Leave the airport, visit a park

Does a bear sh#t in the woods? Depends on which woods.

Glacier National Park visitors 1960

My Well Mannered Traveler column on msnbc.com this is week is all about What’s OK, what’s not in national and state parks. Even some well-seasoned travelers don’t know the ins and outs. But if you don’t check out the rules before you head off into the woods you can end up in a heap of trouble.

Wendy Peck of Winnipeg, Manitoba found that out at the beginning of her two-month park-centric visit to the United States. She had her heart set on poking around the national parks in Arizona and Utah, hiking and camping with Amie, her black lab.

“That plan quickly fell apart,” says Peck, who discovered that most every national park in the United States prohibits dogs on back-country trails. “We were usually restricted to asphalt views. It was very disappointing.”

But Peck figured out that many national parks have state parks just down the road that usually offer much of the same landscapes and more pet-friendly policies.  “I found that by switching my focus to state parks, that I actually had a better time. Far fewer people, much more freedom, and some pretty cool sights that most others just don’t see. “

Peck’s vacation was saved, but rules about what is — or is not — allowed in state and national parks have ended up ruining or mangling trips for many other travelers.

Want to avoid those surprises?  Here’s some advice from park officials and outdoor enthusiasts.

Bugs and bunnies, shorelines and cemeteries

Figuring out what is – or is not – a National Park Service property can be confusing. National Park Service properties around the country encompass 392 areas, or “units” with 80 million acres of land and more than a dozen different, and often confusing, designations.

Those “units” include 58 traditional national parks, such as Yosemite, Yellowstone and Bryce Canyon, but also about 150 historic sites and battlefields, as well as national monuments and memorials, national historical parks, national seashores, national parkways and national recreation areas, including man-made lakes such as Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam.

“Yes, we know we have some identity issues out there,” says David Barna, chief of public affairs for the National Park Service, “But you can divide the areas we manage into two piles: half of them preserve natural resources — bugs and bunnies — the other half preserves cultural resources, which represent the history of America.”

They may all be managed by the same agency, but the same rules don’t apply in each location. “There are places where a dog needs to be on a leash,” Barna says, “and places where that rule doesn’t apply.” Likewise, while personal watercraft (i.e. Jet Skis) are not allowed in the 58 national parks, those vehicles are allowed on recreational lakes and at some offshore national seashore areas managed by the park service. “It depends on what classification the areas fall under,” add Barna.

And then there are the seemingly site-specific rules. “For example, all boats entering Lake Powell [which stretches from Arizona to Utah] must be certified to be free of zebra mussels prior to launching. And in Maine’s Acadia National Park, visitors can’t bring firewood from home due to the threat of invasive insects,” says Dan Wulfman of Tracks & Trails, a company that organizes national park driving vacations.

How to navigate park rules

Kurt Repanshek of National Parks Traveler urges park visitors to study the National Park Service website long before leaving home. “Each park unit has its own website, but the content varies greatly. So don’t rely on that alone. If you don’t see information about the specific activity you’re interested in, make a phone call.”

And if you find the national park rules too restricting, don’t despair. It may just mean that a state park is a better match for you and your vacation style. “State parks,” says Shannon Andrea of the National Parks Conservation Association, “have less national significance and almost always allow for some form of active recreation such as bike riding, swimming, hiking, fishing, camping or horseback riding as part of their mission.”

Or maybe a visit to a National Forest is what you need. Myrna Johnson, a Boston-based outdoor enthusiast and urban open space professional, says National Forests “tend to be a little less traveled than National Parks and offer great backcountry opportunities for those who are looking for a slightly more rugged experience.”

Pay to play

National Park Service visitor pass

Whether you set out for a national or a state park, don’t forget to bring along your wallet. Of the 392 National Park Service properties, 130 currently charge some sort of entrance and/or amenities use fee. So consider investing in an $80 annual America the Beautiful Pass. There are some restrictions, but the pass covers a full year of entrance fees for a carload of up to four adults at National Park Service sites and at sites managed by agencies such as the USDA Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management. (U.S. citizens and permanent residents ages 62 or over can get a lifetime pass good for that same carload for just $10.) The America the Beautiful Pass won’t cover entry fees at state parks, but y states offer their own annual passes, which can be an equally good deal.

And it’s always a good idea to call ahead. National Parks have not experienced budget cuts this year, but many state parks have. So make sure the park you want to visit will be open when you show up at the gate.

(Photos courtesy National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection.)