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Types of Public Lands for Hiking, Photography, and Your Dog: National/State Parks & Forest, BLM, WMA

The world is your oyster when it comes to public land. Trout Unlimited put it best - Best. Idea. Ever. Truly there are so many options for land to use when hiking, taking fido on the trail, and general use, you can get lost in the decision of where to go and why you’d want to use the land.

Public Land, Quick Summaries of Each, and Our Perspectives of Each


If we step back and look at land use, it’s helpful to know what you’re working with. What each is for and why they exist, so here are some helpful thoughts on each of the types of land that exist and what recreation is primarily dedicated to the land.

  • National Park (and National Monuments)

  • National Forest

  • National Wildlife Refuge

  • National Conservation Areas

  • Natural Environmental Areas (Preserves)

  • State Parks

  • State Forest

  • Wilderness

  • US Forest Service

  • Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

  • Wildlife Management Area (WMA)

That’s a hefty list and that doesn’t include Scenic Byways, National Seashores, National Recreation Areas, and other classifications. To add to that, you’ll find classifications like Wilderness Areas that are within National Parks (meaning they don’t allow motorized vehicles or transportation on the actual land, etc). Whew. Yeah, we get it.


For purposes of this blog, these are the ones that we focus on for our searches around hiking, treks with the dog, and other outdoor activities.


What Public Lands Do You Frequent?


You’ll frequently find us at a combination of lands depending on the time of year. We like to avoid the traffic and move to where we think the people will NOT be based on the season.

  • Winter: National Parks get less traffic in the cold weather, so you might find us frequent a park on the weekends. Bundle up and get outside. Although, if the dog needs to get some miles in, we’ll divert to a State Forests, Wildlife Management Areas later in the day (when hunting is slowed), or BLM land.

  • Spring: State Forests and National Forests are a great way to avoid crowds and find the trails that are on the backside of the mountain or off the beaten path. Check out our Blog on finding those — Mapping Apps - Easy Ways to Find New Trails & Adventures — Pixels & Pointers (pixelsandpointers.com)

  • Summer: State Parks are our jam, but it’s mainly because we are camping. The Wildlife Management Areas typically have fields that are not protected by a tree canopy and make it hot outside and the National Parks are super high traffic during this time of year. During summer, it’s all about finding trees to hike under and water like streams, rivers, and lakes to be adjacent to.

  • Fall: Continuing the theme of camping, you’ll find us at State Parks and State or National Forests. With all the first-come, first-serve campsites on the east coast, it’s hard not to find a place to set up shop for a weekend.

The State and National Forests, Wildlife Management Areas, and BLM land are the friendliest to fido. For hiking, also … don’t rule out Natural Environmental Areas or Wildlife Refuge areas while you are at it, but we’re big fans of the state-allocated public lands. Here’s a quick skinny on the types of land for reference.


Summary of Public Land Types


National Park (and National Monuments)

Congressional approved, this is probably the land that you are most familiar with. There are 63 National Parks in the United States. Go outside of the US and you’ll have a host of Countries that also dedicated the land as National Parks. Here in Virginia, it’s places like the Shenandoah National Park. Out west, it’s places like Yosemite and Yellowstone. The National Monuments are typical ‘objects’ with historical, cultural, and scientific interest. At one point, the Grand Canyon was considered a National Monument. There is a great Ken Burns documentary that talks about these two classifications.

  • They can be used for recreation, but check the laws and rules if you plan to take fido. Shenandoah National Park has many trails that are leash-friendly for dogs, but they often have many that are not.

  • Given the number of traffic increases that have been seen with National Parks, there is the people factor that goes into frequenting these parks and finding trails that have low use or light traffic — check out All Trails for recommendations on trails in these types of parks.

  • Link to NPS.gov Homepage (U.S. National Park Service)

National Forest

Found frequently adjacent to National Parks, they are often used for public purposes - protected land that has ‘services’ available to them like recreation, mining, lumber, and life stock access. These are controlled by the U.S. Forest Service as a part of the Department of Agriculture.

  • There are currently 154 National Forest in the United States and also comprise significant amounts of acreage protected.

  • These locations typically have the most relaxed laws and rules when it comes to fido. Given that this land is frequently used for hunting purposes, you may have more liberty with your dog in National Forest land.

  • Link to Home | US Forest Service (usda.gov)


National Wildlife Refuge


Dedicated to protecting wildlife, these areas are controlled by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for the conservation of plants, wildlife, and aquatic friends. You’ll find these sites frequented by photographers searching for that pristine wildlife photo, fisherman, and hunters alike. This is great land for getting outside and enjoying nature.


National Conservation Area

Also allocated by Congress, these sites are typically dedicated to ‘scientific, cultural, and historical features.’ This land is mainly found in the Western parts of the country.

  • This land is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and represents about 873 designated areas around the country.

  • They can be used for recreation, but check the laws and rules if you plan to take fido. Most of these sites are protected in a way that prevents pets from being welcome - with good reason.

  • Link to National Conservation Lands | Bureau of Land Management (blm.gov)


Natural Environmental Areas (Preserve)

These areas are typically dedicated at the State Level similar to the National Conservation Area for ‘significant natural attractions or unique geological features.’ We find that these parks are light traffic and only frequented by those that know about them. If you have an NEA in your area, it’s probably a gem.

State Parks & State Forests

State Parks

Allocated land by the state, they are intended to protect and preserve the land as ‘close to the original condition’ for enjoyment by the public. These lands are highly vested in maintaining the original state and laws will be stricter for use.

  • The land is typically managed by the state and under ‘state political’ dedication.

  • A great resource for State Parks can be found at Discover The Forest

State Forest

Allocated land by the state for recreational use, but managed the same as National Forest to include ‘services’ available to them like recreation, mining, lumber, and life stock access.

  • The land is typically managed by the state and under ‘state political’ dedication.

  • These locations typically have the most relaxed laws and rules when it comes to fido. Given that this land is frequently used for hunting purposes, you may have more liberty with your dog in National Forest land.

  • A great resource for State Forests can be found at Discover The Forest


Wilderness Area

These can be a part of National Parks, National Monuments, National Forest, and other Public Lands. It’s pretty much land that is dedicated to preventing the development and maintaining the beauty of the area.

  • The land is typically managed by the Bureau of Land Management and there are roughly 517 of these areas classified.

  • The rules for fido on these lands are typically bound by where they are located and a Google search of where you are going can answer your questions quickly


Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

This land is typically scattered parcels for use by the public for recreation reasons. Fun fact, the BLM manages about 1 in every 10 acres of land in the United States. Similar mission to the others in protecting the land for productivity and sustained use - development, energy, livestock, recreation, and lumber.

  • Information about BLM Permits and Fees

  • These locations typically have the most relaxed laws and rules when it comes to fido. Given that this land is frequently used for hunting purposes, you may have more liberty with your dog in National Forest land.

  • Information at the Home | Bureau of Land Management (blm.gov)


Wildlife Management Area

In our opinion, the crown jewel of the dog owner's world is the Wildlife Management Area. The land is set aside for ‘conservation of wildlife’ and ‘recreation involving wildlife,’ which is a long-form way of saying hunting. Each state manages the Wildlife Management Areas and it’s a quick search for where to find them near you. Many of my Blogs have talked about WMAs in some format - (1) Mapping Apps - Easy Ways to Find New Trails & Adventures and (2) Off-Leash or Leash: Idea(s) for Your Dog to Run Off-Leash are two great references to this type of land.

  • Read the rules closely for use — these are oftentimes being used for hunting purposes. Especially for dog owners with regards to outfitting fido with blaze orange, watching for trapping, etc.

  • These locations typically have the most relaxed laws and rules when it comes to fido. Given that this land is frequently used for hunting purposes, you may have more liberty with your dog in National Forest land.

We hope that this information helps and happy hiking!

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