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Can You Fly a Drone in Parks, National Forests, and Wilderness Areas?

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drone in national forest

Points to consider when flying drones in recreational areas

We all need to do the right thing if we want to keep our drone-flying privileges.  And this means keeping drones out of restricted areas like national parks and wilderness areas.

Here are some good things to keep in mind when flying a drone in state parks, national forests, and Wilderness.

  • Don’t buzz folks seeking solitude in the great outdoors.  It ruins their experience and will make them hate drones more.
  • Keep your distance from wildlife.  You could permanently alter their behavior and make rules more restrictive.
  • Maintain sight of your drone at all times; not only is this the law but it will ensure the safety of everyone else.

How much do you know the rules in general? Take a free FAA Part 107 practice test to find out!

drone in national forest

Where You Can & Can’t Fly a Drone

National Parks Service – PROHIBITED

I think most people know this is illegal.  Can you imagine if everyone who owned a drone brought it to places like Arches or Yosemite?

This interim rule applies to:

  • National Parks
  • National Seashores
  • National Monuments
  • National Recreation Area
  • any other land administered by the National Park Service

That’s a lot of very photogenic land!  We may soon see some exceptions to this interim rule, but for now, just don’t bring your drone with you to any of these areas.

Penalties could be as high as six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.

You can read the memorandum here, which includes information on obtaining a permit.

Drone apps like B4UFLY, Aloft, and Airmap will show you most of these areas, but don’t rely on them 100%.


State Parks – IT DEPENDS

drone in state park
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. Photo from InspirePilots Forum member hansniew.

Rules about flying a drone in state parks vary by location. They’re different from state to state, and also within a specific state.

Check with the rangers and/or your state parks website before you fly.

Examples:

  • California doesn’t have a blanket rule applying to drones in California State Parks yet, but some individual parks do have restrictions now (FAQ).  I did just speak to one of the California State Parks superintendents who said that flying drones will be classified as an “unsafe recreational activity” soon due to some hazardous incidents.  You must obtain a state parks permit if operating commercially.
  • Nevada does have a rule saying that drones are prohibited in all Nevada State Parks.  A Part 107 operator may obtain a commercial use permit (FAQ).
donner summit

Read this post for specific details about flying drones around Lake Tahoe.


National Forests – YES, MOST OF THE TIME

You can fly a drone in National Forests for the most part, as long as you do it responsibly and within FAA guidelines.  

Localized exceptions may be in place; check with your local rangers before flying.  Commercial pilots must have a permit.

drone in national forest
Launching from National Forest beaches

Wilderness Areas – PROHIBITED

Congressionally-designated wilderness areas prohibit motorized vehicles.  

Unfortunately, drones are considered “motorized vehicles,” so you cannot fly a drone in Wilderness.

This is a point of contention for many drone pilots.  The Wilderness Act, written in 1964, was intended to set aside specific areas of land and leave them in their most natural state.

So some people say, “well, that motorized thing was intended for manned aircraft and ground vehicles.  They couldn’t have envisioned personal drones in 1964.  I can certainly fly a small camera around.”  

That’s not really the point of the Act though.  The point was to give people areas where they can enjoy the solitude of wilderness.

Wilderness areas only make up a tiny percentage of National Forest land, so it’s not asking a lot to respect these little sanctuaries.

View the Department of Agriculture’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems flyer.


BLM Land – YES, MOST OF THE TIME

If you can shoot big guns and camp anywhere without a permit, you can usually fly a drone on BLM land if you’re operating within the FAA rules.  

Except in special areas such as archaeological sites.  

Please fly responsibly and have fun.


Recreation Areas – DEPENDS

Please see the “National Park Service” and “State Parks” paragraphs for information on either National or State Recreation Areas.


Other Considerations

Stay away from private land.  You run the risk of getting shot down (even though this is illegal) and/or fined & arrested.

Don’t forget to check the nearest airports & hospitals and operate accordingly. Read this post about how to get authorization to fly in controlled airspace.

Wildfires

Please stay away and let these brave men & women fight these fires without worrying about getting hit by a drone.  Drone sightings will ground aerial firefighting efforts and endanger everyone. 

You can read more about flying a drone near wildfires (knowing when & where you can fly) in this article.


These are the rules for flying a drone in state parks, national forests, and Wilderness

The rules are continually changing and can be very confusing, so if you have any corrections or questions about anything here, please send me an email and I’ll be sure to get back to you.

Thanks, and happy flying!

J'ai filmé l'Ouest américain avec un drone

Thursday 27th of May 2021

[…] cas. Les drones sont interdits partout ailleurs, notamment dans les National Parks. Voir également sur ce blog… Vous trouverez sur le site officiel du fabriquant DJI une carte interactive des zones […]

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