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What Exactly is a National Park?

What is a national park? There’s a lot of confusion out there about what exactly qualifies as a national park in the United States, so we’ve set out to clear that up.

So just what is a national park anyway? Some of you reading this may be thinking you already have this figured out, but do you really? We’ve found that there’s actually quite a bit of confusion out there about what exactly qualifies as a “national park” in the United States, so we’ve set out to clear that up.

The National Park Service

In the United States national parks are administered by the National Park Service, a federal agency within the Department of the Interior. Along with national parks like Yellowstone and Great Smoky Mountains, the National Park Service also administers other sites like Gettysburg National Military Park, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Jimmy Carter National Historical Park, Devils Tower National Monument, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and many, many others – 423 to be exact!

Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming

The National Park System

Together, all of these sites (called “units” in federal parlance) comprise what is known as the national park system. There are many different types of designations within the national park system, like national monuments, national historical parks, national battlefields, national historic sites, national parks, and so on. Each one of these specific designations carries with it a different meaning, a different type of administration, and affords the area different levels of protection.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Juliet to Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet

What’s in a Name?

Look at the name of the site carefully. The name of the National Park Service unit tells you the designation. For instance, Devils Tower National Monument is not a national park, it’s a national monument. Fort Laramie National Historic Site is not a national park, it’s a national historical site. These distinctions actually can make a significant difference in how the unit was established and how it is managed.

us national parks ranked, yosemite valley
Yosemite National Park, California

There Are Only 63 National Parks

To be clear, there are only 63 national parks. National parks can only be designated by an act of congress – unlike many other units in the national park system which can gain their designation through executive action or even secretarial orders. National historical parks, for instance, are not national parks, even though they contain the phrase “national park” in their title.

Jimmy Carter National Historical Park, Georgia – photograph by Carol M. Highsmith

No, A National Historical Park is Not a National Park

The same goes for national preserves, national monuments, national seashores, national military parks, national rivers, and anything else that is not simply named “[Insert Title] National Park”. Don’t get us wrong, these are incredible places, but they’re just not “national parks”.

pictured rocks national lakeshore michigan autumn
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

But Just What Are These Other Designations?

We’re so glad you asked! Check out the breakdown below sourced directly from the National Park Service.

National Monument

The Antiquities Act of 1906 authorized the President to declare by public proclamation landmarks, structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest situated on lands owned or controlled by the government to be national monuments.

Source: National Park Service

National Preserve

National preserves are areas having characteristics associated with national parks, but in which Congress has permitted continued public hunting, trapping, oil/gas exploration and extraction. Many existing national preserves, without sport hunting, would qualify for national park designation.

Source: National Park Service

National Historical Park

This designation generally applies to historic parks that extend beyond single properties or buildings.

Source: National Park Service

National Historic Site

Usually, a national historic site contains a single historical feature that was directly associated with its subject. Derived from the Historic Sites Act of 1935, a number of historic sites were established by secretaries of the Interior, but most have been authorized by acts of Congress.

Source: National Park Service

National Seashore

Ten national seashores have been established on the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts; some are developed and some relatively primitive. Hunting is allowed at many of these sites.

Source: National Park Service

National Battlefield

This general title includes national battlefield, national battlefield park, national battlefield site, and national military park. In 1958, an NPS committee recommended national battlefield as the single title for all such park lands.

Source: National Park Service

National Recreation Area

Twelve NRAs in the system are centered on large reservoirs and emphasize water-based recreation. Five other NRAs are located near major population centers. Such urban parks combine scarce open spaces with the preservation of significant historic resources and important natural areas in location that can provide outdoor recreation for large numbers of people.

Source: National Park Service

National River

There are several variations to this category: national river and recreation area, national scenic river, wild river, etc. The first was authorized in 1964 and others were established following passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968.

Source: National Park Service

National Trail

National scenic trails and national historic trails are the titles given to these linear parklands (over 3,600 miles) authorized under the National Trails System Act of 1968.

Source: National Park Service

National Lakeshore

National lakeshores, all on the Great Lakes, closely parallel the seashores in character and use.

Source: National Park Service

National Parkway

The title parkway refers to a roadway and the parkland paralleling the roadway. All were intended for scenic motoring along a protected corridor and often connect cultural sites.

Source: National Park Service

National Memorial

A national memorial is commemorative of a historic person or episode; it need not occupy a site historically connected with its subject.

Source: National Park Service

National Cemetery

There are presently 14 national cemeteries in the National Park System, all of which are administered in conjunction with an associated unit and are not accounted for separately.

Source: National Park Service

stout grove sunset redwood national park
Redwood National Park, California | What is a national park

The National Park System is Amazing

The national park system is full of incredible places that constitute the all-important natural and cultural heritage of the United States. These special places, from Gettysburg National Military Park to Yosemite National Park, are of immense importance and are equally deserving of preservation and management that fits their unique place in the story of this country.

So whether your favorite national park service unit is a national park, a national monument, a national recreation area, or any other type of designation, the point is they’re all important, but there’s only 63 congressionally-designated “national parks”.

Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area
Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, Utah

Other Land Management Agencies

One more fun caveat! Certain sites, like some national monuments and national recreation areas, are not managed by the National Park Service and are instead managed by the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. Some of these include Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument (USFS), Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area (USFS), Carrizo Plain National Monument (BLM), among many others.

Rules and protections for public lands vary greatly depending on the designation and the land management agency that administers the site. While the National Park Service typically provides sites with the most protection, the Bureau of Land Management usually provides sites with the least protection. The Forest Service can vary, but is typically somewhere in between.

Further Reading on National Park Service Designations

What’s Your Favorite National Park Service Unit?

Tell us your favorite NPS unit! It can be a National Park, a National Monument, a National Battlefield, or any other designation! Whatever it is we want to hear what makes it special to you. Tell us by leaving us a comment below!

See Our Full National Park Rankings

We actually ranked ALL 63 National Parks from best to worst using the same point system featured in this article here. Curious to see how Utah’s parks stack up against the rest of the parks nationwide? Click here!

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Jim Pattiz

Co-Founder of More Than Just Parks. Filmmaker, Conservationist, Public Lands Enthusiast

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