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Can You Fly a Drone in Death Valley?

Along the northern portion of the Mojave Desert in Eastern California is Death Valley. There’s no place hotter on the entire planet in the summer than here, which is a claim to fame big enough that interests you in flying a drone.

Is your drone allowed in and around Death Valley?

According to the National Park Service, you are not allowed to launch, fly, or land a drone in or on Death Valley’s waters and lands unless you have written permission from a superintendent.

Ahead, we’ll take a deeper look at the rules of flying a drone around Death Valley, including when Special Use Permits are issued and how you might apply for one, so make sure you keep reading!

The rules on flying a drone around Death Valley

The United States National Park Service or NPS is a federal agency as part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. It’s their sole purpose to oversee recreational properties including many national monuments and every national park.

As you probably guessed, that does include Death Valley, which is known as Death Valley National Park in full.

On the National Park Service’s page on Death Valley, the organization makes the rules abundantly clear.

Here is the drone policy for flying in Death Valley:

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

The term ‘unmanned aircraft’ means a device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the device, and the associated operational elements and components that are required for the pilot or system operator in command to operate or control the device (such as cameras, sensors, communication links).

This term includes all types of devices that meet this definition (e.g., model airplanes, quadcopters, and drones) that are used for any purpose, including for recreation or commerce.”

Death Valley National Park – U.S. National Park Service

While the law seems to exclude agency drone use such as by a fire department or law enforcement agency, for the average pilot, flying around Death Valley with a UAV is a no-go.

Death Valley National Park is 3.373 million acres, so there’s quite a lot of land that you’re prohibited from flying on.

Well, of course, unless you have a permit.

Am I eligible for a Special Use Permit?

The National Park Service issues what are known as Special Use Permits or SUPs for “activities that provide a benefit to an individual, group, or organization, rather than the public at large, and that require some degree of management from the National Park Service in order to protect park resources and the public interest,” according to the National Park Service website.

What kinds of activities are those? Let’s take a look:

  • Special events
  • Vehicle testing
  • Ash scattering
  • Running and bicycle events
  • First Amendment activities
  • Weddings and other ceremonies
  • Photography and filming

We know what you’re thinking, right? You can just apply for a photography or filming Special Use Permit, and you’ll be good as gold.

Well, unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

You see, when applying for a Special Use Permit, you have to provide information about why you need the permit, and a series of activities are prohibited.

For instance, you can’t cause loud noises with a decibel level over 60 decibels at 50 feet, nor can you do stunts around Death Valley. You also can’t use any unmanned aircraft, including drones.

If you apply for a Special Use Permit with the National Park Service to fly around Death Valley with a drone, then the National Park Service is almost assuredly going to turn down your application.

Okay, so then what does it take to get a superintendent’s written permission to fly?

We can’t say for certain, as the National Park Service does not specify further on its website.

The circumstances would have to be extremely particular though, and, as the National Park Service itself says, commercial and recreational pilots would likely never be allowed.

The exceptions would exist for agency drone pilots only or perhaps those doing academic research with drones.

Why can’t you fly a drone in Death Valley?

Keep in mind that it’s not solely Death Valley in which your drone is prohibited, but all National Park Service – managed national parks across the US.

We’ve mentioned this before, but if you added up the acreage of all the national parks throughout the country, it’d comprise over 85 million acres, which is just crazy!

In this article on the National Park Service website, the organization mentions some reasons why you can’t fly a drone in national parks, so let’s talk about those reasons.

Nuisance and noise complaints

According to the National Park Service, park visitors who are used to a pristine experience have found that the engines of small aircraft such as drones take away from that tranquility and solitude.

Even if your drone is whisper-quiet, that doesn’t guarantee that everyone else’s is.

Besides, the sheer multitude of drones flying at once can create noise issues that the National Park Service doesn’t want its visitors to have to deal with. It could stop them from coming back.

More so than just noise though, visitors to the national parks throughout the US have perceived the drones as nuisances and have complained in kind. 

Wildlife harassment

Many drone laws throughout the US prohibit the use of UAVs to harass, intimidate, injure, or take in any way local wildlife. That doesn’t mean laws are always abided by, unfortunately.

For instance, in the aforementioned link, the National Park Service states that there was “one documented incident in which park wildlife were harassed.”

We don’t have further details than that, but we don’t really need them, either.

This is one of those cases where one rotten apple spoils the whole bunch, and surely influenced the National Park Service’s decision to blockade drones in public parks.

Safety concerns

Visitors are also concerned for their safety when visiting a national park when drones are allowed.

National parks carry with them many risks, from the dangers of falling to even being attacked or killed by a wild animal, but those are risks that the average park visitor is well aware of. They can adequately prepare.

The presence of drones though can come as a surprise to a national park visitor, who might worry that the drone will get too close and hurt them, someone in their party, or their personal property.

Park damage

Although no egregious instances of park damage seem to have happened yet at national parks across the US, there have been enough near misses that the National Park Service decided to pull the plug.

For example, per the article linked to above, the National Park Service says:

“Small drones have crashed in geysers in Yellowstone National Park, attempted to land on the features of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, been lost over the edge of the Grand Canyon, and been stopped from flying in Prohibited Airspace over the Mall in Washington DC.”

National Park Service

In all these instances, the losses were greater to the pilots themselves than to the national parks, but still, these incidents are a little too close for comfort in the eyes of the National Park Service.

What happens if you get caught flying a drone in Death Valley?

Were you unaware of the rules and you flew your drone in Death Valley? Perhaps you knew the rules but figured you could get around them since Death Valley is a large enough national park.

Well, either way, there are consequences, and they’re pretty severe.

You’re going to be fined $5,000. You could also be jailed for upwards of six months, and your drone will likely be confiscated as well.

In some cases, especially if you have a prior record of flying drones on National Park Service property, you could even be barred from all national parks.

The crime also counts as a misdemeanor.

It’s up to you if the reward outweighs the risk, but it’s quite clear that it doesn’t.

What about outside the confines of Death Valley? Can you fly a drone there?

You have one more question. What if you flew your drone right outside of Death Valley State Park but technically weren’t within the boundaries of the park?

The National Park Service, in the link from the earlier section, says that they have “no authority outside park boundaries.”

That doesn’t mean you can fly scot-free, though. Now you’re flying off National Park Service property and on someone’s private property, so you’d need to contact the landowner and ask for permission.

If you get it granted, then this is an optimal way to capture footage of Death Valley (from a distance, of course) without breaking National Park Service rules.

Conclusion

The National Park Service or National Park Service bans drones from flying in Death Valley National Park (launching and landing are also outlawed) just as it does its other state parks.

This is for the protection of the park visitors, the wildlife that call the parks home, and the parks themselves.

If a park superintendent grants you permission, an event ever allows for drone flight, or a designated area of the park is ever set up, then you can fly a drone in Death Valley. Don’t expect any of these circumstances, though.

Your best bet is to get a landowner’s approval to fly right outside of the park, which is beyond the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. Please always follow FAA rules when you do fly!