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They say road trips are good for conversation.  You’re in the car for hours, watching the world go by.  You have to talk about something with your fellow passengers, right?  Today’s post topic came up on my recent road trip from Salt Lake City back to New Mexico.  On our way home from dropping Ryan off at University of Utah, we stopped to visit Canyonlands National Park.  My mother-in-law asked what is the difference between a national park and the other types of parks in the system.  I gave my best answer but realized that I wasn’t really explaining it very well.  You know what that means – time to look it up and write about it!

The cliff notes version of the answer is that each type of park within the system has been set aside for different reasons.  Sometimes it’s a natural area to be protected.  Sometimes it’s something of historical significance that we are preserving.  Parks are generally larger with multi-faceted purposes.  The sites and monuments are smaller with more focused, pinpointed missions.

For the nitty-gritty of it all (aka the long answer), read on!


national park service sign
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Seeing a National Park Service sign always makes me happy!


The birth (and growth!) of the National Park Service

The National Park Service was created on August 25, 1916. (The day I starting writing this article just happens to be the 102nd birthday of the National Park Service. Their motto for the year – Find Something New in 102!)  What I didn’t really realize is that the US already had national parks set aside before the National Park Service was created.  The NPS was created as a way to better manage the various parks, making consistent rules for what was and wasn’t allowed.

President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act in 1916 and the first director of the Park Service was Stephen Mather.

The act which established the National Park Service created a unified system of management for the parks. It also offered a philosophy for the new agency. On the one hand, it must “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein.” At the same time, it must “provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

The park service started with 35 parks.  Mather focused on growing the park service, expanding the focus to include historic sites, and marketing the parks so that Americans would want to visit them.  Annual park attendance, fewer than 350,000 people in 1916, skyrocketed to more than one million by 1920. Attendance slowed during the Great Depression then continued to grow again. After more wartime slowdowns and other various fluxations in visitation, the number of anual visits finally surpassed 300 million in 2015.  Personally I have mixed feelings about this growing number.  On one hand, I am glad that the parks exist and that people are interested in nature.  On the other hand, the more people that visit the parks, the more wear and tear the parks and the natural environment face.  It’s a fine line to walk between enjoying and protecting the natural environment.


More than National Parks

As a whole, the National Park System is dedicated to preserving a variety of natural areas as well as areas of historic significance.  Within the system, there are twenty different types, or categories, of national park properties.  Within these twenty types of parks, there are over 400 individual sites.

collage of a variety of national park system signs to include national monuments and national historical parks
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There’s more to the National Park System than just National Parks. Be sure to visit the National Monuments, Historic Sites , and others as well!


Natural Value

National Park – to me, these are the kings and queens of the park system family.  They cover large areas and encompass a variety of resources.  The large area of these parks allow better protection for the environment and eco-systems within.

National Monument – intended to preserve at least one significant resource.  These sites are generally smaller than a park in both size and focus, with limited diversity of attractions within a single monument.

National Lakeshores and National Seashores – dedicated to preserving shorelines and offshore islands while also providing an area for water-related recreation.

National Rivers and Wild and Scenic Riverways – protection for freeflowing streams and their immediate surrounding areas.  A national river or a wild and scenic river must have signifcant natural, cultural, or recreational value.  The waterway must be unobstructed by dams, diversions, or other major alteration from the natural flowing path of the water.

National Scenic Trails – usually cover long distance through areas of natural beauty.

National Historic Trails – recognizes and follows original trails or routes of historic significance


Historic Significance

National Historic Park and National Historic Site – a broad category that contains a variety of historic properties within the national park system such as national military park, national battlefield park, national battlefield site, and national battlefield.  As above, a park is the larger property and a site will be smaller.

National Memorial – used primarily to designate a commemorative area.  Most of the national memorials are found in Washington, DC but there are a few others.



National Recreation areas – these are the areas around a dam built by the federal government and are set aside for recreation.  In recent years, other urban areas have been set aside as national recreation areas as well.

National Parkways – the road and the land surrounding the parkway.  These are designed for driving slowly through scenic areas.

Performing Arts – there is one park for performing arts in the national park system and that is Wolftrap Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia.


A list showing the various National Park abbreviations that are used in the National Park System.
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A list from my National Parks Passport showing the various National Park abbreviations that are used.


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Websites visited:

Encyclopedia Britannica

National Park System Designations

Creation of the National Park Service tally

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