kings Canyon National Park.

We spent many mornings and evenings exercising the dogs this way so that they were content to drive around the park and sight-see from the roads and overlooks.

Be Okay with Knowing that You Won’t be Able to See Everything

When it comes down to it, expectations are everything. If you are traveling with dogs, you need to understand that you won’t be able to see and experience everything that you could if you traveled without your dog.

For me, the trade-off is worth it. But there are some national parks that I hope to return to without the pups in the future. There are some amazing trails that I want to hike that Glia and Sasha are not allowed on.

It is hard to pass by some amazing experiences just because dogs aren’t allowed, but when we planned our 3-month road trip, we knew that the dogs would limit our national park experiences.

I sometimes call our road trip my sample-platter of the national parks. We were able to drive into and see highlights of all the parks, but there were many parks that we weren’t able to explore deeply. Since we knew ahead of time that the dogs would limit our explorations, we made the most of what the dogs could experience with us and still had an amazing national park road-trip experience.

Pick Dog-Friendly National Parks to Visit

While overall, most of the United States national parks are not very dog-friendly, there are definitely some exceptions to this rule. If you want to explore a national park more fully with your pup, than consider planning a visit to one of the dog-friendly national parks and skipping the ones that don’t allow your dog on hiking trails.

The following national parks are among some of the most dog-friendly in the United States. We haven’t visited all of them, but links will take you to our blog post about the ones we have been to.

Or check out our overview post of dog-friendly parks west of the Mississippi River below:

Additionally, we are currently working on creating a blog post that ranks all 62 United States national parks for dog-friendliness. And we could use your help in deciding the order in which to rank them in.

If you are interested in providing feedback, head over to our survey on SurveyMonkey. Or you can fill out the survey below, right here on this blog post.

Create your own user feedback survey

Do you have any tips to add?

Even if you don’t want to fill out a survey, we would love to get your feedback on how you feel about visiting national parks with dogs. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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