Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse in Acadia National Park in Maine.

Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse in Acadia National Park in Maine. Credit: Matt McClain/The Washington Post

For national parks enthusiasts, the joy of bringing a dog along for a hike or history tour is a significant part of the experience. However, in recent years, some at the National Park Service saw that visitors weren’t always matching their admiration for these protected places with responsible canine behavior. Furry companions were disrupting wildlife and disturbing plants, and pet waste was becoming a growing problem.

“We had some people that thought their dog was so gifted and special that they did not need to abide by park rules,” said Ginger Cox, a ranger at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site just outside of Asheville, N.C. Rather than allowing these sites to go to the dogs, the NPS devised a canine-friendly solution in 2015: the B.A.R.K. Rangers program.

This lesser-known initiative, available at roughly 50 sites, provides dogs with the opportunity to become more considerate NPS guests by following four straightforward steps represented by the B.A.R.K. acronym:

Bag your pet’s waste.

Always leash your pet (no longer than six feet).

Respect wildlife.

Know where you can go.

Upon successful completion of the challenge, a pup can attain the esteemed title of B.A.R.K. Ranger and receive rewards such as a bandanna or a coveted ranger badge. (Service dogs are welcome to join in, too, though their parameters may be different as they are legally permitted anywhere that visitors can go.) Here are seven NPS sites where your pup can earn the B.A.R.K Ranger title (and don’t forget to make a reservation if you need one).

Acadia National Park

Erica Goode, of Scottsville, Va., along with her husband and three boys, traveled to Acadia National Park in 2021 with their German shorthaired pointer Stihl. They spent seven days in the park exploring Bar Island, Gorham Mountain, Great Head and Little Hunters Beach. Goode said “it was an amazing trip” but she found the amount of pet waste left on the trail disappointing. When she shared her observation with a park ranger, he introduced the family to the B.A.R.K. Ranger program.

“Our boys were very familiar with the Junior Ranger program, so we were excited to learn about it,” Goode said. Stihl, then just 9 months old, quickly became eligible for a collar tag available for purchase at the Eastern National Park Store at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center. Now the family is committed to participating in the B.A.R.K. Ranger program at as many NPS site visits as possible.

“We want to teach our kids that it’s our responsibility to respect each national park, follow the guidelines and do our part in protecting and preserving the land that we all share,” Goode said.

Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site

“We kicked off our B.A.R.K. Ranger program in 2020 by partnering with the Hendersonville Humane Society,” Cox said. The North Carolina site has seen significant pup improvement since its launch. Here, dogs are welcome to enjoy the former home of the famous poet and author, including anywhere on the trails and grounds, except the goat pen. And when a canine completes the B.A.R.K. Ranger program, they earn a free wooden badge.

Cox cautions visitors to be mindful of the terrain, the weather and a dog’s abilities. “We live in the mountains, and it’s hilly and rocky and can get hot and cold,” Cox says. “Sometimes people dress themselves for warm weather and don’t think about how hot the pavement is on paws or whether their dog will be acclimated to our higher elevation. Here a dog’s physical limitations should be factored in.”

Hot Springs National Park

For centuries people have visited the geothermal pools of Hot Springs, Ark. The ancient site remains culturally significant to the Quapaw and Caddo tribes, along with others. Today you can take your dog to walk past its remaining eight historic bathhouses or hike 26 miles of trails. Participate in Hot Springs B.A.R.K. Ranger program, and your dog can earn a certificate sealed with their own inked paw print.

Yosemite National Park

Park visitors walk along a raised boardwalk in Yosemite National...

Park visitors walk along a raised boardwalk in Yosemite National Park.  Credit: Tracy Barbutes for The Washington Post

Dogs are allowed in Yosemite National Park, but the B.A.R.K. Ranger code is strict. To protect the 400 species that call the park home, pets must limit their treks to fully paved roads, sidewalks and bicycle paths, with the exception of the paved Vernal Fall that leads to one of the park’s spectacular waterfalls. Dogs are not allowed on unpaved trails. Due to nesting birds and rodents, off-roading into meadows is a particular no-no.

In addition, Yosemite emphasizes that pet food is bear food so the site provides food storage lockers for visitors to store any dog treats if you are camping. Follow the rules, however, and good dogs will be rewarded with access to a for-purchase B.A.R.K. Ranger badge available at any Yosemite Conservancy bookstore.

Prince William Forest Park

Prince William Forest Park in Prince William County, Va. 

Prince William Forest Park in Prince William County, Va.  Credit: Natalie Compton/The Washington Post

Prince William Forest Park is a great example of the enduring legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The park opened during the Great Depression as a “relief” camp for D.C.’s underprivileged children. Today, the 15,000-acre natural refuge invites visitors to explore 37 miles of trails, all of which are pet-friendly, with the exception of the Chopawamsic Backcountry Area.

While there is a fee - $10 per person or $20 per car - to enter the park, the site’s B.A.R.K. Ranger leash tag is free when a dog completes the program booklet available at the visitor center.

Natchez Trace Parkway

Natchez Trace Parkway is a 444-mile road that runs through three states (Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee) and has 60 miles of footpaths to explore. It encompasses the old Natchez Trace that was once a footpath for bison herds before becoming a travel corridor for Indigenous people, as well as European settlers in the late 18th century.

Many of its paths are open to dogs. The best way for a pup (or cat!) to earn the B.A.R.K. Ranger title here is to visit the visitor center near Tupelo, Miss., where guests can pick up a four-page activity booklet.

“It invites B.A.R.K. Rangers to take their human for a walk on a trail, complete the activities in the booklet, and then take the B.A.R.K. Ranger pledge,” Mandi Toy, the site’s interpretation and education manager, said in an email. The program is free, and upon completion visitors can pick up a B.A.R.K. Ranger dog tag.

“We swear in about 500 Bark Rangers a year,” Toy says. And cats need not feel excluded. The site’s website reads, “If you have a cat who thinks he is a dog and walks the trail with you, we don't want him feline sad. We pawsitively will let your trail-hiking kitty earn a B.A.R.K. Ranger tag.”

White Sands National Park

Visitors walk their dog in White Sands National Park. 

Visitors walk their dog in White Sands National Park.  Credit: Matt McClain/The Washington Post

White Sands National Park is the world’s largest gypsum dune field - 275 square miles of desert - and one of the most dog-friendly NPS sites you can visit.

“Dogs are allowed anywhere in the dunes as long as they are following the B.A.R.K. Ranger principles,” ranger Sarah Sherwood said in an email. “This means that they are absolutely welcome to join their people while they sled.” That’s right; dog sand sledding is not only allowed, it’s encouraged.

Once you’ve recovered from the thrill of racing down a dune with your furry friend, dog owners can take the pledge, stamp and sign their B.A.R.K. Ranger brochure, and take it as a park keepsake. The Western National Parks Association bookstore also offers B.A.R.K. Ranger souvenirs for purchase, including name tags and bandannas.

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