An inventory of dog-friendly destinations, both for hiking in the wild and playing within communities, along with guidelines and rules
Story and photography by Kay Bjork
Our curly-haired dog Birken lies by the woodstove. Head resting on her paws, eyes closed, her chest rises and falls in a slow cadence. I go to the closet and quietly pull out hiking boots. Before I can grab my pack, Birken is by my side, tail wagging, looking earnestly at me as if to ask, “Are we going hiking? Are we going hiking?”
Northwest Montana is truly a dog’s world with millions of acres of wilderness and countless dog owners who like to get out and play. That said, taking your pet on public lands is not exactly a free-for-all. There is protocol you must consider to keep your dog safe and to share the trails in a courteous and conscientious way with other recreationists, pets and wildlife.
Some public lands require that you keep your dog on a leash, while others require simply that you have control of your dog. National forest guidelines state that dogs should be on a six-foot leash when in developed recreation areas and on interpretive trails. Even though there are no leash requirements in the general forest, there are situations that might require leashing your dog, including the presence of other hikers, dogs, horses, bicyclists, dirt bikers or wildlife. Dogs vary in their athletic ability and might also need to be restrained at summits, on steep, rocky, or snowy terrain, or near fast-moving water. As a dog owner, you need to make choices that are appropriate for your pet.
State lands require that pets be on a leash or otherwise under the control of the owner.
You also need a general recreational-use license that can be purchased at a Montana, Fish, Wildlife and Parks-authorized license provider.
Even though it sounds a bit contradictory, the more control you have over your dog, the more freedom you can give him. The general requirement that a dog be kept under control might mean that a pet actually should be on a leash if it doesn’t respond to simple commands like “come,” “sit” or “stay.”
We always carry a leash and use it when we see other hikers or wildlife as a precaution. Our dog is still fairly young and spends most of her time with us at home, in the woods or in the backcountry, so she is not highly socialized. When she is on her leash, she responds better to our corrections and commands.
Start by taking your dog out on low-use trails at low-use times. You can start out with a leash and then unclip him after he has settled. There isn’t always room on the trail to have your dog heel, so we have trained our dog to follow behind us with a simple command — “back” — when it is necessary to keep her near. Sandwiching her in between us has proven even more effective.
If your dog stays close and is responsive to commands, then he might be ready for more freedom. Be alert for wildlife because when a dog is in the wild, some of his primal instincts will likely surface. It is terrifying to think of your dog lost in the vast backcountry, and every hiker’s nightmare is that a dog will bring back an angry bear.
When dogs hit the trail, their noses seem to hit first. Birken looks like a vacuum cleaner with a bad wheel, careening down the trail as she frantically takes in the trail’s smorgasbord of smells. She thinks she has hit the jackpot.
While humans are more focused on the visual experience of hiking, for a dog it is all about the smells. A dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than ours, according to scientific research. Dogs have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses compared to human’s six million, and the part of a dog’s brain that is devoted to analyzing smells is proportionally 40 times greater than ours.
Alexandra Horowitz, a dog-cognition researcher and author of Inside of a Dog, offers the analogy that while we might notice if our coffee has had a teaspoon of sugar added to it, a dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water. To say they are over-stimulated by the myriad scents on the trail is probably an understatement. This adds to the challenge of keeping them corralled. Keeping this in mind helps you understand your dog’s perspective of the hiking experience.
When choosing a hike for your dog, consider his breed, age, personality and fitness level.
Even though a medium- to large-sized dog usually is best suited for a long hike, a lot of smaller breeds are great hikers, too. A soft dirt-covered trail is easier on a dog’s pads than rocky terrain, and hiking in the shade for at least a portion of the hike will help prevent the dog from overheating. Be prepared to turn around if your dog seems stressed, overheated or tired.
I have been on both sides of the dog love story. After we lost our second yellow Lab, I thought I was done with dogs. Too much trouble, too many restrictions and too much heartache when they pass. But then after 10 years, I needed a dog again — or so my daughter told me. So I fell in love again with a crazy Double Doodle, which has Lab heritage combined with golden retriever and poodle.
There are some tradeoffs that come with having a dog, including where you can hike, but there are also rewards. Dogs have a way of acting out how we feel. Before we leave, Birken tailgates me until I go out the door and then beats me to the car to ensure her inclusion in the outing. On the way, she is the perfect backseat driver — eyes straight ahead until she hears the crackle of gravel when we turn off the highway. Now she might start panting or squeaking. She knows what’s next. When we reach the trailhead, she’s happy if the leash stays in the pack. No one else is here? Yahoo! Ears flying, she yo-yos up the trail, returning back to us, only to run forward 100 feet before she does another lap back to us. Even though we don’t express it quite the same way, we feel the same way. We live for this. Let’s go crazy. It’s going to be an amazing day.
National forests, such as Flathead National Forest, are great for dogs because, if the pup is well-behaved, they can be his version of the land of the free. Many other public trails have restrictions requiring pets to be leashed, and some don’t allow dogs on the trails at all.
Most national parks don’t allow dogs on trails, including Glacier National Park, except for a 2.5-mile paved McDonald Creek bike path that runs between West Glacier and Apgar Village.
The Montana State Parks system welcomes pets, but from April 15-Sept. 15, you are required to keep your dog on a leash no longer than 10 feet, and they are not permitted on swimming beaches or other areas that have restrictions posted. Wild Horse Island on Flathead Lake does not allow pets at all to protect wildlife-viewing opportunities.
Jewel Basin Hiking Area, which has a hiker-only designation, requires that dogs be on a leash and under physical control at all times on trails leading to and in the Jewel Basin. The restrictions are to protect wildlife, resources, and visitors.
The U.S. Forest Service travel map is a great reference for finding trails and gated roads where you can hike with your dog. Some of my favorites are in the Swan Valley, partly because of their proximity to me, but also because they don’t see the pressure of a lot of other hiking areas. Many of the trails offer forested portions and lakes as nice destinations. The rule of thumb is the more remote the trail, the fewer people you encounter.
Another favorite hiking area is in the Flathead National Forest’s Glacier View Ranger District, where there are numerous low-traffic trails that deliver what the name says — great views of Glacier National Park from outside of the park. The Hungry Horse Ranger District also has a lot of trails to get you away from the crowds.
To get trail lists and allowed usage, visit www.fs.usda.gov/activity/flathead/recreation/hiking.
Packing for Your Best Friend
Here are some possible items you might want to pack for your dogs depending on the weather and your pet’s needs.
— Dog pack. Consider letting your pet carry his own water and food
— Leash. Consider one that can clip to your pack or belt
— Water and bowl. Even though we think of dogs as having stomachs of steel, they are also susceptible to bugs like Giardia, so you might want to treat or filter his water just as you would your own
— Food and treats
— Cooling vest. A vest that can be wetted down in hot weather to cool your dog
— Booties to protect from sharp rocks and heat
— First-aid supplies (most of yours will also work for your dog, except medication such as ibuprofen)
— Pet waste bags
— Brush or comb. Use on fur after the hike to check for burrs, ticks and other objects that tend to adhere to a dog’s coat
— Contain your dog when in the presence of others
— Consider limiting your group to two dogs on the trail
— Yield to hikers without dogs
— Greet people on the trail to establish a friendly tone for them and dogs
— Make sure your dog leaves no trace — no digging or disturbing plants or wildlife
— Use the same rules for your pet that you use for human waste — bury it at least 200 feet away from trails, camps and water sources, and pack it out if you can’t bury it
Places to Play Between Hikes
It is estimated there are over 4,000 dogs in Kalispell alone, and they all are required to be licensed and “under the immediate and continued control of the owner or authorized agent of the owner.” It is unlawful for any dog owner to allow a dog to run at large within Flathead County. Sounds like a real mood killer for a dog. But fortunately there are a lot of great options for your furry friend to play either in or close to Flathead Valley communities when you don’t have all day for a hike.
Whitefish has the Flathead Valley’s first and currently only dog park that allows a leash-free option and an opportunity to socialize with other dogs and humans. The 5-acre park in the Armory Park complex includes paved and fully accessible pathways, benches, drinking fountains for you and your pet, open space, a community pavilion, a dog pond and beach, and a washbasin.
There is also another dog park in the works. Paws to Play is a nonprofit partnering with Flathead Community Foundation, Kalispell Parks and Recreation and Parkside Credit Union Partners to create a dog park in the Kalispell area. Begg Park is currently being considered as the location. It would include a trail, water feature and a 3.5-acre dog park. Paws to Play has already raised funds to cover the cost of amenities such as benches, dog waste stations and signage.
Kalispell City Parks
Kalispell has almost 400 acres in city parks located throughout the community. Many of them include dog stations and hiking paths. Leashed dogs are welcome at most of the parks, except for where people gather for sporting events. Check online for a complete listing with details.
Herron Park and Foys to Blacktail Trail
Herron Park is the gateway to thousands of acres of forestlands owned either by Weyerhaeuser, Stoltze Land and Lumber Company, or the U.S. Forest Service. Herron Park is used by a variety of visitors, including horsemen, bicyclists, walkers and skiers, and requires that you keep your dog on a leash in the park area.
Lion Mountain Trail, sponsored by Whitefish Legacy Partners, has a three-mile loop that’s a good option for pets. Owners are required to have control of their dogs at all times, which means if your dog is not under strict voice control, it must be leashed.
Swan River Nature Trail
Bigfork residents have a scenic two-mile trail along the Swan River with dog waste stations, benches and a bathroom stall. Formerly the old highway, the wide trail has room for a variety of users, including walkers with dogs, horsemen, runners, bicyclists and skiers in the winter.
Party with the Dogs
The Doggie Dayz and Pool Party might be the event of the year for local dogs, and it’s a great time for proud dog parents to show off their canine kids and interact with other dog lovers. This fundraiser, hosted by Paws to Play Dog Park, starts out with Doggie Dayz and a variety of fun activities, contests, booths, vendors and food trucks, followed by the Pool Party. There is no admission fee for Doggy Dayz, but Pool Party admission is $5 per dog.
-11 a.m. to 7 p.m.