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Expand Your Horizons in 2013!

December 31, 2012

Why does Denali National Park and Preserve count as two units in the National Park System? What is the difference between a “Park” and a “Preserve”. Let’s find out!

As 2013 begins, many families and individuals will be planning out various vacations, weekend getaways and day trips. For many, these personal and family adventures will probably involve some of the 398 units of the National Park System. As you plan out your year, we thought we’d share some insights into what constitutes a “national park”  so that when planning your excursions, you might be encouraged to seek out some of our lesser known national parklands.

As a park ranger at a small national park unit in Hawaii, I often encounter confused stares from visitors when I try to explain what they can do while visiting “the park.” Often, I and my fellow park rangers at small national park units hear things like, “This isn’t a national park. This is a historic site.” Visitors will explain to us that “there are only 58 national parks.” Even other park rangers who work in “national parks” have voiced the same assumptions. We understand that the variety of designations used by the National Park Service can be rather confusing for people to understand.

Sometimes I’ve heard explanations like the following: “Well, units designated “national park” are larger than units with a “national historic site” designation.” This seems to be a reasonable statement at first glance, however, Hot Springs National Park is actually less than half the size of Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site and even the National Park of American Samoa is smaller than that “historic site”.

Pu’ukohola Heiau, one of the two historic sites designated by Congress as part of Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site.

Sometimes people will say that “historic sites” only contain one main feature, which for the park I work at isn’t the case at all. In 1972, the U.S. Congress created Pu`ukohola Heiau National Historic Site in order to specifically preserve two very different significant historic sites, Pu’ukohola Heiau and the John Young Homestead. As well, this “historic site” contains many other historic features not specifically mentioned in the legislation that created it.

Others might say that “national parks” get more visitors than other designations in the National Park System. It is true that units like Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Grand Canyon National Park get a lot of visitors. However, the two most visited units, the Blue Ridge Parkway and Golden Gate National Recreation Area, get many millions more visitors per year that those “national parks”. In fact, some “national parks” like Kobuk Valley National Park get less visitors in a year than some units with other designations get in a single day!

Canyon Overlook, Zion National Park, Utah. (NPS Photo/Mike Large)

So what’s in a name? In reality, each of the 398 national park units are part of the “National Park System” and thus are equally protected (though there are a few units that allow certain additional actives like limited hunting that you won’t find in most). The following information will hopefully give a little more clarification about these designations, but remember that these are “general” and an individual unit’s designation may not follow these descriptions exactly.

The Names Explained

The various designations for individual national park units are created in the Congressional legislation authorizing the sites or by the president, who proclaims “national monuments” under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Many names are descriptive—lakeshores, seashores, battlefields—but others cannot be neatly categorized because of the diversity of resources within them. In 1970, Congress elaborated on the 1916 National Park Service Organic Act, saying all units of the system have equal legal standing in a national system. Here are some of the designations:

Blacktail deer in Olympic National Park, Washington.

National Park: These are generally large natural places having a wide variety of attributes, at times including significant historic assets. Hunting, mining and consumptive activities are not authorized. (example: Canyonlands National Park)

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. (example: White Sands National Monument) (Note that not all National Monuments are in the National Park System. Some are manged by other Federal agencies, such as Admiralty Island National Monument.)

Canoeists enjoying Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida.

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. (example: Noatak National Preserve)

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. (example: Herbert Hoover National Historic Site)

National Historical Park: This designation generally applies to historic parks that extend beyond single properties or buildings. (example: Boston National Historical Park)

Inside a “Launch Control Center” at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, South Dakota.

National Memorial: A national memorial is commemorative of a historic person or episode; it need not occupy a site historically connected with its subject. (example: De Soto National Memorial)

National Battlefield, National Battlefield Park, National Battlefield Site & National Military Park: Preserves sites associated with significant battles in the nation’s history. (example: Vicksburg National Military Park)

Enjoying the Niobrara National Scenic River, Nebraska.

National Recreation Area: Twelve NRAs in the system are centered on large reservoirs and emphasize water-based recreation (example: Glen Canyon National Recreation Area). 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. (example: Gateway National Recreation Area)

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. (example: Gulf Islands National Seashore)

National Lakeshore: National lakeshores, all on the Great Lakes, closely parallel the seashores in character and use. (example: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore)

Stepping into history at De Soto National Memorial, Florida.

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. (example: Niobrara National Scenic River)

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. (example: Natchez Trace Parkway)

National Trail: National scenic trails and national historic trails are the titles given to these linear parklands authorized under the National Trails System Act of 1968. (example: Appalachian National Scenic Trail). (Note that not all national trails are official units of the National Park System, such as Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail)

Statue of Liberty National Monument, New York.

Other Designations: Some units of the National Park System bear unique titles or combinations of titles. (examples: Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, City of Rocks National Reserve, President’s Park)

National Heritage Areas: A National Heritage Area is not a unit of the National Park Service, nor is any land owned or managed by the NPS. National Park Service involvement is always advisory in nature. NHAs are a grassroots, community-driven approach to heritage conservation and economic development. Through public-private partnerships, NHA entities support historic preservation, natural resource conservation, recreation, heritage tourism, and educational projects.  (example: Great Basin National Heritage Area)

Affliated Areas: In an Act of August 18, 1970, the National Park System was defined in law as, “any area of land and water now or hereafter administered by the Secretary of the Interior through the National Park Service for park, monument, historic, parkway, recreational or other purposes.” The Affiliated Areas comprise a variety of locations in the United States and Canada that preserve significant properties outside the National Park System. Some of these have been recognized by Acts of Congress, others have been designated national historic sites by the Secretary of the Interior under authority of the Historic Sites Act of 1935. All draw on technical or financial aid from the National Park Service. (example: American Memorial Park)

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

For more information about America’s 398 National Park units, visit

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Pete Payette permalink
    September 2, 2012 5:23 pm

    Fort McHenry in Baltimore is a National Shrine, and Fort Ord National Monument in California is managed by the BLM

  2. Anonymous permalink
    December 30, 2012 10:19 am


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