What every adventurer needs to know about dogs in national parks
The early May day is a scorcher at Arches National Park outside Moab, Utah. Eighty-six degrees at 5pm.
Hikers straggle off the Devil’s Garden trail, a long, sun-drenched loop crossing slick rock fins and ledges. At the trailhead, a young couple fills a water bowl for two white Labs dozing under the drinking fountain.
This family will not be exploring the seven-mile trail. In fact, they’ll go no farther than the adjacent campground. Canine movement is highly restricted in U.S. National Parks, which begs consideration when planning a road trip with Rover.
For many Northwesterners, hiking and dogs go together like kibbles and bits. Most weekends, outdoorsy folks can head to the Gorge, Mt. Hood, or the Coast for Fido-friendly trekking. This crowd is particularly challenged in visiting national parks.
Ray Peters of Renton, WA loves to RV. In 2010, Peters, his wife and their “girls,” Katey and Mica, put 10,000 miles on their snow-bird home. Chatting while walking the dogs in the Moab KOA, Peters listed where they’ve been this year: Arches, Grand Canyon, Canyonlands. When they hike at national parks, he says, they leave the dogs in the RV with the air conditioner on high. Sometimes he hikes solo and his wife stays back, or vice-verse. They also make sure Katey and Mica get daily trail time on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, in state parks, or on dog-friendly local walks.
Coloradans Reid Tulley and Janee Bennion, the young couple with the white Labs, say they didn’t bring their dogs to Arches for tough hiking, but for hard-earned R&R. “Yesterday we took them mountain biking,” says Bennion. “Today they’re tired.” When asked about the restrictions, she shrugs. “There is actually more to do with dogs outside the national parks.”
Preserving the Parks – and the Pets
Why are the National Park Service (NPS) rules so rough on Rover? The answer begins with the very mission of the national parks: to conserve the scenery and wildlife for future generations. And dogs, while great hiking buddies, are not easy on fragile ecosystems. They may dig, chase small wildlife and, of course, pee everywhere. “Their urine and feces says ‘predator was here,’” says Karen Schlom, Supervisory Park Ranger, Division of Interpretation, at Arches.
That said, Schlom and her colleagues maintain canine safety is paramount to them. “We like dogs,” she says. “Some of us have dogs of our own.”
Water is a big issue in the desert, she continues. Even in spring, hikers are encouraged to carry — and drink — over a gallon of water a day, as the trails at Arches and Canyonlands have little potable water. Conversely, supply is both generous and clean on neighboring BLM lands, Mill Creek and Negro Bill Canyon.
Heat is another great danger. On days when temperatures hit 65, Arches Fee Supervisor Ann Corson says, “We will use our break-in tools [to get into a car] to rescue an animal.” Corson says she has busted several dogs out of cars that were fast becoming ovens. When the owners returned, she chastised them. “I asked, ‘Do you realize what the temperature was in your car?’ Ninety-nine percent of the people [don’t understand] the environment,” she says.
The two Arches staffers even shake their heads at RVers who leave critters inside with the air on. “That generator can shut down and the vehicle heats up pretty quickly,” says Corson. In cases of suspected blatant neglect, they call law enforcement.
Wildlife also presents a threat to domestic animals. “A coyote will prey on a dog,” says Schlom, not to mention bobcats, mountain lions and snakes. “Rattlesnakes prey on mice, and if mice are getting scraps from the campground, that’s where the rattlesnake goes for lunch,” Schlom says. A sheltered dog might not realize that, in a showdown with a rattler, the rattler always wins. “Some vets in town carry anti-venom,” says Schlom.
Finally, Schlom has witnessed family tragedies in which “[the dog] gets out of a motorhome, goes after a rabbit or squirrel, and never comes back. They get lost, dehydrated, eaten by a predator . . . .”
Solutions to a Non-Problem
Most national parks partner with area kennels to provide local resources for dog owners. Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico even boasts on-site boarding with air conditioning and biscuits. “My dog didn’t want to leave, the biscuits were so good,” says Corson of her own recent road trip.
Corson, who often sits in the Arches entrance booth, says pet travel is sparse in Arches; she estimates every 20th car has a pet, with seasonal variations. And Schlom guesses that 75% of Arches’ visitors limit their hiking to short viewpoint strolls. Many tourists drive The Grand Circle, a ring of parks and monuments barely doable in a two-week vacation. “The typical visit is three hours,” she says.
A Dissenting but Reasoned Voice
Sue Duggins, a retiree from Arnold, CA in the Sierra Nevadas, is not your typical sightseer. And she does get frustrated by the policy. “As a single hiker, I enjoy the companionship of my dog,” she says. A spry woman in her 60s, Duggins feels safe trekking with her 10-year-old Aussie mix Casey. On a sunny afternoon in Bryce Canyon however, she resigned herself to a mile along the rim trail, a paved, pet-friendly walk. The previous day she had ambled “about 200 yards” on the Pa’rus trail at Zion National Park, a shared-use paved trail for pets and bikes. “The cyclists were not that polite,” she says, “and I worried that one of them would trip over Casey’s leash.”
At the same time, Duggins raises a hidden concern about dogs in the national parks. “Coyotes and dogs share diseases,” she says, “and there is plague in the park carried by fleas.” Thus, she elected to limit Casey’s exposure and camp in nearby Red Canyon (Dixie National Forest), where the human-canine duo could hike to their hearts’ content.
Unlike NPS, the U.S. Forest Service and BLM have mixed-use missions. In addition to recreation and education, BLM lands (housed under the U.S. Department of the Interior) are used for fire, energy, timber, grazing, mineral surveying, and hazardous materials management. National forests (housed under the U.S. Department of Agriculture) exist for recreation, education, and forest management purposes. The agencies have several hundred million acres between them, and neither lists conservation as its primary purpose.
As Pam Robbins, a public affairs specialist for BLM Oregon/Washington says, “BLM [strives for] balance — preserving the land for the next generation and promoting usage by this one.” Including the canines who hike, bike, swim, and camp with their humans of this generation.
There are 394 units in the national park system, also run by the Department of the Interior. They include seashores, monuments, archeological sites, and even The White House. (“We keep the lawn,” says Corson.) Which raises a conclusive question about dogs in the national parks: the last several American Presidents have had dogs at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Says Corson with a grin, “I guess the pet policy there is that you can have a dog if you’re a resident.”
Planning Your Trip:
(pet rules are usually found under “what you need to know” or “planning your trip” on each specific park’s page).
Meryl Lipman is a freelance writer and public relations consultant who recently took a rambling road trip to hike in the national parks. Along the way, she chatted up NPS staffers and dog owners to gather material for this story. Her 12-years old feline Dagny wanted nothing to do with the trip.