The Difference Between National Parks, State Parks and National Forests

Most outdoorsy folks don’t know the differences between regulations imposed by national parks, national forests and state parks. It’s usually not a big deal unless you’re a dog lover, recreational shooter, or multi-day camper. On the whole, these three organizations have adopted similar (if not identical) standards of visitor conduct and safety. But of course, there are exceptions – and being unaware of these distinctions can get you into trouble.

What National Parks say: Generally speaking, NP visitors should confine their dogs to marked roadways, developed recreation areas and campgrounds. Owners must also restrain their animals with leashes that are six feet or shorter in length. Most parks (including Mt. Rainier, North Cascades and Olympic) do not allow dogs on trails; PetVR lists specific dog regulations for the nation’s 50 most visited parks.

What National Forests say: Dogs are allowed in most USFS areas (including trails), but they must be restrained with a leash for the duration of their/your stay. Pets are not allowed in certain wilderness areas (which may or may not be clearly marked).

What State Parks say: Like national forests, state parks generally allow dogs in all of their established recreation areas – as long as they are on a leash. But Washington State Parks prohibit dogs on designated public beaches.

What NPs say: As of February 2010, visitors may bring concealed and loaded firearms into national parks, provided they currently hold all required permits and do so in accordance with federal, state and local laws. However, recreational shooting is still prohibited in all national parks nationwide. Neither is hunting, or as park rangers refer to it, ‘poaching’.

What NFs say: Visitors are welcome to bring firearms into national forests. Recreational shooting is allowed, but only in certain, demarcated areas with an established backdrop; discharging firearms in other areas is highly illegal (and noticeable to other recreators who may tattle on you). Hunting is also permitted, in keeping with seasonal regulations.

What SPs say: Firearms are allowed in Washington’s state parks as long as the owner obeys all federal, state and local gun laws and does not, under any circumstances, discharge the weapon.

And for the record, fireworks are banned from all national parks, state parks and national forests in the State of Washington (and most other states, too).

Length of Visit
What NPs say: Most national park campgrounds limit your visit to 14 consecutive days. In addition, several parks (including Mt. Rainier) only allow visitors to stay for up to 28 days during the calendar year.

What NFs say: The rules state that anyone can stay on national forest land for up to 14 days within a 21-day period, but this means any national forest. Simply migrating to the next forest after two weeks won’t cut it, as far as law enforcement officers are concerned. 

What SPs say: State parks in Washington are pretty straightforward. From April 1 to September 30, the maximum stay is 10 consecutive days. From October 1 to March 31, the maximum stay is 20 consecutive days.

NOTE: These regulations may vary; if you’re unsure about a particular area you plan to visit, please contact the appropriate agency prior to your trip.

By Brad Nehring