National Park Service Terminology

August 25 1916, under President Woodrow Wilson the  National Park Service Organic Act was signed and passed into law, establishing the NPS, which manages the nation’s 400 national parks. As a show of appreciation I am dedicating the entire week on the blog to sharing information and inspiration about the park service. To kick off the week of appreciation, I want to start with the, sometimes overwhelming, Terminology of the National Park Service.

Maybe you’ve heard before that there are only about 60 National Parks, which is true, however there are also 57 National Historical Parks, not to be confused with the 76 National Historical Sites. Don’t get me started on National battlefield Parks, National Military Parks, National Battlefields, and National battlefield sites. Confused yet? Don’t worry that’s what this post is for, we will be breaking these down, explaining what the difference is and why.

Let’s start with a fun numbers graphic! Yay!

These plus 11 “Other Designations” make up the 419 areas, commonly referred to as “parks”

As you can see the 62 National Parks that the park service is most known for, is truly the tip of the iceberg concerning how much the park service truly manages.

So what’s the difference? How does a place get determined to be a National Park, and what makes it a National Park instead of a National Historical Park? Or what about the difference between a National Forest and a National Park?

First let’s break down the most common then we’ll get into some of the specifics.

According to the National Park Service website, the park service is responsible for a total of 419 areas, that each fall under a certain naming designation, as seen in the graphic above. Note that there are 11 additional areas that have names of their own, such as the White House, that don’t fall into any certain designation.

All 419 areas are commonly referred to as “parks” and for simplicity that is also the term we will be using. These parks end up under the protection of the NPS for one of two reasons, their historical significance or natural value. Natural value being seen as scenic or scientific quality.

Parks-Natural Value

National Park

Defined by the NPS website as containing “a variety of resources and encompasses large land or water areas to help provide adequate protection of the resources.”

Example: Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

The Badlands were established as a National Park “in order to preserve the natural scenery and educational resources within its boundaries.” Education resources being cited as allowing “specific scientific and educational institutions to excavate in the pursuit of educational, geological, and zoological observation. “

National Monument

Different from, but incredibly similar to, a National Park, National Monuments are “intended to preserve at least one nationally significant resource. It is usually smaller than a national park and lacks its diversity of attractions.”

An Example: Agate Fossil Beds in Nebraska

Agate Fossil Beds are a National Monument because they preserve “the outstanding paleontological sites known as the Agate Springs Establishment. Fossil Quarries, and nearby related geological phenomena, to provide a center for continuing paleontological research and for the display and interpretation of scientific specimens”

National reserves/preserves

National Preserves are, as the name implies, areas that have been designated for preservation by the government due to one specific resource. The difference between reserves and preserves, primarily, is that reserves management may be passed over to the state government.

Another significant difference between a National Park and a National Preserve are the different prohibitions of fishing, hunting, or extraction of minerals. Typically National Parks have strict laws prohibiting the gathering and extraction of resources within the park, whereas National Preserves may permit certain resources to be extracted.

Example: Big Cypress National Preserve

Big Cypress is protected because of the swamp’s direct impact on the southern Everglades (also a National Park.) The Everglades, and much of the ecosystems in southwestern Florida, depend on the flow of freshwater from Big Cypress’ many estuaries. Big Cypress was the first National Preserve, created out of local’s desire for preservation, but reluctance to give up hunting and fishing activities in the area.

National Lake/Seashores

Fairly straightforward, National Seashores and Lakeshores are created with a “focus on the preservation of natural values while at the same time providing water-oriented recreation.”

Example: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Currently, all National Lakeshores reside on the shores of the Great Lakes

National Rivers/Wild and Scenic Rivers (WSR)

It was difficult to find the difference between National Rivers and National Wild and Scenic Rivers, essentially it comes down to governmental bureaucracy. AKA who is responsible for what. The US has 209 National Wild and Scenic Rivers, however only a handful are managed by the National Park Service, most are handled by the National Forest Service.

Some National WSR’s are managed by the Forest Service, except where the river flows naturally through a National Park, where the NPS takes over and maintains the river within the parks bounds.

Regardless they are protected to “preserve freeflowing streams and their immediate environment with at least one outstandingly remarkable natural, cultural, or recreational value. They must flow naturally without major alteration of the waterway by dams, diversion, or otherwise alteration”

Example: Obed Wild and Scenic River in Tennessee

National Rivers have 3 different designations they can fall under: Wild, Scenic, or Recreational. Wild being defined as entirely primitive, accessed only by trails and non maintained shorebanks. Recreational are entirely maintained, easily accessible via car or train. Scenic is roughly in between the two.

For more information on the U.S Wild and Scenic River System visit their website.

National Scenic/Historic Trails

National Scenic trails are foot trails preserved for recreation and their scenic value. National Historic Trails “recognize original trails or routes of travel of national historical significance. Though there are only 3 parks that are officially designated to the NPS by congress, there are 30 trail systems the NPS assists in managing.

Example of National Scenic Trail: The Appalachian Trail

Spanning over 2,000 miles and 14 states, taking roughly 6 months to complete, the Appalachian Trail is considered the longest hiking only trail in the world. The AT is managed in part by the NPS, NFS, State Departments, and countless volunteers.

Example of National Historic Trail: The Trail of Tears

The Trail of Tears “commemorates the survival of the Cherokee people, forcefully removed from their homelands in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee to live in “Indian Territory”, now Oklahoma”

There are many sites, museums, and commemorative parks along the trail used to preserve and protect the history of the Cherokee people. Also used to educate and remind us all of the heinous crimes committed against the tribe. Many parts of the trail now cross private property and highways, to walk it in its entirety would be difficult, but can be done with permission from private land owners.

Parks-Historical Value

National Historic Site

The most common designation for areas of historical significance is “National Historic Site.” More than half of the parks serviced by the NPS are of historical value, National Historic Sites get classified this way based on the areas cultural or historic significance and can only be appointed this way through an act of Congress. Meaning that something of historical significance to the US must have happened in that area, such as a president having lived or died there.

When it comes to areas of historical significance as it relates to the military, those areas are classified differently and we will talk about that coming up.

Example: Lincoln Home National Historic Site

Former home of President Abraham Lincoln and family for 16 years.

National Historical Park

The main difference between a National Historic site and National Historical Park is size. Typically a “park” is larger and/or contains multiple areas of significance than a “site” does. This is not a hard and fast rule, however, but for the most part this is the most significant difference in the two.

It is important to note that though they are designated as “parks” they are not always areas of outdoor recreation. Some of these “parks” are actually located in urban areas, but the designation is given to the entire area.

Example: Women’s Rights National Historical Park

Crowd of bronze statues stand in a room. the statues are of women in 1848 hosting the first Woman's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls.

“Women’s Rights National Historical Park tells the story of the first Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, NY on July 19-20,1848.”NPS

International Historic Site

There is only one International Historic Site, which refers to a site that is relevant to both U.S. and Canadian history. The site also lies partially in the state of Maine and partially in the providence of New Brunswick. In 1604, Saint Croix Island became France’s first attempt at colonization in North America.

National Battlefields/National Military Parks/National Battlefield Parks/National Battlefield Sites

Wow okay just breathe, I know that is a lot and you’re probably thinking “what is the point in all of the different classifications??” Don’t worry I thought the same thing too, but lucky for you I did the research so you don’t have to, you can thank me later. 😉

While there is no specific reason why these sites which are so similar have different names, but it seems that again size plays a part. National Battlefield Sites tend to be larger than National Battlefield’s and a National Battlefield Park is even larger and tends to include more parkland. Again, there is no hard and fast rule and the different designations appear to represent Congressional attitudes at the time of authorization of each individual site.

The designation applies to “sites where historic battles were fought on American soil during the armed conflicts that shaped the growth and development of the United States….” It is also important to note that “the National Park Service does not distinguish among the four designations in terms of their preservation or management policies.”

A National Military Park seems to be an area which has more significance with the military other than a being a battlefield site.

Example: Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Georgia and Tennessee

1800 style cannons lined in a row in the middle of an open field surrounded by trees

The taking of Chattanooga during the Civil War was considered to be a key component to the eventual fall of the Confederacy. This was the first established Military Park in 1890, originally under the War Department but later transferred to the NPS after its creation in 1916.

National Memorial

The biggest distinction a National Memorial has is that is it primarily commemorative, meaning it’s historical significance isn’t tied to something that may have happened in that area.

A great example is the Lincoln Memorial, Lincoln himself had nothing to do with the famous memorial, nor is there any evidence he himself did anything significant in that specific area. The statue is simply to memorialize him and remember his contribution to American History.

There are a few National Memorials that don’t have the words “National Memorial” in their title, but are indeed classified as National Memorials and maintained as such.

Example: Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, DC

Statue of President Franklin D Roosevelt sitting at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in DC. Behind is a script which reads "they who seek to establish systems of government based on the regimentation of all human beings by a handful of individual rulers call this a new order it is not new and it is not order"

“Using elements of stone, water, and unique landscaping, the memorial consists of five outdoor rooms that represent a prologue to the presidency and the unprecedented four terms won by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR).”NPS

National Parkway

As defined by the NPS website, National Parkways “encompass ribbons of land flanking roadways and offer an opportunity for driving through areas of scenic interest. They are not designed for high speed travel.”

Example: Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina & Virginia

morning light spills out on the Lynn Cove viaduct along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina.

“The Parkway meanders for 469 miles, protecting a diversity of plants and animals, and providing opportunities for enjoying all that makes this region of the country so special.”

National Recreation Area

While this designation was originally given to areas of protected reservoirs and water based recreation, it is now used for multiple outdoor areas. “Recreational activities, such as boating, fishing, or hunting, are often explicitly authorized in the legislation designating national recreation areas.”

Example: Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, California

Santa Monica Mountains at sunset in California

“Experience the famous beaches of Malibu or explore more than 500 miles of trails. The park abounds with historical and cultural sites, from old movie ranches to Native American centers.”  -NPS


I hope this guide is a great introduction to the vastness and complexity of the Park Service. If you have the opportunity, I highly encourage you to donate to the NPS using this link or become part of a family of thousands as a Volunteer.

While the naming of National Parks seems complicated, it is important to remember that the biggest significant difference is going to be in legislature. You don’t need to know or understand the naming to enjoy all that they have to offer.

However, if you are interested in learning more about the motivations behind the naming of the park, I found this document to be extremely helpful, though it is long and tedious.

Please note: as of right now many parks are closed or partially closed due to COVID restrictions in the area. Always visit the NPS website for the most updated and accurate information pertaining to the NPS or to get information on a specific park. Many parks allow (or may require) you to pay entrance fees online, check the website for details.


Safe travels, and HBD to the NPS!


All information presented here is to the best of my knowledge and was acquired through the NPS website, unless otherwise specified. Please remember, information pertaining to the parks is always changing, and this information may not be accurate in the future. Refer to the NPS website for more information.

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