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adventures with dogs

Wandering With Willow: 4 Dog-Friendly National Parks to Explore

“Your dog looks like she’s living the dream.” My husband, Tom, and I often receive comments like this about Willow, our kelpie Australian cattle dog, as we travel around the US together in our Sprinter van.

As a full-time van life dog, Willow has seen more of the world than most people experience in a lifetime. She is a six-year-old rescue dog who has already seen 12 states and 17 national parks.

Willow, a kelpie Australian cattle dog in a van.

Photo by Tom Zittergruen

We love bringing Willow along on our national park visits. Letting dogs experience the sights, sounds, and smells of these natural wonders not only enriches their lives, but also deepens our connection as we share in their joy and exploration. Throughout our travels, we’ve found that some national parks are more dog friendly than others. Even if the park as a whole isn’t dog friendly, many parks have designated trails that dogs can hike, too.

Here are the four top dog-friendly national parks we’ve visited with Willow, why we recommend going, and some of our favorite memories.

4 Dog-Friendly National Parks

1. White Sands National Park

After Tom and I purchased our van in Colorado in March 2023, we hit the road in search of warmer weather. We wanted to go somewhere to hike with Willow, so we headed to White Sands National Park in New Mexico. This park is notorious for being dog friendly. As long as your dog is non-disruptive, on a leash six feet or less, and under physical control, you are free to roam in White Sands wherever your pup leads you. 

Wandering through this immaculate desert landscape with your dog feels like an otherworldly paradise. As you explore, the soft, cool sand shifts beneath your feet and your pup bounds joyfully through the dunes, leaving paw prints behind in the pristine gypsum grains. That’s right — it’s not actually “sand” — it’s almost pure gypsum. This substance doesn’t absorb heat from the sun, so it’s cool and comfortable to walk on whether you have human feet or paws. This makes White Sands an ideal spot to bring your dog no matter the time of year.

As soon as we arrived and parked the van, Willow jumped out of the sliding door and raced toward the dunes. There are five established hiking trails to explore in the park, but you can also walk (or in Willow’s case, run) wherever you’d like. All that running made frequent water breaks very necessary. 

Willow drinking out of a Ruffwear bowl.

Willow loved digging in the soft sand and laying out in the sun. After a day of exploring, I highly recommend staying for sunset to admire the contrast of the pink clouds against the vibrant white sand.

2. Guadalupe Mountains National Park

When we finished our time in New Mexico, we dipped into the western tip of Texas to explore Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

Although dogs aren’t allowed on most trails in this park, it is still worth a stop if you’re in the area. Leashed pets are allowed on the short Pine Springs Campground connector trail or along the Pinery Trail, a 0.75-mile path leading to the ruins of the Old Butterfield Stagecoach Route Pinery Station built in 1858.

Walking through this trail is like stepping into a serene desert oasis. As you traverse the sandy path, colossal limestone cliffs frame the landscape and cast dramatic shadows in the golden sunlight. Pups will enjoy sniffing the many plants unique to the Chihuahuan Desert, while humans can read the informational signs to learn more about their origins. It only takes about 20 to 30 minutes to complete.

We explored this path with Willow as she discovered the many plants and greeted other adventure dogs along the way. This is a great path for beginner hikers or those who are just looking for an easy, enjoyable, and dog-friendly walk through the desert.

3. Great Sand Dunes National Park

Once we moved into the Sprinter van full-time in the summer, we set our sights on Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado. After seeing how much Willow enjoyed digging around in White Sands, I knew she would love this park, too.

At Great Sand Dunes National Park, dogs and their humans can bask in towering sand dunes, some as high as mountains. Their ever-shifting shapes create a truly mesmerizing scene against the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Bringing your pup means being able to watch them frolic in the sand against the vast expanse of the dunes (on leash, of course). In Great Sand Dunes, leashed pets are allowed in the Preserve (including Mosca Pass Trail) and main use areas (including Piñon Flats Campground, Dunes Overlook Trail, and along the Medano Pass Primitive Road).

We visited with Willow in early June when Medano Creek experienced “surge flow” and saw water flowing through the sand. I highly recommend visiting during late May or early June with your dog to experience this. Willow pulled me on the leash as hard as she could as she raced towards the cool water.

Kaylin and Willow hiking in Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Photo by Tom Zittergruen

She enjoyed soaking her paws in the creek, lapping up the water, and finding sticks to gnaw on. The terrain here is very zoomie friendly — we laughed when Willow got the zoomies and started burying her sticks in the wet sand.

For pups that enjoy the water, we recommend taking a dip in the creek and then heading up one of the dunes to get a better view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Like I did, you may quickly learn how difficult it is to hike in sand. Every time we stepped forward, we’d slip a little backward — but that’s all part of the journey. After a slow and steady climb, we arrived at a spot with a breathtaking view of the mountains and gave Willow a treat for her hard work.

You’ll also learn that it’s likely more fun to go down the dunes than up them. I kicked off my sandals and sprinted down the dunes with Willow, being sure to stay near the ridges that provide better traction for both feet and paws.

4. Saguaro National Park

The last destination on my list of dog-friendly national parks is Saguaro National Park, located just outside of Tucson, Arizona.

This park is characterized by its iconic saguaro cacti standing tall amidst the rugged desert terrain. It’s truly magical to take in the vibrant hues of the flora and fauna as you and your pup bask in the tranquility of the Sonoran Desert. 

But despite all its beauty, this national park also has some things to watch out for — cactus spines, thorny brush, rattlesnakes, scorpions, and open mine shafts — so it’s best to be extra cautious in this area with your dog. It’s also important to keep them hydrated and protect their paws due to the heat, especially in summer.

For this reason, I recommend visiting here with your dog in the cooler winter months. We went here most recently when we headed south for the winter in our van in search of the sun and warm temperatures. We passed through in January, but I still kept a close eye on Willow due to some of the unique characteristics of the landscape. 

Dogs are allowed on more trails in this park than you might think. The park is split into two sections, with the city of Tucson in the middle. On the east side of the park, dogs can go on the Mica View Dirt Road (1.5 miles), Mica View Trail (0.7 miles), Desert Ecology Trail (0.25 miles), and the paved Cactus Forest Loop Road. We explored the west side of the park. On this side, dogs are allowed on the Bajada Loop Drive, Desert Discovery Trail (0.5 miles), and Golden Gate Road. 

Kaylin and Willow in front of a saguaro at Saguaro National Park.

We took Willow for a walk on the Desert Discovery Trail, which is a half-mile, paved, dog-friendly loop. You’ll appreciate the large saguaros and incredible views of the Avra Valley to the west and the Quinlan and Baboquivari Mountains to the southwest. We stopped for a photo in front of a huge saguaro. I don’t think her tail ever stopped wagging as we walked around the loop.

Kaylin, Tom, and Willow in their van.
Although national parks might not be as dog friendly as state or local parks, you don’t necessarily need to leave your dog behind. I recommend seeking out the parks that offer paved trails, dunes, or back roads where pups are allowed to roam, too. When in doubt, visit the National Park Service website to confirm where you can and cannot take your dog. When possible, bringing them along for the ride can add a whole new dimension to your outdoor adventures.