Federal law allows national parks to ban pets, but prohibits restrictions on service animals in public places.
However, the law is subject to exceptions. Under 36 CFR 1.5, a national park superintendent can impose restrictions on service animals if he or she determines that domestic animals pose a risk to wildlife, the environment, or public health.
The result is that while pets are usually welcomed to some extent in national parks, they are not permitted on most trails, and even service animals aren't allowed on trails if the superintendent can establish that such a restriction is necessary.
But even when a service animal is permitted on trails, it may not be a good idea to bring one. The High Country News reported that in 2015, off-leash dogs had to be rescued from Volcanoes, Acadia, Kenai Fjords and Yellowstone national parks.
So if you do bring a service dog onto a national park trail, both the law and common sense dictate that you keep the dog on a leash.
How does federal law define a service animal?
28 CFR 34.104 defines a service animal as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. Animals other than dogs do not qualify as service animals under federal law.
Disabilities covered by 28 CFR 34.104 include physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disabilities. Dogs that are not trained to perform tasks that mitigate the effects of a disability are considered pets. This includes dogs that are used purely to provide comfort or emotional support ("therapy animals").
Additionally, the work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the handler's disability.
Examples of work or tasks that may be related to an individual's disability include (but are not limited to):
- Assisting individuals who are blind or vision-impaired with navigation and other tasks,
- Alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds,
- Providing non-violent protection or rescue work,
- Pulling a wheelchair,
- Assisting an individual during a seizure,
- Alerting individuals to the presence of allergens,
- Retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone,
- Providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to people with mobility disabilities, and
- Helping people with psychiatric or neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors.
If your animal does not meet the definition of service animal set forth in 28 CFR 34.104, the animal legally qualifies as a pet. This includes not only therapy dogs, but service dogs in training.
Falsely portraying a pet as a service animal is considered fraud and can subject you to federal prosecution.
Where are pets permitted in national parks?
In general, pets are welcome in national parks. But they are subject to stricter regulations on where you can and cannot bring them. Each national park issues its own regulations for where pets and service animals are prohibited.
Before bringing a pet or service animal to a national park, it is recommended that you check the specific park's website to learn where and what animals are permitted and what restrictions may apply.
In general, pets are welcome in campgrounds, picnic areas, roads, and other developed areas of national parks. However, they must be restrained or kept on a leash no longer than 6 feet at all times.
Service animals are generally allowed in all facilities and on all trails unless an area has been closed by the superintendent to protect park resources. But other animals are usually not allowed inside buildings or on trails. And no animal -- whether a pet or a service dog -- may be left in a car unattended.
Bringing a pet or service animal onto federal lands where such animals are not permitted can subject to a fine and up to 6 months in federal jail under 36 CFR 1.5.
When are service animals banned on national park trails?
National park superintendents have to balance the needs of wildlife with those of disabled humans and their animals.
Domestic animals can have a negative impact on national parks. Dogs, in particular, can scare or chase wildlife, pollute water sources and become defensive and dangerous in strange surroundings.
Domestic animals can also spread diseases to wildlife, and vice versa. Canids (wolves, coyotes, and foxes), in particular, are vulnerable to domestic diseases such as canine distemper, parvo virus, rabies, and mange. Likewise it is possible for domestic dogs to acquire such diseases from wild animals.
If you do bring an animal onto a trail, it is critical that you clean up your animal's feces and dispose of them properly in order to prevent possible disease transmission.
Wilderness areas can also pose other dangers for domestic animals. Coyotes have been known to lure unsuspecting pets away and kill them. Poisonous snakes can bite them.
Spiny plants and hot, rough ground surfaces can be painful or damaging to a pet's bare foot pads. Some national parks have walkways and dirt pathways that are highly acidic. And in desert areas, heat and aridity can take a toll on both humans and pets.
If you bring an animal to a national park, be sure to carry plenty of drinking water with you. And never leave your pet alone in a closed vehicle, which can quickly become deadly hot.
Can I bring a service animal into national park back country?
In some national parks, such as Yellowstone, a service animal permit is required in order to bring animals into the back country.
As always, you should check with the national park you intend to visit before bringing a pet or service animal with you.
Yellowstone's website has helpful information on bringing a service animal to Yellowstone.
Safety precautions when bringing a pet or service animal to a national park
The best safety precaution is to leave your pet at home when visiting a national park.
If you require a service animal, however, a few precautions will help prevent the spread of disease and keep you and your animal safe:
- Service animals must always be leashed or harnessed, under control, and attended at all times.
- Pet food is an attractant to bears and other predators and should be stored accordingly. Food and food containers must never be left unattended and must be kept out of reach of wildlife.
- Service animal fecal matter must be picked up and disposed of properly. Fecal matter should be disposed of in a trash receptacle, toilet, pit toilet, or if none of those are accessible (such as in the backcountry) it should be buried in a cat hole dug a minimum of 6 inches deep and a 200 feet from water sources, campsites or trails.
- If you must take a service animal into backcountry, sleep with it in your tent at night.
- Take care around thermal features and other natural features that pose a special risk to all animals. Boiling water in pools and thermal channels can cause severe or fatal burns if your animal decides to take a drink or go for a swim. Your safety and the safety of your animal are not guaranteed.
- To prevent overheating, make sure you have enough water for you and your pet.
If you come across a National Parks Services employee at a trail head, be sure to ask about conditions on trails you plan to hike. There may be wild animal activity. Additionally, some walkways and dirt pathways in national parks have a high acid content. They can injure your dog's feet if you don't cover their feet or wash them off with water afterward.
What is an access pass for persons with disabilities?
An Access Pass is a free, lifetime pass that provides free admittance to more than 2,000 recreation sites managed by five federal agencies, including the National Parks Service.
It may also be able to help you establish that you are, indeed, disabled and that your dog is a service animal.
Access Passes are available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents of the United States that have been medically determined to have a permanent disability that severely limits one or more major life activities, such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. The disability does not have to be 100%.
You can obtain an Access Pass through the mail or in person at a federal recreation site.
The cost of obtaining an Access Pass through the mail is ten dollars ($10) for processing the application (the Pass is free). Applicants must provide documentation of permanent disability and residency or citizenship.
Note: The Access pass replaced Golden Access Passports as of January 2007. However, while Golden Access Passports are no longer sold, they will continue to be honored according to the provisions of the pass.
Do I need to cape my dog in a national park?
Putting a cape or work harness on your dog is not required. However it can be helpful for letting national parks employees and other guests know that your dog is a service animal.
It is also courteous in that it can keep parks services employees from having to walk long distances to ascertain the status of your animal.
What can I do if my service dog is denied access at a national park?
The legal burden is on a park superintendent to justify closing an area of the park to service animals accompanying persons with disabilities.
If you feel that you have been improperly denied access, the first step is to talk to a National Park Service employee. If the employee is unable or unwilling to address your complaint, you can try calling the local NPS Disability Rights Coordinators for the park or region you are at.
You can find a current listing of NPS Disability Rights Coordinators here.