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Can You Fly a Drone in a National Park?

According to the National Park Foundation[1], the United States National Park System includes 417 national parks, with some in Guam, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. The parks comprise over 84 million acres.

Can you fly your drone in national parks?

Drones are prohibited in national parks by the National Park Service in Policy Memorandum 14-05, which was passed in 2014. If you’re granted a special use permit, then you will be permitted to fly.

In today’s article, we’ll further discuss national park rules on drone flights and whether your drone is allowed in a national forest, so make sure you check it out! 

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Can you fly a drone in a national park?

Besides the aforementioned 417 national parks, the National Park Service also oversees 60 rivers and 23 trails. It’s a tremendous amount of land.

As drones became more popular in recent years, national parks were flooded with them. This caused the National Park Service to put together the legislation that is Policy Memorandum 14-05[2], which went into effect on June 19th, 2014.

The memorandum states that

“Launching, landing, or operating an unmanned aircraft from or on lands and waters administered by the National Park Service within the boundaries of [insert name of park] is prohibited except as approved in writing by the superintendent.”

Obviously, the [insert name of park] part is exchangeable for whichever national park you’re thinking of entering with your drone, be that:

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Exceptions to Policy Memorandum 14-05

Policy Memorandum 14-05 does have some exceptions, but not enough for most pilots to wriggle through and enter a national park with their drones.

Let’s look at the exceptions, shall we?

  1. Having a Special Use Permit

Special use permits are issued by the superintendent and the Associate Director, Visitor and Resource Protection or ADVRP.

Theoretically, the permits can be issued to any drone pilot, although it’s unclear how many SUPs the ADVRP approves each year.

For a pilot to be eligible for a SUP, the superintendent and ADVRP would have to collectively deem that the drone usage will not:

  • Lead to conflicts with other ways the national park is used
  • Create public safety and health dangers
  • Prevent National Park Service contractors or concessioners from operating public facilities
  • Impede “the atmosphere of peace and tranquility” the national park is known for
  • Damage any park resources
  • Infringe upon any FAA drone regulation

Even if a drone was permitted to fly in a national park with a SUP, the pilot must follow very specific rules according to Policy Memorandum 14-05.

Here’s the full list:

  • You can only fly one drone at a time.
  • You cannot use a drone in any area that’s “eligible, studied, proposed, recommended, or officially designated as wilderness.”
  • Your drone must meet certain weight and size limits.
  • You can only use your drone “when there is no presence or threat of lightning or thunderstorms, no presence or threat of any type of precipitation, and no presence of sustained wind greater than 5 mph or threat of wind gusts greater than 10 mph.”
  • Even with a SUP, you cannot fuel your aircraft with flammable liquids unless the superintendent permits it. Even then, you must keep a #10 ABC fire extinguisher handy, cannot store over five gallons of flammable gas, and must keep the gas in containers approved by the Underwriters Laboratory.
  • You must keep a first aid kit on your person when operating your drone.
  • You must “make the appropriate announcement when taking off, landing, or in emergency situations.”
  • If using an aircraft fueled by flammable liquids, your drone must have a muffler.
  • You may be limited to specific times of the day for drone flight.
  • You must fly along safety lines, which will be delineated ahead of your flight.
  • You must have liability insurance. If not that, then you need to be a member of an aeronautical organization that includes drone insurance as part of your membership.
  • You must keep your drone within your visual line of sight.
  • You have to report every incident where someone gets hurt, even if it’s not you who’s injured and even if the injury isn’t serious.
  • You cannot fly over structures, people, or vehicles.
  • You can’t use your drone in a way that puts the lives of others at risk or damages property.
  • Inexperienced drone pilots must have an operator assist them.
  • You can only use your drone when not under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • You cannot interrupt National Park Service efforts, especially search and rescue and law enforcement.
  • You cannot disturb wildlife with your drone.
  1. Having a Scientific Research and Collecting Permit

If you have a Scientific Research and Collecting Permit and written ADVRP approval, and if the Associate Director for Natural Resource Stewardship and Science approves it, you can fly your drone in a national park.

» MORE: Can You Fly a Drone in Big Bend National Park?

  1. Administrative drone use

The National Park Service constitutes administrative drone use as “such purposes as scientific study, search and rescue operations, fire operations, and law enforcement” and National Park Service operator, crew, or personnel administrative tasks.

Administrative drone use still requires written ADVRP permission.

  1. Having prior written authorization

The last exception for flying a drone in a national park is if you had written superintendent permission to use your drone before Policy Memorandum 14-05 was put into effect.

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Why can’t you fly a drone in a national park?

Leaving 80 million acres of this beautiful country behind makes your heart ache. You go everywhere with your drone, and you really wish that applied to these parks too.

Yosemite National Park

It can if you have a permit, but otherwise, you can’t fly in a national park, and for plenty of good reasons.

The National Park Service was founded in 1916. The organization has seen how the rise in drones has affected national parks, and it has not been good.

You love drones, but you’re well aware that not everyone shares the same sentiment.

When people visit a national park, they expect a quiet, tranquil experience. The buzzing sound of a drone motor as it lumbers through the sky takes away from that experience.

Parkgoers have complained to park rangers and the National Park Service as a whole about the commotion that drones cause.

It’s not only the sounds of drones that get under the skin of parkgoers but the sight of them as well.

Imagine you’re trying to take pictures of rare fauna or a bird or animal species, and here comes a drone. The drone ruins the shot and could scare away the animals.

Animals, by the way, are a huge reason why drones are prohibited at national parks. The National Park Service is dedicated to preserving natural areas and wildlife, and drones have been proven to interrupt both.

» MORE: Can You Fly a Drone in Kalbarri National Park?

Many animals get confused by drones and can abandon their young, likely assuming the drone is a threat.

Tourists watching the Old Faithful erupting in Yellowstone National Park.

Natural areas have also sustained damage from drones.

Pilots who were permitted into Yellowstone National Park with their drones before the 2014 blanket ban had flown the UAVs into the geysers.

Hopefully, it was all an accident, but nonetheless, drones ending up in geysers are just the tip of the figurative iceberg.

Other park property has been damaged or defaced by drones, so the National Park Service put its foot down and blockaded their presence.

Can you fly a drone outside of a national park?

The National Park Service only regulates the lands, trails, and waters designated as national parks. Once you venture beyond the parameters of any national park, you should theoretically be able to use your drone.

Vernal water fall in Yosemite National Park, California.

However, this varies on a case-by-case basis.

If the national park isn’t located on any other protected lands, you should be able to use your drone just outside of the park without any negative consequences.

That said, if protected lands are in the vicinity, you’re better off finding an entirely different place to fly.

The importance of drone apps

As a drone pilot, you have a lot of responsibilities. Fortunately, no one is asking you to memorize the names and locations of all 417 national parks under the National Park Service. That would be outrageous.

Yellowstone National Park sign at the north entrance in Montana

Since every state in the country has national parks, what would behoove you far more is downloading a drone mapping app so you can see how close you are to a national park.

Then you can make other plans accordingly.

National parks managed by the National Park Service prohibit drone access to preserve the wildlife and natural wonders therein and to prevent parkgoers from having a terrible experience.

Using a drone app will clarify which areas are off-limits so you can avoid them and the legal snafus that can come with disobeying federal laws!

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1. National Park Foundation (link)
2. Policy Memorandum 14-05 (link)