Doggin’ Small National Parks

Some of the best places to take your dog in the National Park System are to are the least publicized. Less crowds often mean less anti-dog prohibitions. Here are three federally operated lands your dog won’t want to miss:

1. Catoctin Mountain Park (Thurmond, Maryland)
"Any man who does not like dogs and want them about does not deserve to be in the White House," President Calvin Coolidge said. Coolidge himself had at least 12 dogs. Future office holders have taken the 29th American President's words to heart - every single one has shared the Oval Office with a canine friend - and one of President-elect Obama’s first orders of business is to get a family dog.

How would you like to hike with your dog where Presidents hike with their dogs? When an American President leaves the White House for the presidential retreat of Camp David, there is almost always an eager dog in tow. Franklin Roosevelt's Scottish Terrier, Fala, was the first in a steady procession of Presidential dogs to romp in the woods of Camp David. President Reagan once complained that when he took a break at Camp David, his dog Rex would beat him to the window seat in the helicopter.

Everyone has heard of Camp David but where exactly it is? Surprisingly it is located deep inside a public park called Catoctin Mountain Park. When you take your dog there, you will never see Camp David or any evidence that the presidential compound is hidden among the trees but the trails you can hike on are of Presidential quality nonetheless. Just don't expect to see President George W. Bush and Spotty.

You could fill up a day of canine hiking at Catoctin Mountain Park just by checking off the many easy self-guiding interpretive trails as you learn about mountain culture and forest ecology. There is plenty of more challenging fare in the park as well. Three of the best vistas - Wolf Rock, Chimney Rock and Cat Rock - are connected by a rollercoaster trail on the eastern edge of the mountain. There is little understory in the woods and views are long. Many of the mountain slope trails are rocky and footing can be uncertain under paw on climbs to 1500 feet.

In the western region of Catoctin Mountain, near the Owens Creek campground, are wide horse trails ideal for contemplative canine hiking. The grades are gentler for long hikes through mixed hardwoods of chestnut oak, hickory, black birch and yellow poplar. Dogs are allowed in the campground and on all national park trails but not across the road in the popular Cunningham Falls area.

The forests deep in the rugged Catoctin Mountains provided ideal cover for a whiskey still, made illegal by the onset of Prohibition in 1919. On a steaming July day in 1929 Federal agents raided the Blue Blazes Whiskey Still and confiscated more than 25,000 gallons of mash. Today the airy, wooded Blue Blazes Whiskey Trail along Distillery Run leads to a recreated working still and interprets the history of whiskey making in the backwoods of Appalachia.

2. Rock Creek Park (Washington, DC)
Although technically a national park, Rock Creek Park is more like a city park administered by the National Park Service. How many other national parks boast of ballfields and 30 picnic sites? It was the Army Corps of Engineers that first proposed the creation of Rock Creek Park when they considered moving the White House out of the mosquito-infested lowlands of downtown Washington after the Civil War. In 1890 Congress carved 1,754 acres from the Rock Creek Valley to establish the park.

Two main parallel hiking trails, run the length of the park from north to south on either side of Rock Creek. The wiser choice for canine hikers is the Valley Trail (blue blazes) on the east side. In contrast with its twin, the Western Ridge Trail (green blazes),there are fewer picnic areas and less competition for the trail. Both are a rooty and rocky frolic up and down the slopes of Rock Creek, a superb canine swimming hole. Numerous spur trails and bridle paths connect the two major arteries that connect at the north and south to create a loop about ten miles long.

The nation's capital was protected with a ring of 68 forts during the Civil War and Rock Creek Park administers several military sites. Your dog can visit the ermants of Fort De Russy, an earthworks fortification returned to its natural state just east of the Western Ridge Trail on a bridle path at Oregon Avenue and Military Road. Also near Military Road, three blocks east of the main park on 13th Street, is Fort Stevens. It was here the only fighting of the Civil War took place within the limits of Washington D.C. Union defenders repulsed a Confederate attack from General Jubal Early on July 11-12, 1864. Abraham Lincoln rode up from the White House and stood on a parapet watching the battle - the only time in United States history that an American president was under fire by enemy guns while in office. A dramatized plaque marks the spot today in the partially reconstructed fort. Your dog will probably be more interested in playing fetch on the grassy grounds however.

3. White Sands National Monument (White Sands, New Mexico)
Dogs have long been welcome on the mystical white sands of southern New Mexico. When America's space age began at White Sands Missile Range with the firing of a Tiny Tim test booster on September 26, 1945, it was important to retrieve small missile parts to analyze success or failure. These searches routinely wasted countless man-hours as ground recovery crews scoured vast expanses of desert for often-buried missile fragments.

That ended in 1961 with the introduction of the Missile Dogs: Dingo, a Weimaraner, and Count, a German Shorthair. For up to a year before firing, important components of a missile were sprayed with squalene, a shark-liver oil that the dogs could smell from hundreds of feet away. After a missile firing, Dingo and Count raced among the sands sniffing out the scent objects. With a 96% recovery rate, the program was so successful that other military and scientific agencies requested the services of the original Missile Dogs of White Sands.

Today you can hike with your dog anywhere in the giant sandbox that is White Sands National Monument. The world's largest gypsum sand dunes form when gypsum dissolves in nearby mountains during rainstorms. Instead of being carried off by a river (this is an arid environment) wind transports the crystals where they accumulate in brilliantly white sand dunes.

White Sands offers 6.2 miles of marked dog-friendly trails but there is no need to limit your explorations. Any dune is open to a canine hike. Stay alert for reptiles and rodents scampering on the dunes that have adapted to the white sands and are now a funny bleached white color.

During the heat of summer, try a night hike - when the moon is full, the park, located in New Mexico on U.S. Highway 70 between Alamogordo and Las Cruces, stays open until midnight. The desert cools off then and the sands are haunting by moonlight.