via Wikimedia Commons/NPS Digital Image Archives

The National Park System already has a lot to handle, with its 59 National Parks, but it’s easy to forget that the National Parks are just the tip of the iceberg. Total, the NPS manages 417 units under 18 different designations. But what’s the difference between a National Park and a National Monument? Or a National Historic Site and National Historical Park? Or between a National Reserve and a National Preserve? And, what is the one, lone oddball International Historic Site? Join us as we attempt to understand the subtleties that differentiate between each NPS unit.

National Park

via Shutterstock

Let’s get these out of the way. National Parks are declared for unique natural landscapes and are meant to protect these landscapes for future generations. As far as what to expect at one, they’re mostly developed and can handle large crowds. You may or may not find camping, but you will find visitor centers, roads for cars, and lots of walking paths, and off-roading is usually off limits. A National Park must be created through an act of Congress.

National Monument

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National Monuments serve the same purpose as National Parks, but the main difference lies in how Monuments are created. Monuments are created on federal land by Presidential proclamation, rather than an act of Congress. Teddy Roosevelt’s Antiquities Act of 1906 gave Presidents this power; he used it to create the first National Monument to protect Devils Tower. They’re often but not always nature-related; for example, Barak Obama created the Stonewall National Monument, the first National Monument dedicated to LGBT rights and history. Fun fact: the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest and Katmai started off as National Monuments before getting upgraded to National Parks.

National Preserve

via Flickr/Kam Abbott, Flickr/Anna Irene and Flickr/National Park Service, Alaska Region

A National Preserve is basically a National Park, but “natural resource-extractive activities” are allowed. That includes things like fishing, hunting, mining, and oil and gas things. The specifics of what “natural resource-extractive activities” are allowed in each preserve vary from place to place. Many preserves double as National Parks or Monuments. Basically, it makes it so you can hunt or fish or whatever in the areas of some National Parks.

National Reserve

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There are only two National Reserves (New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve and City of Rock National Reserve). These are set aside for mostly conservation-related and biological/ecological diversity and uniqueness reasons. City of Rocks also has a lot of interpretive historical significance as well. Since there are only two, it’s harder to get an idea of what a typical National Reserve looks like or has, though.

National Historic Sites, National Historical Parks, National Historic Landmarks and the International Historic Site

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These are both NPS sites dedicated to places of historic value. The difference between the two is pretty simple. A Site protects one historic place, while a Park protects an area that has several sites or buildings, or maybe even some natural features. All of the places in National Historic Sites and Parks are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Not all places on the NRHP are National Historic Sites or Parks, and National Historic Sites and Parks can be locally or privately owned. The ultimate honor for a place on the NRHP is to be declared a National Historic Landmark. The NRHP works closely with the NPS, but they are technically separate programs. Oh, and the one lone International Historic Site? It’s the St. Croix Island International Historic Park, a Maine island on the US-Canada border.

Battlefields and Military Parks

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There are scads of different names for different battlefields. We have National Battlefield Parks, National Battlefields and National Battlefield Sites, in addition to National Military Parks. There is no difference between these sites, beyond the names, and the difference in the names just appears to come from how Congress felt like naming the sites at the time. Generally speaking, anything designated a Battlefield or Military Park is going to be bigger or more significant beyond one battle. It’s also notable that some battlefields have been designated as Historic Sites/Parks (like Harpers Ferry National Historical Park) and National Monuments (Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument).

National Memorials

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National Memorials are pretty self-explanatory. They’re NPS-run sites that memorialize people or events. Of course, most of these are in Washington, D.C. but there are plenty all over the country dedicated to all kinds of things. Take the Flight 93 National Memorial, which commemorates the plane that was crashed into a Pennsylvania field on 9/11, or St. Louis’s Jefferson Expansion National Memorial, of which the iconic Gateway Arch is a part.

National Seashores, Lakeshores, and Rivers

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Let’s start with the shores. National Seashores and National Lakeshores have to be designated by an Act of Congress, and from there, they essentially function like a National Park or Preserve– they’re protected and conserved and made accessible to Americans. Most of the National Seashores are along the Atlantic, though two are on the Gulf of Mexico and one is one the Pacific (the lovely Point Reyes National Seashore). All of the National Lakeshores are on the Great Lakes. National Wild and Scenic Rivers (props for the cool title!) can be given to protect the “free-flowing nature of rivers in non-federal areas”, although the designation comes with less protection than a Wilderness Area or Preserve and doesn’t alter anyone’s property rights. Most of the Rivers are managed by the Forest Service, although the NPS handles some as well.

National Parkways and Trails

both via Shutterstock

National Parkways are, obviously, scenic roadways and protected corridors of park lands. They mostly run through or connect National Parks and Historic Sites. The Blue Ridge Parkway alone is the most-visited unit in the whole NPS. There’s also the National Trails System, which “to promote the preservation of, public access to, travel within, and enjoyment and appreciation of the open-air, outdoor areas and historic resources of the Nation.” You’ll find National Scenic Trails, National Recreation Trails, National Historic Trails, and then connecting and side trails. The National Trails System is run by the BLM, Forest Service, and the NPS.

National Recreation Areas

via Shutterstock and Wikimedia Commons/Will Elder

National Recreation Areas serve a variety of purposes and often are the result of inter-agency goings-on, and not all are run by the NPS. But first and foremost, they’re protected areas. What constitutes an NRA over a Park or Reserve or Historic Site can run the gamut. They can be mountains and forests (like Mount Hood NRA) or urbaner (Golden Gate NRA). Cuyahoga Valley National Park actually stated as a National Recreation Area.


via Wikimedia Commons/Chief Photographer’s Mate Johnny Bivera; cropped by Beyond My Ken and Wikimedia Commons/Abhinaba Basu and Shutterstock

And, of course, the NPS allows for one-offs. Some, like Greenbelt Park or Fort Washington Park, are managed by the NPS (and often other agencies as well) and serve more as Historic Sites or Parkways. Other one-offs include places like Ebeys Landing Historical Reserve or Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. Some have double designations, like the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area or the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine. There’s also the National Mall, which where many of the National Monuments and National Memorials are located in D.C.

More stories from our National Parks…

The heartbreaking tale of how a National Monument was literally robbed of its status

Yosemite: America’s most haunted National Park

A few very good reasons why you shouldn’t steal Haleakala National Park’s cursed lava rocks




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