Quick Guide to Visiting National Parks with Pets and Companion Animals

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At a glance, a National Park seems like an ideal place to bring companion animals and adventure pets. Fresh air, wide open spaces, and endless trails may seem like a dream getaway with our furry best friends by our side. 

But National Parks are not as accommodating to companion animals as one might assume them to be. Click here to see the NSP pet policy. Most National Parks prohibit pets from walking on trails, and some even prohibit them from setting foot outside of the car at all.

Even in the case that a National Park allows companion animals, hazards must be taken into consideration. Dangerous wildlife, extreme temperatures, lack of water access, and crowds of people can be a no-go for many dogs or adventure cats. If you live on the road, you might fall under the unique circumstance of not having the choice of bringing the dog along for the ride. Here’s what you need to take into consideration to prioritize your pet’s welfare, wildlife safety, and the preservation of our incredible National Parks. 

Iggy, our trained adventure cat, surveys the Grand Canyon. You have to wonder: does he experience the same sense of awe that we do?

National Parks and pet policies

Not all National Parks have the same rules. While some are incredibly stringent in their pet policies, others are fairly lenient.

Some of the most generally pet-friendly parks include Grand Canyon, Cuyahoga Valley, Acadia, Great Sand Dunes, Congaree, Hot Springs, Indiana Dunes, and more. These parks specifically have policies that allow companion animals on some (if not all) trails. 

My girlfriend and I especially enjoyed visiting the Grand Canyon with Iggy, because he was welcome to stroll the entirety of the canyon’s rim. Of course, his little legs didn’t have the endurance to do so! 

Arches National Park was one of the most stringent parks we visited with Iggy. He was only allowed to walk inside parking lots as well as in our campsite at Devil’s Garden. 

As well as restricting the trails people can hike with their animal companions and the types of surfaces animals are welcome to walk on, National Parks can restrict leaving pets inside of vehicles, as well. Many Parks are subject to extreme weather, and caregivers who choose to leave their pets in hot cars can (deservingly) be subject to high fines. This is why traveling with pets requires a bit more planning than a typical park visit. Bringing the family dog along to the Grand Canyon in July could be deadly- you’d want to opt for an early spring or late fall visit instead. 

It’s important to do your research before visiting a park because these policies are always subject to change. It never hurts to double-check!

Iggy hangs out at a pet-friendly picnic area in Capitol Reef National Park. 

Why follow the rules?

It’s easy to feel frustrated with the stringent rules of some parks. Some people may wonder how much damage can a dog or cat really cause when so many human visitors leave their mark on the National Parks every year. After all, some might argue, aren’t our animals a part of nature?

The reality is that dogs and cats, being domesticated animals for most of human history, have no role in any of today’s ecosystems. In fact, their presence alone can alter the behavior of wildlife.

With cats being obligate carnivores and dogs being omnivores, both animals carry the scent of a potential predator. This can cause significant fear and stress in prey animals, and agitation, aggression, or confusion in territorial carnivores. Wild prey animals, such as Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Goats, deer, rodents and more can alter their behavior to avoid the scent paths of dogs and cats. This causes unnecessary stress on animals who already struggle to survive in harsh ecosystems. 

Because of the millions of human visitors who frequent the parks, many wild animals are already habituated to the scent, sound, and presence of people. The same doesn’t apply to our pets. Many dogs have been injured or killed by bears, elk, and moose within U.S. or Canadian National Park boundaries. Dogs can further agitate wild animals by barking and lunging at them. Even the most well-behaved, highly-trained dog can react adversely to the sight of a large wild animal he or she has never encountered before.

It’s true that our companion animals can encounter wildlife outside of National Parks. But these incredible landscapes have been designated as places of sanctuary and protection for animals who face many challenges outside of park boundaries. Let’s keep it that way!

Iggy burns off some energy on pet-friendly BLM land outside of Arches National Park. Shortly after, we headed into National Park boundaries, tired and content kitty in tow. 

Keeping pets satisfied when a park isn’t pet-friendly

Use resources outside of the National Park for exercise

Because Nina and I live full-time on the road, we don’t often have the option to leave Iggy behind. We provide him with a pretty exciting lifestyle, and as a result, he is an incredibly demanding cat. If he hasn’t had some form of toy play, leashed outdoor exercise, training, or enrichment, we will hear about it. And he has quite the set of lungs! 

If you’re visiting a National Park without pet-friendly trails, you have numerous options for keeping your companion animals satisfied with their experience. First, you can opt to camp on BLM land, or at a pet-friendly campsite outside of park boundaries. That way, you can be sure to get a nice, long walk in before heading into the park. We always prefer to camp inside of National Parks, but that isn’t always possible. Iggy always enjoys exploring BLM land and is satisfied with snoozing in the car after a satisfying early-morning walk. 

The magic of mental stimulation

Those with dogs might feel that one walk before entering a park is simply not enough. As an aspiring dog trainer, this is something I’ve told clients on numerous occasions: walking your dog is not the only way to satisfy them! In fact, mental stimulation- even if no physical exercise is involved- is often much more likely to drain your dog’s energy. This is especially true if the type of stimulation you’re providing is different from your pet’s typical routine.

While you’re on your road trip, dedicate fifteen minutes per day to teaching your pet a brand-new trick. Use high-value treats and positive reinforcement. One can find plenty of tutorials on YouTube! You’ll be amazed at the toll this takes on your pet’s energy level. 

Utilizing your pet’s nose in a game such as treat hide-and-seek around the van or “guess which cup the treat is under” can also be highly engaging. You can leave your pet with a food puzzle in the van, and for dogs, investing in a few sturdy chews will be worth it if they’ll be left in the car for longer than usual.

Respecting wildlife

Beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park- home to elk, moose, bears, mountain lions, mountain goats, and many other creatures who don’t take kindly to dogs and cats. 

During my recent visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, I had the joyful experience of seeing a moose for the very first time. And this wasn’t just a moose- it was a mother moose lying in the grass with her massive calf beside her. 

But what National Park experience would be complete without disrespectful tourists? Just minutes into the encounter, a car whizzed into the closest possible parking space to the moose. The calf immediately spooked, leaping behind Mom for safety. Luckily, disgruntled sighs and remarks from fellow visitors quickly told the violators that they were out of line.

A half hour or so later, a frantically barking dog sounded at the sight of the moose. The desensitized mother offered no greater reaction than a lift of her ears, but the interaction could have very well gone worse. Not everyone expects herbivores like elk and moose to be violent, but these animals are known to trample dogs to death frequently.

It is a privilege to visit the special places that are our National Parks, and it’s our duty as visitors to act as guests, not intruders. Even if a designated area is pet-friendly, common sense is a lifesaver. Leaving our pets behind during wildlife viewing encounters creates a safer environment for everyone. 

>>> READ MORE: Best RV Length for National Parks

As a general statement, the love and respect we feel for companion animals should also extend to wildlife. These animals lead difficult lives as is, and don’t exist to serve as pets or photo props. 

Leave no trace applies to pets, too 

Iggy waves hello at a BLM land stop on our way to Mount Rainier National Park. 

Respecting wildlife means cleaning up after our companion animals. Dog waste can take up to two months to degrade, but colder weather can drastically lengthen that process. Cats might bury their waste, but the scent still remains. This can alter the behavior of wildlife. Plus, pet waste often finds its way into waterways during heavy rains, and can change the very chemistry of natural bodies of water. 

Plus, dog and cat poop is unsightly, unsanitary, and in large numbers, can help spread disease to both people and wildlife. 

Using biodegradable waste bags helps reduce the impact of picking up after our companion animals. Leaving bagged pet waste at trailheads is not the solution, either. If you can’t find a trash can, you’ll have to carry it with you until you come across one. Just like with your own trash, pack it in, pack it out! “Leave no waste” applies to our companion animals as well as it applies to us.

Chelsea Pinkham

Chelsea Pinkham is a traveler, writer, and aspiring animal trainer currently road-tripping across North America with her partner, Nina, and their adventure cat, Iggy. Chelsea lives full-time in a solar-powered 1991 Chevy Horizon. She is passionate about educating and inspiring others to pursue a nomadic lifestyle in an affordable, sustainable manner- and to include their companion animals in their travels!

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