Whenever I tell people that I’m trying to visit all of the U.S. National Parks at least once, one of the first questions that inevitably follows is: “How many national parks are there?”
When I answer that “there’s 401 of them,” their eyes often grow big, as many people have no idea there’s so many. That reaction is then often followed by something along the lines of “Oh, so you mean that you are trying to visit not just national parks, but also all the national monuments, and national historic sites, right?”
Well, yes and no. There are indeed only 59 places with the designation national park, which are places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon, which most people think of when they hear the term national park. However, there’s nothing simple or straightforward about what are the other kinds of designations that make up the U.S. National Park System. Its pretty much the case that there’s a list, and you just simply have to know what’s on the list. I’ll try and give a brief overview of what I mean here, and from time to time I’m planning to come back to this topic to explain more of the details.
So, without further ado, her are the designations that make up the National Park System:
National Parks – You can’t go wrong with this one. There are 59 of these, and not surprisingly, all 59 count towards the list of national park sites.
National Historic Sites & National Historical Parks – There are 125 of these – the most of any type. In theory, a national historical park is simply a larger, or more-expansive, national historic site. In practice, I find there isn’t often a clear line of distinction between the two, (as with so many things!) In any event, the vast majority of these areas count towards the list of national park sites, but there are a few exceptions, which I’ll discuss in a future post. The 125 sites also includes one International Historic Site.
National Monuments – Just to make things confusing, would you believe thate the Washington Monument is not a national monument? There are 75 of these. For the most part, a national monument is an outstanding natural area or historical/archaeological area that was protected by a Presidential proclamation – although there are exceptions to that too. A great many national monuments are national parks, but a great many are not as well. In fact, there are no fewer than six different Federal agencies that manage national monuments.
National Memorials – Most of these are national park sites, and many of the 29 of those that are national park sites are in Washington, D.C. The Lincoln Memorial is one, as is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and so is the Washington Monument.
National Battlefields & National Military Parks – Quick, think of the name of a famous Civil War or Revolutionary War Battlefield. Odds are, the place you thought of is a national park site. There are 25 of these.
National Recreation Areas – Just like national monuments, many of these are national park sites and many of them are not. There are 18 of these that are national park sites, and they generally come in two varieties: many of them are reservoirs created by hydroelectric dams for water-based recreation, the others are scattered areas of urban parklands that were created to “bring the national park experience to the people.”
National Seashores & Lakeshores – There are 14 of these, and they are pretty much what the name says they are. As near as I can tell, all of them are national park sites.
Parkways – The are actually four road-based national parks, the Blue Ridge Parkway probably being the most-famous (and also being one of my favorite national parks.) The National Park Service actually operates several other parkways – but there’s only four that count as stand-alone national park sites.
National Scenic Trails – There are eleven long-distance national scenic trails out there, but only 3 of these that are national park sites, the most-famous of which is surely the Appalachian Trail.
National Rivers – If you thought this list was inconsistent up until now, the rivers in the National Park System only add to the confusion. This category includes some places designated as wild & scenic rivers, some as scenic & recreational rivers, some as wild rivers, and some as just plain national rivers. Whatever their designations, all are considered part of the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System to protect their wild & scenic nature, or outstanding recreational opportunities. Many of them are managed by the National Park Service, while many others are not. Out of those managed by the NPS, 15 have risen to the status of being full-fledged national park sites.
National Preserves & National Reserves – Most of these, but not quite all, are national park sites, a total of 20 to be exact. These are protected areas that generally allow a greater amount of human activity, such as hunting and trapping, that generally are not allowed in other national park sites. Perhaps most-confusing is the fact that 9 out of the 20 of these are actually part of a bigger “national park & preserve” – which is a large national park that effectively “counts twice” towards the total of 401 national parks.
Odds & Ends – Finally, there are 11 national park sites that don’t fit into any of the above categories. Some of them are just plain unique sites. For example, did you know the White House is managed by the National Park Service? Many of the others are parklands around the Greater Washington, DC Metropolitan Area that just happen to be managed by the National Park Service for historical reasons.
So there you have it! That’s how you get to 401 national parks.
Thus, if you say that you are going to try and visit all 401 national parks, you can say that you will be visiting all the national parks, as well as all the national seashores & lakeshores, and all the national battlefields & national military parks. You can also say that you will be visiting most of the national historic sites & national historical parks, as well as most of the national memorials, and most of the national preserves national reserves. Beyond that, you can say that you will also be visiting many national monuments and many national memorials, as well as many other places that don’t fit nice and easy classifications.
What you can say, however, is that almost every visit to one of the 401 national park sites in this country will be special, and will reflect that National Park Service’s special commitment to visitation and interpretation of America’s most-important treasures.
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