Doggin’ America’s Best National Recreation Areas For Dogs

National parks are created with the dual missions of preservation and education. Dogs do not fit easily into that equation. More appropriate destinations across the American landscape for dog owners are the national recreation areas that are lands set aside for boating, hiking, off-roading and more. Here are the best for your dog:

Golden Gate Recreation Area - San Francisco, California
In 1972 a menagerie of government properties around the San Francisco Baythat included forts, a prison, an airfield, beaches and forests came together as the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, becoming one of the world's largest urban national parks. In the park are such popular destinations as Alcatraz, the Presidio and the Cliff House at Lands End. Today the park administers 75,388 acres of land - including 28 miles of shoreline - on more than 20 separate parcels.

You will not be lacking things to do with your dog in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. One of the best places for dog owners to head is Fort Funstonon the Pacific Ocean at the southern extreme of the park in the city (off Skyline Boulevard - Route 35). There are trails to romp along among the cliffs and plenty of unrestricted access to the beach. Look for hang gliders soaring above the cliffs. Except for areas of bird nesting and small China Beach, dogs are permitted on the sand in the city of San Francisco all the way north from Fort Funston to the San Francisco Bay.

Across the bay there is first-rate canine hiking in the Marin Headlands and the Oakwood Valley on designated trails. Elevations in the wooded hills climb to over 1000 feet. Dogs are not permitted in the Muir Woods or the Tennessee Valley, the two most significant prohibitions against dogs in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. (Please note - these rules are subject to change.)

Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area - Bushkill, Pennsylvania
The Delaware Water Gap, a mile-wide break in the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, is renowned for its depth, width and dramatic beauty. Travelers and settlers have long taken advantage of the breach in the mountains, caused by a combination of continental drift, ages of mountain building and the relentless action of mountain rivers. A 40-mile stretch of the Delaware River, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the eastern United States, was declared a National Recreation Area in 1965. More than five million people come each year to explore the park’s 70,000 acres.

More than 60 miles of trails are available to satisfy any taste in canine hiking - dogs are welcome on all trails and most anywhere in the park, save for the beach areas. On the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River are a variety of shorter trails leading to hemlock-filled ravines and waterfalls. In New Jersey, the going is more strenuous. Day hikers can travel along 25 miles of the Appalachian Trail that skirts the Kittatinny Ridge and passes Sunfish Pond, one of New Jersey’s “7 Natural Wonders.”
Challenging canine hiking awaits at the southern end of the park where the Delaware River courses through the Gap. In Pennsylvania (southern side of the Gap), an old fire road climbs more than 1,000 feet to the top of 1,463-foot Mt. Minsi. The hike can be combined with the Appalachian Trail to form a four-mile loop hike. Its New Jersey twin, 1,527-foot Mt. Tammany, is ascended from the parking lot by the twisting Red Dot Trail that switches steeply up the rocky slopes for 1.5 miles. Both peaks serve up superlative views of the Delaware Water Gap below. A trail system leads off Mt. Tammany back down and around the Appalachian Trail. Trails also take advantage of old railroad lines and historic military roads for easier canine hiking along the Delaware River in the Gap.

In the 1960s the Army Corps of Engineers schemed to dam the Delaware River and flood the Gap with a 37-mile reservoir. Faced with stout opposition the plan was scuttled in 1972 and land acquird by the Corps was converted into the Pocono Environmental Education Center. Bring your dog and sample five outdoor loops that wander through wetlands, past waterfalls and along ridges with views up and down the Gap.

Santa Monica National Recreation Area - Thousand Oaks, California
Santa Monica Mountain NRA is an amalgamation of 150,000 private, city, county, state and federal acres knitted into a single entity in 1978. The park stretches 46 miles from east to west, co-existing next to the most densely populated urban area in the United States - one in every 17 Americans live within an hour's drive of the Santa Monica Mountains. The Mediterranean climate in the park - hot, dry summers mixing with mild, wet winters in a coastal location - is the rarest in the world. Only four other areas in the world enjoy the same climate, the fewest acres of any ecosystem.

Santa Monica Mountains NRA is a paradise for canine hikers but not an unfettered one. Dogs are not allowed on state park trails so you will need to limit your explorations to national and city park lands. An easy introduction to the park near the Visitor Center in Thousand Oaks is at Rancho Sierra Vista (Satwiwa) where a loop trail slips 1.5 miles through grass- lands and chaparral-covered hillsides. The loop begins and ends at the Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center.
Athletic dogs will want to test the many canyon trails at Zuma Canyon, Solstice Canyon, Franklin Canyon and more. Expect extended ocean views and scenic looks where the land has been folded into peaks and canyons by shifts along the San Andreas Fault.

Some of the sportiest canine hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains is at Circle K Ranch where trails ascend to Sandstone Peak, the highest point in the park at 3,111 feet. One, the Backbone Trail, will one day stretch 65 miles across the entire national recreation area. Dog owners may want to skip the downhill hiking on the Grotto Trail. After going two miles, dogs are not allowed on the final 1/8 mile to The Grotto.
The park features more than 50 miles of shoreline on the Pacific Ocean but the prime swimming beaches are off-limits for dogs. Several rockier beaches in the western end - County Line Beach, Thornhill Broome and the beach at Leo Carillo State Park - are open to dog paddling.

Big South Fork National Recreation Area - Black Oak, Tennessee
Flowing north from Tennessee into Kentucky, the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and its tributaries have been carving up the Cumberland Plateau into cliffs, natural arches and rock shelters for tens of thousands of years. In 1974 Congress placed 123,000 acres of wilderness under the management of the National Park Service in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. The centerpiece of the park is the Big South Fork River with 90 miles of free-flowing, navigable water through gorges and valleys.

Straddling the Tennessee-Kentucky border, the 150 miles of hiking trails through mixed hardwood and pine forests are uncrowded - in stark contrast to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America's most-visited national park (where dogs are not allowed on trails), to the southeast.

Save for the 6.5-mile Blue Heron Loop, the top hikes at Big South Fork are in the Tennessee portion of the park near the Bandy Creek Visitor Center. At the Visitor Center is the Oscar Blevin Trail, an easy 3.2-mile loop through mature forest to an historic farmstead that was worked until the National Park Service took over into 1974.

To the east of Bandy Creek is the Leatherwood Ford, the trailhead for the popular Angel Falls Trail, an easy two-mile lope along the west bank of the Big South Fork Cumberland River. Continuing another .8 mile, the trail winds to the top of a limestone bluff with a commanding view of Angel Falls, actually a series of rapids. The cliffs are unprotected but the climb can be negotiated by an agile dog. The Angel Falls Trail is a small segment of the John Muir Trailwhich stretches 50 miles across the park.

The seven miles upstream from Leatherwood Ford on the Big South Fork to its confluence with the New River contain the greatest concentration of rapids in the gorge and trails lead to outstanding river views in the hardwood forests.

In the remote western region of Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area are a sandstone double archway known as the Twin Arches. Trailheads are reached by unpaved roads off Highway 154. A short, but hardy, trek of less than a mile leads to the largest natural sandstone bridges in Tennessee. Rock shelters like these deep in the woods were once popular harbors for moonshine stills and old still equipment is on display in the park. The walk can be extended into a 6.0-mile loop to the historic farm at the Charit Creek Lodge. A hunter in the area, Jonathan Blevins built a log cabin here in 1817 that is now incorporated into the rustic lodge. Charit Creek Lodge, which sports no electricity, can be reached only on foot or by horseback.

Hells Canyon National Recreation Area - Idaho/Oregon border
Along the Idaho-Oregon border the Snake River has carved the continent’s deepest gorge. The East Rim of Hells Canyon is 8,043 feet above the river and in places can be 10 miles across from rim to rim. Established in 1975, the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area showcases 652,488 acres of remote, rugged landscape.

The Hells Canyon trail system is extensive - more than 900 miles - but doesn’t lend itself easily to day hikes. Trailheads are often at the end of steep, single-lane unimproved roads and many trails are multi-day affairs on both sides of the canyon. The easiest way to hike into Hells Canyon with your dog is to drive up the paved Snake River Road to Hells Canyon Dam. Here, a narrow band of dirt pushes into the canyon downstream from the visitor center. Beware of rattlesnakes that live in the rocky terrain.

The best access to rim trails is on the Idaho side of the gorge at Pittsburgh Landing on Deer Creek Road, Forest Road #493. At the Upper Pittsburg Landing Campground you’ll find the trailhead for the Snake River National Recreation Trail #102. The path traces the Wild and Scenic Snake River upstream for 26.6 miles to Granite Creek, keeping the water in view during most of the hike. The trail starts at 1,200 feet in elevation and dips down to the shoreline in several places.

Heaven’s Gate Overlook at the end of Forest Road #517, where a 660-yard trail climbs sharply to views of Hells Canyon and parts of four states, is a popular jumping off point for hikes into the canyon. Deep in the Seven Devils Mountains, this is the area of highest elevation above the water. Little Granite Trail is the shortest route from this alpine country to the Snake River, a steep canine hike of six miles that drops 5,710 feet. Another wilderness trail to try is the 2.1-mile trek to Dry Giggins Lookout, one of the few places above Hells Canyon where you can actually see the Snake River.

Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area - southwestern Wyoming
Traveling south through Wyoming on Route 191, most likely with a restless dog who was unable to get out in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks , you reach Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area in 250 miles. Legendary 19th century adventurer and naturalist John Wesley Powell named the Flaming Gorge after he saw the sun shining off the red canyon walls on his epic 1869 exploration of the Green and Colorado rivers. Butch Cassidy and other outlaws often used the isolated valleys along the Green River as hideouts. Nearly a century later there were still only primitive roads in the aea when construction began on the Flaming Gorge Dam to store water and generate electricity. The 502-foot high dam, backing the Green River up 91 miles, was completed in 1964 and the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area established four years later.

The best way to see the 1400-foot deep Red Canyon is on the Canyon Rim Trail, a multi-use trail accessed at the Red Canyon Visitor Center. In addition to the quiet overlooks at the canyon, this trail, that loops for nearly three miles past the campground, is also a good place to observe moose, elk and deer that graze here. Along the Green River is the Little Hole National Recreation Trail, a delightful seven-mile one-way walk below the Flaming Gorge Dam. Your dog may spend more time in the clear green waters than on the level, easy-hiking path. High altitude canine hiking is also available on Dowd Mountain and Ute Mountain while at Spirit Lake Campground a 3-mile loop visits a trio of alpine lakes above 10,000 feet.

Outside the recreation area, just downstream from the Green River Trail at Indian Crossing Campground is the John Jarvie Historic Site. In 1880, Scottish immigrant John Jarvie set up shop in the Browns Park area of the Green River. He also later operated a ferry on the river. In 1909, Jarvie was robbed and murdered and his body dumped in a boat and shoved out on the Green River. It floated for eight days before being discovered. The frontier buildings Jarvie used for his enterprises have been preserved by the Bureau of Land Management.

New River Gorge National River/Gauley River National Recreation Area - Beckley, West Virginia
Like Greenland, the New River as a geographic name is an oxymoron. This may be the oldest river in North America, flowing in its present course for at least 65 million years. The New River falls 750 feet in 50 miles, creating the best whitewater rafting in the Eastern United States. Your dog won’t experience the thrills of riding the New River but she will find a variety of attractions on shore.

The national parks protect 53 miles of the New River and 72,000 surrounding acres. An 83-mile driving loop will take you and your dog through a cornucopia of man-made and natural wonders around the New Gorge.

Starting in the north at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, one of America’s most remarkable bridges starts your New River tour with a bang. The New River Gorge Bridge is the longest steel span in the western hemisphere and the second highest in the United States. On the north side of the river a short trail leads to observation points of the bridge and on the south side, from a parking area at the rim of the gorge, the Kaymoor Miners Trail descends steeply to an abandoned coal mine closed in 1962. To reach the river level your dog must bound down 820 steps along the haulage and great swimming before a strenuous return climb.

Traveling to the south, a spur from US 19 leads to the Thurmond Historic District on the river. Once a thriving railroad depot in the heart of the gorge, short interpretive trails now lead to highlights of the virtual ghost town. Careful when hiking with your dog around the tracks, however, since the Chesapeake & Ohio freight trains still rumble through Thurmond.

Turning east on I-64, your next scenic spur leads to Grandview, with wooded trails leading to panoramic looks down at the New River as it doubles back on itself in a wide parabola. These are easy dirt paths for your dog to amble along radiating out from an expansive picnic area.

A long detour south from I-64 is rewarded by the largest waterfall on the New River - Sandstone Falls which tumble across the width of the river. An easy island nature trail gives your dog plenty of chances for a doggie dip. Also on this detour is the impressive Brooks Falls that power over ledges in the riverbed.

Heading back up the east side of the river, your destination of choice is Babcock State Park, one of the oldest parks in West Virginia. Here your dog can enjoy wooded trails and pose in front of a rustic operating grist mill on Glade Creek, one of the most photographed spots in Appalachia.