The increasing popularity of drones in recent years has opened the gateway to a mesmerizing realm of exploration within the skies. However, this has made it even more important that aerial activities are kept safe and free of threats to the open surroundings.
If we specifically consider national parks in the United States, the temptation to fly a drone is pretty self-explanatory. It’s very easy to zero in solely on the potential drone shots.
But it is important to note that the precedence lies in protecting wildlife and nature, as well as ensuring that the parks’ visitors have a peaceful time.
Keeping that in mind, in this post, I will walk you through drone regulations in national parks. Along the way, I’ll also drop exceptions to the rules and give deep insight into what you need to know as a drone pilot.
So let’s dive in right away!
While most state and public parks have allowed the use of drones, it is quite the opposite when the subject is a national park.
In general, you are not allowed to operate a drone in any of the national parks. This includes all 417 parks that are under the National Park Service. For rare instances, such as those of rescue and research, you might get the chance to fly a drone – but only if you have acquired a legal permit.
In fact, to be specific, the law 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 the park] is prohibited except as approved in writing by the superintendent.
Of course, this law pertains to the United States, as I’ve already mentioned. If you happen to be from Canada, consider checking out my post on drone allowance in Canadian national parks.
I’m sure that as an enthusiast using drones for recreational purposes, the restriction might come off as a downer. But on the brighter side, you do have some good alternatives.
BLM lands, or in other words, the lands that are under the Bureau of Land Management mostly permit the use of drones. And given the fact that these are usually near the national parks, you can more or less experience the same terrain and wildlife. That sounds promising enough!
Another two options you can explore are national forests and state parks; they also mostly allow drone operations. But just like BLM lands, they have their own set of regulations you must be aware of.
Once you have double-checked these regulations, I think these alternatives are pretty much your safe bets.
You’re not breaking the law if you’re not operating from an NPS region, right? Considering that the law specifies the prohibition of launching, landing, and operating a drone only within the park boundaries, I’d say that’s a clever question. But, well.
Since NPS law only mentions the consequences of drones operating within the park, flying over it is technically legal. However, it is not advisable even if you are operating from private property. The NPS still has the authority to enforce the prohibition and charge you if you cause any trouble.
Let’s say you find a property near a national park where you have permission to legally launch and operate a drone. Assuming you can easily fly over the NPS region while your drone remains within your line of sight, it is still not something I would personally encourage.
Yes, you are technically not breaking any rules. But you still are playing with fire. Once your drone is deemed a nuisance in a land controlled by NPS — even if it's not being operated from within the park boundary — things start to get a bit problematic.
Not to mention, if at any point you lose sight of the drone, you would also be breaking an FAA regulation. This way you wouldn’t just be in trouble with the NPS but also the FAA at the same time.
And honestly, I think it's the kind of trouble that’s not worth it to begin with.
If you believe you probably qualify for the permit that I mentioned earlier, this section perfectly explains everything you need to know.
To get permission to fly a drone in a national park, you need to have a Special Use permit. You might get one if your intent is research, rescuing, or to do with safety precautions. Only a few parks also allow Commercial Use Authorization for commercial drone activities within the park.
As you may have guessed, obtaining one isn’t an easy forte. You need to convince the authorities that your drone operation would not cause any harm to the park’s value and resources.
And of course, they aren’t going to let an amateur have a permit. You need to be a certified drone operator to say the least.
The particulars of the required qualities and level of experience can only be stated appropriately by the authorities of a specific national park. So, you’ll have to get in touch with them directly. Though I must say, the chances of actually obtaining a Special Use permit are always slim.
The Commercial Use Authorization or CUA is an exception that allows an individual or entire cooperation to use the NPS area for commercial purposes only. However, this is something that only a few parks offer, which I will get into in the upcoming sections.
Nonetheless, if you do not get the permit, my friendliest advice would be to just let it go instead of trying to look around for loopholes.
This is the part where I will reason with you why my emphasis on not breaking these laws is so valid.
Flying a drone in U.S. national parks is an offense with fines of up to $25,000. Of course, they are subjective to the number of charges you are facing at that time. But multiple violations can lead to greater fines. Continuing to offend the laws can also result in serious consequences.
The NPS takes responsibility for enforcing these laws very strictly, which is why you shouldn’t be taking them lightly or playing around through unnecessary loopholes.
One mistake can bring you to pay huge sums of money, or even revoke your license as a drone pilot altogether.
Yes, the illegal operation of a drone in any national park can also result in jail time. Here are the details.
The maximum jail time can be six months if you are caught flying a drone in a national park. Launching, landing, and operating a drone in an NPS region is illegal. Moreover, harassing wildlife and people or inflicting any damage to natural resources is also problematic in this regard.
As if paying huge sums of fines wasn’t bad enough, the idea of landing in jail is just worse. Again, there’s no way taking a risk like that is worth it.
I’d recommend you go for special permits if you really need to operate your drone in national parks. If not, you can check out the alternatives that I talked about earlier on in the post.
The authorities do have a good reason behind this ban. Let me tell you why.
Drones are banned in U.S. national parks because they pose a threat to what is supposed to be the preservation of a natural environment. There have been instances where these drone activities have not only disturbed but also caused major damage due to which the ban came into effect in 2014.
And it makes sense that the people who are visiting these parks as a getaway wouldn’t exactly want airborne vehicles hovering over their heads. Also, the last thing we need is to allow amateur pilots to fly and most likely crash their drones in these natural sanctuaries.
Previously, drone operations have disrupted wildlife in many ways. The birds, for instance, perceived these drones as a threat that forced them to change their lifestyle and breeding grounds.
In 2014, even though the use of drones was banned, a tourist illegally operated a drone in Yellowstone National Park. It ended up crashing in its largest hot spring, which was potentially damaging to its geothermal feature.
Keeping these things in mind, the authorities have banned the general use of drones in U.S. national parks.
And, rightfully so!
Home to almost half of the world’s geothermal features, Yellowstone National Park is simply ethereal. Let’s have a look at their drone policies.
Yellowstone National Park prohibits the use of drones unless you have Commercial Use Authorization. Note that its validity lasts until the end of the calendar year. Also, you are strictly obligated to follow all regulations and respect wildlife and natural resources at all times.
As I said, the CUAs are valid for a year. The operating year begins on January 1st and lasts till 31st December. Make sure that you follow all the FAA regulations. If at any point you are seen disregarding this natural habitat in any way, the NPS has the right to call off your drone operations. Despite the fact that your CUA is still valid!
As for recreational hobbyists, there is absolutely no way you should operate your drone in the park.
Next up, I‘ll walk you through the drone regulations in one of the great Californian national parks.
Sequoia National Park bans drone operations for all recreational purposes. However, for administrative and research purposes, you can go through with obtaining a Special Use permit from the NPS. If your case is strong enough, you can also be allowed to obtain a Commercial Use Authorization.
Sequoia National Park is known for its extraordinarily unique wildlife, including the endangered California condor. Therefore, unregulated drone activity poses a real threat to the species.
Regardless of the fact that you have obtained all the necessary permits, you should keep in mind that a few areas of the park would still come under no-fly zones. This especially applies to areas where the wildlife is the most vulnerable.
Located in Utah, Zion Park is known for its unreal nature and scenic views. It’s definitely a place you need to visit. But can you take your drone with you?
Zion National Park doesn’t allow recreational as well as commercial drone flying. So, it is recommended that you keep check of the NPS parameters while flying your drone. While the NPS can use their administrative drones, no commercial pilot or hobbyist can do so in the vicinity.
Unlike the last two national parks I talked about, Zion National Park doesn’t have any loopholes. Not even for commercial pilots!
However, for research purposes, you can still opt to apply for a Special Use permit. If you qualify for it, you’ll have the NPS terms that you would have to abide by during your drone operations.
Situated in Montanna, this park is a real thriller for those seeking adventures while staying the closest to the wonders of nature. If you are wondering whether you can record it all with your drone, here’s what you need to know.
In general, you are not allowed to fly drones in Glacier National Park, though you can apply for a Special Use permit. This applies to both commercial and recreational pilots.
Again, obtaining a permit isn’t impossible but your purpose for drone operation needs to be valid (and almost necessary) in the eyes of the authorities.
I’m guessing you are aware that the permit is only given to those who are applying for research, rescue, fire protection, and film production.
Assuming that your application does make a cut and you obtain a Special Use permit, it is up to the superintendent to determine the extent of it. You will receive terms and conditions along with the determination which will simplify your do’s and don’ts.
As long as you adhere to them, you won’t be in any trouble.
If you dream of piloting your drone in Yosemite, unfortunately, that’s all it can ever be. Here’s why.
It is absolutely illegal to fly your drone at Yosemite National Park, and there are no exceptions whatsoever. While some national parks have policies regarding special permits, Yosemite isn’t one of them. If you are found operating a drone within the park premises, you will be breaking the NPS law.
Without the policy of Special Use permits, the chance of flying a drone in Yosemite National Park is strictly prohibited. This is true for both recreational and commercial pilots.
In this section, I’ll talk about drone policies in Grand Teton.
You cannot fly your drone in Grand Teton National Park, at least until you have special permission to do so. This applies only for commercial and agency pilots but the extent of the permit mainly depends on the intent of use. For recreational pilots, the chance to fly a drone is completely null.
Like all the other national parks, Grand Teton is also under the NPS and so the same law applies here. While the scenic views would tempt you to film it all as a photographer, it is in your best interest that you don't go around breaking the NPS laws.
The only way you can catch a glimpse of this beauty is by operating a drone from a private property. But again, make sure it doesn’t enter the NPS regions. Also, take permission from the private property owner so that you aren’t violating any laws there as well.
Next up on the list is the Shenandoah National Park.
Like all the other national parks, Shenandoah also doesn’t allow you to fly your drone. It is controlled by the National Park Service according to which flying a drone within the park boundaries is illegal. Luckily, if you have a special permit, you can operate your drone to some extent.
However, these permits are not for recreational purposes. They are only given to experienced pilots with a legitimate reason for acquiring one.
Ultimately, the park’s superintendent has the complete right to determine the terms and conditions of your special request.
Being an epitome of Alaska’s wilderness, Denali National Park is a great spot for tourists and enthusiasts alike. For drone enthusiasts specifically, here’s what you should know.
You can fly a drone in Denali National Park if you have a special permit, are a government official, or operating in an emergency. As a hobbyist, you are absolutely banned from all drone operations. Even as a commercial pilot, you can only fly if you have obtained a Special Use permit from the NPS.
The National Park Service has the duty to safeguard the life within the park as well as protect its wilderness. The last thing they need is an unmanned airborne vehicle disrupting the balance of a natural treasure.
Thinking of the possibility of exploring the place famous for the highest temperature ever recorded anywhere in the world, alongside your drone? Well, let’s see if you can do that.
Drone operations in Death Valley National Park are considered illegal if you do not have special permission signed by the superintendent. While the agency pilots can fly an official drone, a random pilot cannot fly their drone in Death Valley. Of course, unless they have a special permit.
The chances of getting a special permit as a commercial pilot are very less likely.
Agency pilots, such as those affiliated with a fire department or law enforcement agencies can manage to get their permits. Also, if you are conducting research for a study, you might have a chance too.
Of course, for recreational hobbyists, Death Valley is a no-go!
Being one of the most popular places in America, the Grand Canyon needs no introduction. This pretty much explains the desire to bring your drone here as a drone lover. Before you do, here’s what you should know.
You are not allowed to fly a drone anywhere near Grand Canyon National Park. Firstly, it is in control of NPS which prohibits the use of drones in national parks. Also, the Grand Canyon comes within the range of Gold Coast Airports and flight parks which brings the FAA regulations into play as well.
I’m guessing that as a drone pilot, you are already aware that the FAA airspace regulations restrict a pilot from operating their drone in areas closer to the airport. Since the Grand Canyon is at a location as such, you are already restricted from flying the drone in the area.
Still, if you want to give it a try, you can request a Special Use Permit. It goes without saying that your case needs to be very strong to get permission to fly anywhere near the Grand Canyon.
I am sure that by now you have an idea of the do’s and don’ts when it comes to operating a drone in a national park. Allow me to conclude.
Some national parks such as Yosemite and Zion don’t allow drones under any circumstance. Other parks have an exception only if you have a Special Use permit or Commercial Use Authorization from the National Park Service. As for recreational purposes, national parks are a no-fly zone.
That said, if at any point you get lucky enough to fly a drone in any of the national parks, you must understand your responsibility during your operation.
Harming natural resources or wildlife, in any way, should be avoided at all costs!