National Forests > National Parks

When planning an outdoors-oriented trip through the American West, there are a few Must Visits that cross your mind - Glacier, Yellowstone and Yosemite, say.

Classic bison photo at Yellowstone

When planning an outdoors-oriented trip through the American West with a dog, you realize this itinerary is going to have to change.

Lucy staring at the entrance to Yellowstone National Park

For very good but nonetheless very irritating reasons, most American National Parks aren't friendly to dogs. You can take them through, but you can't take them out. They can stay - on-leash - in parking lots, along roads, and in developed campgrounds. Exactly where an adventure dog wants to be! In a few national parks, there are a handful of trails that they can be on - but these trails tend to be little more than glorified paths. The real outdoors, the backcountry, is off-limits.

The trip you have through Yellowstone with a dog

Visiting Montana and Wyoming and the rest, I wanted to see the big Outdoor Sights - so we decided to drive through the National Parks, but spend our time in the National Forests. The National Forests, which tend to surround the National Parks, have most of the same wilderness features as the parks they border, but with far fewer rules.

Hiking to Hyalite Lake in Gallatin National Forest

Here's why. From the horse's mouth:

National Parks - The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.

Preserving national parks for future generations

National Forests - The mission of the USDA Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.

Actually enjoying National Forests

In practicality, having been through a handful of National Parks and as many National Forests, this means National Parks are good to look (but don't touch) whereas National Forests are there to enjoy.

The only ones jumping in - and making sure we're close enough to the road

Yellowstone is particular felt like the Disneyland version of nature, plenty of tourists, tourist traps, informative plaques, tour buses, traffic and rules. I'm sure the backcountry is a different story, but with the dog we weren't able to see much beyond the road. At least the one thing the parks have going for them is attention to detail regarding signage, severely lacking in National Forests.

Yellowstone from the road

National Forests on the other hand, despite being usable for hunting, grazing, fishing and pets, seemed like more accessible wilderness - welcoming, inviting, just as a beautiful and less trafficked (though definitely more poorly signed.)

Checking out the sights in Idaho

Tromping through Flathead (instead of Glacier), Gallatin National Forest (instead of Yellowstone), and the Teton Valley (and soon to be the Wind River Range) instead of the Grand Tetons gives us as much access to the beautiful wild of this part of the world, without the crowds and with the pup. Wins all around.

Swimming in Flathead National Forest's Holland Lake

Header Photo - Yellowstone National Park
Photo 2 - Yellowstone National Park
Photo 3 - Just outside Yellowstone
Photo 4 - Stuck in the car in Yellowstone
Photo 5 - Hiking to Hyalite Lake in the Gallatin National Forest
Photo 6 - Taking a selfie at Yellowstone while Mat and Lucy waited in the parking lot
Photo 7 - Hiking Flesher Pass trail in the Helena National Forest
Photo 8 - Swimming (within feet of the highway) in the Grand Teton National Forest
Photo 9 - Yellowstone
Photo 10 - Hiking just south of the Coeur D'Alene National Forest
Photo 11 - Swimming in Holland Lake, in the Flathead National Forest