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What's OK, what's not in national, state parks

Before you go to a national park with your dog, bike or Jet Ski in tow, check  to make sure it's OK to do the recreational activities on your agenda. You may need to switch to a state park instead.

On her two-month park-centric visit to the United States, Wendy Peck could have gone snorkeling and diving at Biscayne National Park in Homestead, Fla., or learned how to pan for gold at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Seattle. But Peck, of Winnipeg, Manitoba, had her heart set on poking around the national parks in Arizona and Utah, hiking and camping with Amie, her black lab.

“That plan quickly fell apart,” says Peck, who discovered during the first few days of her trip that most every national park in the United States prohibits dogs on back-country trails. “We were usually restricted to asphalt views. It was very disappointing.”

Peck soon learned that many national parks have state parks just down the road that usually offer much of the same landscapes and more pet-friendly policies. But while Peck’s vacation was saved, rules about what is — or is not — allowed in state and national parks have ended up ruining or mangling trips for many other travelers.

Want to avoid those surprises? We asked park officials and outdoor enthusiasts to share their tips and explain some of the rules.

Bugs and bunnies, shorelines and cemeteries
Yogi Berra said it best: “If you don't know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.” That’s easy to do when it comes to National Park Service properties around the country, which encompass 392 areas, or “units.” That’s more than 80 million acres of land and more than a dozen different, and often confusing, designations.

Those “units” include 58 traditional national parks, such as Yosemite, Yellowstone and Bryce Canyon, but also about 150 historic sites and battlefields, as well as national monuments and memorials, national historical parks, national seashores, national parkways and national recreation areas, including man-made lakes such as Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam.

“Yes, we know we have some identity issues out there,” says David Barna, chief of public affairs for the National Park Service, “But you can divide the areas we manage into two piles: half of them preserve natural resources — bugs and bunnies — the other half preserves cultural resources, which represent the history of America.”

They may all be managed by the same agency, but the same rules don’t apply in each location. “There are places where a dog needs to be on a leash,” Barna says, “and places where that rule doesn’t apply.” Likewise, while personal watercraft (i.e. Jet Skis) are not allowed in the 58 national parks, those vehicles are allowed on recreational lakes and at some offshore national seashore areas managed by the park service. “It depends on what classification the areas fall under,” add Barna, “For example, national battlefields often contain national cemeteries so we don’t allow bike racing in those solemn areas. But it’s probably OK to race bikes on national parkways.”

And then there are the seemingly site-specific rules. “For example, all boats entering Lake Powell [which stretches from Arizona to Utah] must be certified to be free of zebra mussels prior to launching. And in Maine’s Acadia National Park, visitors can’t bring firewood from home due to the threat of invasive insects,” says Don Wulfman of Tracks & Trails, a company that organizes national park driving vacations.  “We try to keep our customers out of trouble by telling them what they can and can't do in each place, but it can be quite a task.”

How to navigate park rules
So how does the average traveler navigate the rules in the national parks? “Keep your head up and read the signs,” Wulfman says. But Kurt Repanshek of urges park visitors to study the website long before leaving home. “Each park unit has its own website, but the content varies greatly. So don’t rely on that alone. If you don’t see information about the specific activity you’re interested in, make a phone call.”

And if you find the national park rules too restricting, don’t despair. It may just mean that a state park is a better match for you and your vacation style. “State parks,” says Shannon Andrea of the National Parks Conservation Association, “have less national significance and almost always allow for some form of active recreation such as bike riding, swimming, hiking, fishing, camping or horseback riding as part of their mission.”

Pay to play
Whether you set out for a national or a state park, don’t forget to bring along your wallet. Of the 392 National Park Service properties, 130 currently charge some sort of entrance and/or amenities use fee. So if you’re planning on visiting several national park sites this summer, an annual might be a good investment. There are some restrictions, but the $80 pass covers a full year of entrance fees for a carload of up to four adults at National Park Service sites and at sites managed by agencies such as the USDA Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management. (U.S. citizens and permanent residents ages 62 or over can get a lifetime pass good for that same carload for just $10.) The America the Beautiful Pass won’t cover entry fees at state parks, but many states offer their own annual passes. which can be an equally good deal. 

Wherever you’re heading this summer, it’s a good idea to call ahead. While the National Park Service budget is intact and all National Parks remain open, that’s not true for state parks. This summer some state parks have new entry and use fees while others have been forced to cut back their hours. And in a few states the budget crunch is so severe that some parks may remain closed for the entire season.

Harriet Baskas is a frequent contributor to, authors the and is a columnist for You can follow her on .