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How My Dog Became a Great Falls BARK Ranger: Steps and Tips

If you’re looking for an excuse to get outside with your dog, having your dog become a BARK Ranger at Great Falls, Virginia is the perfect thing to do near DC. The DMV has plenty of dog-friendly activities, but the BARK Ranger program is something a little different than going to beer gardens, hikes in Rock Creek Park, or going to see beautiful flowers.

The BARK Ranger program by the National Park Service (NPS) is designed to promote responsible pet enjoyment of our national parks. In the DMV at Great Falls, Virginia, the NPS have designed a scavenger hunt for you and your dog to complete. Once finished, your dog will earn an official BARK Ranger tag!

Here’s everything you need to know about becoming a Great Falls BARK Ranger, including cost, where to go, and what to do. Our dog, Lil Mikey, had a lot of fun earning his badge in his BARK Ranger outfit!

What is a BARK Ranger?

The BARK Ranger program, a brainchild of the National Park Service, is all about educating pet owners on how to enjoy the park with their dogs. BARK stands for:

  • Bag your pet’s waste: Always clean up after your pet to keep the park clean.
  • Always leash your pet: Leashes help protect your dog and the park’s wildlife.
  • Respect wildlife: Give animals space to prevent stress and maintain their natural behavior.
  • Know where you can go: Stick to areas that are pet-friendly to minimize disturbances.
A hand holding a green and yellow B.A.R.K. Ranger pamphlet outlining the B.A.R.K. Ranger Code for pet owners at Great Falls Park, with a brochure rack in the background.
The BARK Ranger Code

Individual national parks have rolled out the BARK ranger program in different ways, and they don’t have it at every national park. At Great Falls, Virginia, the park rangers wanted to make it be more interactive and created a scavenger hunt to earn a BARK Ranger badge. At other parks, you may just need to sign a pledge or talk to a ranger (like at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens). Some parks may offer tags or bandanas while others do not.

How to Become a BARK Ranger at Great Falls, Virginia

I had heard from another dog lover that Great Falls had a scavenger hunt, but I didn’t see a lot of information about what to do or where to go, especially since the visitor’s center is currently closed. Here’s a step by step guide on how to get your dog a cool BARK ranger badge.

Side view of a beagle mix dog dressed as a park ranger with a hat, showcasing the B.A.R.K. Ranger badge from Great Falls Park, with autumn leaves scattered on the ground.
Ranger Wiggles on duty!

Go to Great Falls Park, Virginia

The most important thing to emphasize is that this program is at Great Falls, Virginia and not Great Falls, Maryland.

The Virginia side is Great Falls Park, while the Maryland side is part of the C&O Canal National Historical Park. If you go to the Maryland side, even though it’s directly across the river, it’s a long drive to get to the Virginia side. As someone who loves Great Falls, Maryland for the canal boat ride, I always emphasize this!

A scenic view of the cascading waters at Great Falls Park, with rugged rocks and a flowing river surrounded by bare trees against a clear blue sky.

When you get to Great Falls Park, Virginia, you’ll pay $20 per car for an entrance fee. This will give you parking and access to the park. There are no additional charges for the BARK ranger tag; it’s included in the cost of your entrance fee.

The Great Falls Visitor’s Center is located at 9200 Old Dominion Dr, McLean, VA 22102. Depending on traffic, it’s about 40 minutes from Washington, DC. To get there from DC, you will need to drive as there is no metro access here.

Get the BARK Ranger Checklist

The BARK Ranger flyer can be found at the visitor’s center. Currently, the visitor’s center is closed for renovations, so they have a table set up in the lower courtyard of the visitor center. From the parking lot, instead of going up the ramp into the building, you go down the stairs to the gravel courtyard.

A close view of a B.A.R.K. Ranger pamphlet detailing the steps to become a B.A.R.K. Ranger at Great Falls Park, with the instruction to take a photo of your pet following the Ranger Code highlighted.

There will be a folding table set up on the right with pamphlets about the park, and there should be a BARK Ranger checklist flyer there with the items for the scavenger hunt. If they have run out, you can ask a park ranger. If you don’t see a park ranger, you can either knock on the door across from the table next to the women’s rest room that says authorized staff to ask for more, or you can go ahead and do the scavenger hunt and check them off after you’re done.

Complete the BARK Ranger Scavenger Hunt

As a Great Falls BARK Ranger-in-training, you’ll need to complete 3 tasks and take photos of your dog doing them in order to earn your badge. They are very simple to do, so don’t worry!

  1. Visit one of the overlooks to view the Great Falls, or take a walk on one of the trails
  2. Give your furry friend a drink in the Visitor Center Courtyard
  3. Take a photo of your pet following the B.A.R.K. Ranger Code
A screenshot from a smartphone camera app showing a beagle sitting obediently on a wooden bridge, with the river and treeline in the background, as a man looks down at the dog.
Take lots of photos to earn your BARK Ranger badge!

For the final one, you can choose from any of the 4 BARK Ranger Code items: bag your pet’s waste, stay on leash, respecting wildlife, and staying on the trails.

The park ranger really did look at our photos, so don’t skip taking photos! The water fountain is by the visitor center, but we showed a photo of our dog drinking from the portable bowl that we brought and that worked too.

Close-up of a beagle mix dog drinking water from a metal bowl placed on a gravel surface.
Lil Mikey staying hydrated

The activities really are meant to complement how you want to enjoy the park anyway. I recommend walking east (downstream) on the trail for some really cool views and fun terrain. They have educational signs about the unique ecosystem, floods, and geology along the trail. You can also see remnants of the old Patowmack Canal, a predecessor (and competitor) of the C&O Canal.

All of the activities can be done without interaction with other dogs, and is solo dog friendly. Some dog owners are happy with how friendly the activities are for reactive dogs. I would caution that the park is popular with dogs, so you will see other dogs on the trails. Use your judgement and knowledge of your dog to determine whether it’s an environment that they would do well in.

Get Your Badge

Once you’ve completed all the tasks, you’ll need to go back to the visitor’s center to collect your badge and have your dog officially become a BARK Ranger. Knock on the door of the staff office to the left of the women’s restroom, and a ranger will check your photos before giving you a badge. If there’s no one in the office, look for a ranger to ask; check the lookout viewing areas as they tend to be around those.

Close-up of a B.A.R.K. Ranger tag from Great Falls Park held in front of a beagle mix dog who is sniffing the tag, with blurred visitors and park displays in the background.
Lil Mikey inspecting his new badge

After they check your photos, they’ll give you a badge, which is a laser cut wood dog tag that you can put on their collar (or use as a keychain if you think you deserve it more than your dog, since you’re the one doing all the work). It’s nice quality and looks really sharp! I was expecting something cheaper honestly. There’s no cost for the BARK ranger badge.

Conclusion

Great Falls is a beautiful park with spectacular natural beauty that you can enjoy with your dog companion and earn a badge. It adds an extra incentive for you to get out and explore the outdoors while not being too far from Washington, DC.

A beagle dog sits on a large rock by a viewing area at Great Falls Park, with a man seated nearby, both enjoying the natural surroundings on a sunny day.
Lil Mikey enjoying Great Falls Park responsibly

If you are looking to earn more badges around DC, check out the newest BARK Ranger badge program at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens!

FAQs

How can my dog become a B.A.R.K. Ranger?

To have your dog become a B.A.R.K. Ranger, you and your canine companion must complete a series of tasks together on a hiking trail. After accomplishing these tasks, your dog can be officially sworn in as a B.A.R.K. Ranger. Upon completion, your dog will receive a special dog tag for Great Falls, Virginia.

Can I bring dogs to Great Falls Park in Virginia?

Yes, Great Falls Park in Virginia is a dog-friendly location. Dogs must be leashed at all times with a leash no longer than six feet in length. While leashed, pets are allowed on all trails, in parking areas, at the falls overlooks, and in picnic spots. There are no designated off-leash areas within the park.

What does the acronym B.A.R.K. represent in the context of a B.A.R.K. Ranger?

The acronym B.A.R.K. stands for the principles that all B.A.R.K. Rangers and their owners should follow: Bag your pet’s waste, Always leash your pet, Respect wildlife, and Know where you can go.

What are the responsibilities of a B.A.R.K. Ranger?

B.A.R.K. Rangers must pledge to follow the B.A.R.K. code and enjoy our national parks responsibly. At some parks, you can volunteer with your dog after attending a training session to help educate other visitors in the park about the B.A.R.K. Ranger code.

It says the Visitor’s Center is closed. Can my dogs still become a B.A.R.K. Ranger?

Yes! You can pick up the pamphlet on a folding table in the courtyard of the Visitor’s Center. From the parking lot, go downstairs to the gravel courtyard. The folding table with informational pamphlets about the park will be set up on the right, and there should be a BARK Ranger flyer there.

If they have run out, you can ask a park ranger. If you don’t see a park ranger, you can either knock on the door across from the table next to the women’s rest room that says authorized staff to ask for more, or you can go ahead and do the scavenger hunt and check them off after you’re done.

Once you’re done, you knock on that same door to get your B.A.R.K. Ranger tag.

Valerie Moore

Having lived in Washington, DC for the past 16 years, Valerie has a lot of thoughts about the best things to do, eat, and know around the city. She loves doing deep dives into the interesting things she finds, and sharing with the world. You'll often find her dog, Lil Mikey, along for the ride.

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