An Explanation on the United States National Parks System Nomenclature

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Yosemite National Park, Muir Woods National Monument, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wright Brothers National Memorial, San Juan National Historic Site, Big Cypress National Preserve, and Oregon National Historic Trail.  All of these sites are managed by the National Park Service.  All of them are part of the United States National Park System. The names are designed to help explain their purpose and level of protection.  Sometimes the names are confusing and sometimes don’t make sense.  To most visitors, the designation doesn’t matter but learning the national park system nomenclature can help understand the importance of these American Treasures.

Understanding these names can help when planning a visit to any of the national park service sites or developing a road trip. Personally, I love to visit a mix of history and nature.

What are the National Park Service Designations?

  • National Park
  • National Monument
  • National Preserve
  • National Historical Park
  • National Historic Site
  • International Historic Site
  • National Battlefield Park
  • National Military Park
  • National Battlefield
  • National Battlefield Site
  • National Memorial
  • National Recreation Area
  • National Seashore
  • National Lakeshore
  • National River
  • National Reserve
  • National Parkway
  • National Trail
  • Other

Confused yet?  The naming is important. Each name has a specific set of rules and regulations that the park will operate under.  These rules align with the purpose of the park.  We have so many designations because there are so many different parts of the National Parks system.  Battlefields need to be protected differently than national preserve.

We can group our national park nomenclature into four different sections.

Nature

  • National Park
  • National Monument
  • National Preserve
  • National Recreation Area

All four of the above nomenclature is designed to protect natural and geological of the United States.  They each protect natural resources while still allowing access to these ecosystems.  Each one protects the resources in a different way.

A moose in Denali National Park

A national park is a large area of wilderness that is unique and breathtaking.  The national park designation has the strictest protection and the most restrictions for use.  They are designed to protect large areas of land and keep the nature wild.  Ignoring the recent addition of Gateway Arch.  All the 59 of the National Parks protect an amazing ecosystem and natural feature from the reefs for Dry Tortugas Park to deserts of Saguaro National Park to the Tundra in Alaska.  Not every state is going to have a land area worthy of National Park status.  These guys and gals are the crème de la crème.

Sunset in Jousha Tree National Park

National Monuments have similar to national parks.  Except, they are designed to be small and protect a specific feature.  The range in size but most are tiny. Take for example Devils Tower National Monument.  This 1,267 ft butte sands proudly over the plains of Wyoming.  The entire monument is only 2.1 sq miles.  The feature is protected without limiting the use of surrounding land.

Dinosaur National Monument protects some of the most significant dinosaur bone finds and some amazing canyons.

National Preserves get interesting.  Many but not all national preserves surround another designation.  Such as Denali National Park and Preserve.  In the parts of Denali that falls under a National Park and activities such as hunting and fishing are banned or heavily restricted.  The land that is designated as Denali Preserve are managed such to allow hunting and fishing (within state seasons and with restrictions). Some preserves will allow for mining and oil/gas exploration while still focusing on protecting the natural resources of the area.

A National Recreation Area are protected areas of land near federal dams or combinations of local and state parks.  These areas have the fewest protections and are designed more to provide areas of fun.  They will allow greater access and activities such as mountain biking, jet skiing, hiking, climbing.  The goal is to manage the area without placing a lot of restrictions on the area’s use.

Water

  • National Seashore
  • National Lakeshore
  • National River

All three of the designations could technically fall under nature. But I broke them out because they all specifically related to bodies of water and the attached shoreline. Most of the time the rules are similar a National Recreation Area. The real difference is these relate excursively to natural bodies of water.  The river are not blocked by dams and the lakes are not created via a dam.  The goal is to keep the area wild but still allow water sports to occur.

Cape Canaveral National Seashore

History

  • National Historical Park
  • National Battlefield Park
  • National Military Park
  • National Historic Site
  • International Historic Site
  • National Battlefield Site
  • National Battlefield
  • National Memorial

The history group is the most confusing group of titles.  Generally speaking, a park is used to refer to a group of historically related sites.   The parks tend to be made up of two or more places.  This can be seen with Colonial National Historical Park.  This Historical Park consists of several sites related to early American history spread out around Williamsburg, VA.

Gettysburg National Military Park

The sites are a specific place.  They might be someone’s home like Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site or it can be a battlefield like Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Site.  Every site is historically significant to the United States and our history.

A Minuteman missile silo as part of Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

As for National Battlefield’s I am not sure how they are different than a Battlefield Site.  They should just combine National Battlefield with Battlefield Site.

National Memorials are just that they are memorials.  They are not part of the history they celebrate or remember.  They are monuments to those events.  These include the memorials in Washington DC like the Thomas Jefferson Memorial or World War II Memorial.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota

Other

  • National Parkway
  • National Trail
  • National Reserve
  • Other

National Parkway and National Trails are usually part of another protected area. A handful count as their own NPS unit.  The parkways are a designed for a leisurely drive thru a scenic area.  The National Trails are either scenic hiking trails like the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine or Historical Trail that follow history such as the Selma to Montgomery Historic Trail.

There are 11 other units that fall under NPS.  Pretty much all of them should fall into another one of the designations already listed.  I am not sure why they don’t.

Why is the national parks system nomenclature important?

While I fully agree that it some things could be simplified.  I don’t think nomenclature should be the same for history and nature.  The current system makes it clear what 95% of the sites are by just their name.  There is no confusion for someone who hasn’t done a lot of research on the sites.

One might wonder why I have gone off on a tangent here but it is because of February 22, 2018.  The United States went from 59 national parks to 60 national parks.  Normally as a National Park junkie, I would be really excited about this.  But I am not.

Jefferson Expansion National Monument was elevated to Gateway Arch National Park.  As state earlier, national parks are about protecting natural wonders.  This is the case in most countries in the world.  Gateway Arch is a man-made structure that was built in 1963.  While it is an engineering marvel, it is not a natural wonder.  As such it should not be a National Park.  I can agree with changing its name because almost no one called it the Jefferson Expansion National Monument but in reality, the site should be called the Gateway Arch National Historical Park or Gateway Arch National Monument.

Photo Credit: Doug Kerr

I can make a similar argument for Hot Springs National Park but at least Hot Springs centers around nature.  The hot springs are naturally heated. Another park with a similar problem is Mesa Verde National Park but Mesa is kind of a combination of wow these Native Americans built these impressive structures on the edges of naturally occurring cliffs.  Plus the entire park is located on this impressive mesa that is worth protecting even without the cliffs dwellings.

Cli

Cliff Dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park

National Parks are meant to be special places of natural wonder, not a concrete structures.

The park names are important to make it easy to identify the main purpose of the park. The names also express the grandeur one can expect in the park.  I expect to be impressed when visiting a national park while I expect to learn history at historical or military parks. All 417 national park service units deserve to be visited.  Each one is unique in their own right.

Have fun planning your next National Park Road Trip!

20 Replies to “An Explanation on the United States National Parks System Nomenclature”

  1. Jennifer

    We sure like to complicate things, don’t we? It’s sort of like UNESCO. There are loads of different UNESCO designations and places aren’t simply a UNESCO world Heritage Site. At least the National Park’s Pass covers all the different designations under their system.
    Jennifer’s current road . . . The Perfect 3-Day Weekend in MálagaMy Profile

    Reply
  2. Meg Jerrard

    I had no idea there were so many different labels for nationally protected areas within the U.S. Would purchasing a
    America the Beautiful Pass allow entry into all these different classifications I wonder? It makes it tough when you have state parks, county parks, etc where annual passes are not valid in between the different levels of government protected areas.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Post author

      America the Beautiful Pass is good for entrance to all the parks under National Park Service control (and most the federal forests as well). State systems are different which sucks but again I like keeping something under state control.

      Reply
  3. Lucy

    Thank you for explaining! I had no idea of the differences, I thought a National Park was meant to be nature and natural! I would like to visit Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota one day though.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Post author

      Normally it is but some states are mad they don’t have enough nature worthy of the status and they think they should have one just to have one.

      Reply
  4. Efthimis Kragaris

    That was really interesting! I didn’t know that there were so many terms and I could not distinguish the National Park from Preserve or Reserve. Now, I feel more confident. And I truly understand the reason why you wrote this post!

    Reply
    • Jennifer Post author

      It is confusing to newbies who are obsessed with the parks. All the sites deserve to be in the national system but not all are worth the big boy title of national park.

      Reply
  5. Stevo Joslin

    Thank you for this handy guide to understanding all this new nomenclature. I have heard these terms all my life but had no idea they actually meant different things. A park is a monument is a reserve, right? I did not know that about the Arch in St. Louis, we went to see it but it was under construction at the time. A good excuse to go back now and let people know the truth about the park vs. monument debate.

    Reply
  6. Punita Malhotra

    This is so fascinating to learn. I had no idea there were so many terms in use. Now that I am more aware, I will be careful not to mix up the nomenclature. What made you think of this topic in the first place?

    Reply
    • Jennifer Post author

      Mostly was upset about the fact that Gateway Arch just became a National Park. It’s not a national park. Its a bunch of concrete in a cool shape.

      Reply
  7. Himanshu

    Though I have never been to any US national Park but find this article truly informative on US national park system. It seems a lot of thinking went into this nomenclature system wic makes planning so easy. I agree nomenclature should not be same for nature and history. And I believe they sould rename Gateway Ach national park too so that name is self explanatory.

    Reply
  8. Eva

    OMG, I did not know there were so many different names for national parks in the US. I do, however, totally agree that there needs to be different nomeclature for natural and cultural spaces. Now I will know what to expect when planning my next trip 🙂

    Reply
    • Jennifer Post author

      It does need to be cleaned up just a bit but the names make it easy to tell what each is. I can plan out time for a visit based on the name alone.

      Reply

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