Photo: Ben Herndon/TandemStock

National Park Service Guide

Public Lands' Guide to The National Park Service

America’s public lands start with the national parks. They’re the seeds from which has grown one of the world’s leading systems of protected land. From the geysers of Yellowstone National Park––the country’s first and oldest––to the sprawling glaciers of Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park (its largest), America’s 63 national parks encompass some of the most spectacular natural areas on the planet. These parks are managed by the National Park Service, which was founded in 1916 and now manages a vast collection of parks, monuments, and other preserves. The NPS oversees a total of 423 national park sites spanning more than 84 million acres.

“The parks do not belong to one state or to one section…The Yosemite, the Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon are national properties in which every citizen has a vested interest,” said Stephen Mather, who served as the first Director of the National Park Service from 1917-1929. “They belong as much to the man of Massachusetts, of Michigan, of Florida, as they do to the people of California, of Wyoming, and of Arizona.”

A century later, the National Park Service safeguards a much larger swath of public land, but nothing has changed about the original, bold idea: This land belongs to the people. Our mission at Public Lands is to ensure continued preservation and access to these beautiful spaces for generations to come. We know that the simple act of heading outside can yield some of life’s best moments—transformative experiences with friends, family, or alone in nature. We also know that many folks haven’t had the opportunity to visit a park yet, and we want to change that. Our aim is to encourage and enable people to get out there and experience this land that is for them, whether it’s for the first time or the hundredth time.  

To truly understand a place is to love it. Below you’ll find a guide to the National Park Service, where you can learn more about what some have called America’s best idea. Elsewhere on this site you can dig even deeper and learn about specific parks, what gear to bring, how to plan a great trip, and skills for recreating safely. Enjoy what’s yours.

 

 

Photo: Andrew R. Slaton/TandemStock

HISTORY OF NATIONAL PARKS

National parks were largely responsible for changing the collective view of nature and its role in American society. This shift in perspective put the preservation of natural treasures above private land ownership––a remarkable departure from past attitudes. 

The idea for Yellowstone National Park was sparked by the Hayden Expedition of 1871. The team confirmed thermal activity in the area and its photographer and artists brought back visual evidence of its unique beauty, its rushing rivers and rugged rock formations. The results of the survey led to a national interest in Yellowstone. Hayden recalled: “The geysers of Iceland...sink into insignificance in comparison with the hot springs of the Yellowstone and Fire-Hole Basins.” 

Of course, the Native Americans who lived on the land for time immemorial already knew of the place’s importance and sanctity. The ancestors of 27 different tribes have connections to the land Yellowstone sits on, including the Crow, Umatilla, Bannock, Kiowa, Blackfeet, Cayuse, Coeur d’Alene, Shoshone, and Nez Perce. People of these tribes traveled the area, hunted, conducted ceremonies, and gathered plants and minerals. Some of their descendants still do these things today. 

Six months after the Hayden Expedition, on March 1, 1872, President Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act and created America’s first national park, “dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” The public, however, didn’t include the Native Americans currently living there.

After the establishment of Yellowstone, conservationists across the West lobbied for the preservation of various wilderness areas, and in 1906 President Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act. The act gave presidents the authority to create national monuments to preserve areas of natural or historic interest on public lands. Roosevelt used the act to protect Native American artifacts and ruins at places like Devils Tower in Wyoming, the country’s first national monument. The area is home to many Indigenous tribes, like the Arapaho, Crow, Cheyenne, Shoshone, and Lakota. The tower itself, a towering butte with large columns running from its base to its summit, is regarded as a sacred site and tribes still perform ceremonies in the area to this day. 

Efforts to preserve special natural areas continue to this day. Folks petition to create new parks, like the New River Gorge National Park in December 2020. And people petition to protect existing ones, like Bears Ears National Monument. 

The American model of preservation through national parks inspired other countries around the world to pursue a similar path. According to the NPS, some 100 countries have created more than 1,200 parks or similar preserves. 

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A NPS SITE?

National parks are unique in that they can only be created by acts of Congress (by contrast, national monuments can be created by presidential proclamation). The mission of the National Park Service was and is “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to 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." 

What does that look like? In our national parks there are more than 18,000 miles of trails, nearly 250 species of threatened or endangered plants and animals, over 75,000 archeological sites, and some 27,000 historic and prehistoric structures. Everglades National Park protects over 25% of Florida’s everglades, Dry Tortugas protects a large population of sea turtles, Mount Rainier National Park protects Mount Rainier (Tahoma) and its 26 major glaciers, and Carlsbad Caverns protects America’s deepest cave––at 1,583 feet deep. 

National parks are different from other federally managed public lands (learn more about the 640 million acres of federal public land here) in a number of ways. They often have strict rules (most forbid hunting and many confine dogs to very limited areas) and a lot of development. Think visitor’s centers, paved roads, lookouts, restaurants, gift shops, lodging, and commercial guiding operations. They’re designed to be accessible by your average automobile, no rugged 4x4 required. Not all of the national parks and other designated national park sites have entrance fees, but a little over 25% of them do (often $25 or $30). Parks have various free entry days throughout the year, and frequent visitors can buy an $80 annual pass, which offers unlimited access to 2,000 recreation areas managed by five different federal agencies. 

The 423 national park sites managed by the NPS protect areas of national significance and span 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands. Some 20,000 employees take care of these sites and work to preserve them for visitors seeking recreation and education. Preservation and protection is at the core of the work done by the NPS, but the agency also wants people to come to enjoy the parks through recreation. One of the best ways to protect these important places is for the public to go and appreciate them. 

VISITING NATIONAL PARK SITES 

In 2019 the National Park Service received 327 million visits (the third highest since 1904). Americans continue to flock to parks in large numbers to catch a glimpse of iconic fixtures in the country’s landscape: the 3,000-foot granite face of El Capitan (To-tock-ah-noo-lah), Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, or the Blue Ridge Mountains. In 2020, about a quarter of all visits were to the country’s six most-visited parks (that’s about 1.5% of the parks in the system): Blue Ridge Parkway, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gateway National Recreation Area, and Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The most visited national parks in 2020 were Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, Zion, Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, and Grand Canyon. 

Summer is often the busiest time at these places so planning ahead is crucial. Campsites often sell out months in advance (visit recreation.gov to make reservations) and some parks require advance reservations for entry. If you can visit in off-seasons, like the fall and spring, you’ll find more solitude. Try visiting parks with low visitation, too. Some of the most stunning scenery abounds in the least-visited national parks, from the North Cascades and the Guadalupe Mountains to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Learn more about how to plan a camping trip or use NPS tools to find a park and plan your visit

PARKS FOR ALL

In talking about the history of national parks, it’s important to understand something critical: They wouldn’t exist without the expulsion of the Native American people who were the stewards of the land long before they were designated anything at all. And that’s not history, Native American people are still here and are still using the land as their ancestors did. Our nation’s iconic parks were created through the forced removal of the Indigenous people who lived there.  

In Dispossessing the Wilderness, Mark Spence writes of the Native Americans displaced from the land that became Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Glacier. He notes that this idea of protecting swaths of uninhabited wilderness was in fact a construct––at the time of the park’s creation, none of these wild places were actually uninhabited. Similar stories of forced expulsion, at the hand of policies like the Indian Removal Act of 1830, are at the roots of other national parks as well. 

As recounted in Spencer’s book, in 1929 the Oglala Sioux spiritual leader Black Elk expressed “profound consternation” with this idea of wilderness preservation after Wind Cave National Park was created near his home on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He observed that Americans had “made little islands for us and other little islands for the four-leggeds,” and every year the distance between these islands, and the humans and animals, grew. As Spencer writes, “although a considerable portion of this Sioux country received federal protection, native peoples were largely excluded from their former lands…In short, Black Elk understood all too well that wilderness preservation went hand in hand with native dispossession.”

Questions of just who this land is for continue to this day. A 2003 NPS report found that people of color, and specifically Black people, were visiting national parks less often than white people. Black people were far more likely to believe that parks were uncomfortable places for Black folks and that park employees provided subpar visitor services. Five years later, a survey by the Park Service stated that “the lands set aside as units of the National Park System do not have the same meaning for everyone.” As a step in a better direction, the NPS created the Office of Relevancy, Diversity, and Inclusion to address these racial inequities in the national park system.

So while we can appreciate—and celebrate—that some of the most beautiful places in our country were preserved instead of being developed or sold to private buyers, we should not forget the human history of these lands, and who lived there before. And as we enjoy these lands and the transformative power of the outdoors, we want to ensure that everyone can do the same.

It all starts with experiencing our public lands.

FIND YOUR PUBLIC LANDS

Ready to start exploring? There are more than two dozen different public lands designations under the NPS purview. Here’s what you’ll find out there:

 

+National Park

From the iconic (Yosemite) to the remote (Gates of the Arctic), a national park is created to protect resources of national importance and preserve areas of scenic, educational, and recreational value. 

+National Monument 

National monuments are also created to preserve nationally significant resources, but are specifically intended to protect areas of scientific, historical, and cultural value. For example, President Obama officially protected Bears Ears National Monument in 2016 to preserve 1.35 million acres of the ancestral homelands of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Zuni Tribe, and Ute Indian Tribe.

+National Battlefield

These are places associated with American military history, including National Battlefields, National Battlefield Parks, National Battlefield Sites, and National Military Parks. For example, Gettysburg is a National Military Park. 

+National Memorial  

These sites commemorate a site or structure marking an important event or person (e.g. the Lincoln Memorial and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial). The smallest national park site is the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial, at .02 acres in Philadelphia. 

+National Historical Park  

Places that have been preserved or restored and commemorate people/events in American history (like Chaco Culture National Historical Park, an important center for thousands of Ancestral Puebloan people between 850 and 1250 A.D.).

+National Historic Site

Commemorates people and events in our nation’s history, like the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in honor of the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

+International Historic Site

There’s only one: Saint Croix Island in Maine, which sits right on the border with New Brunswick. It was the site of the first permanent French settlement in America.

+National Parkway

These scenic roads, like the incredibly popular Blue Ridge Parkway along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the land that flanks them are both protected. 

+National Preserve  

Created to protect certain resources. Tallgrass prairie used to cover 170 million acres of North America, but only 4% remains today. Kansas’ Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve protects that remaining acreage. 

+National Reserves  

Similar to preserves, reserves also protect resources. Washington’s Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve on the Puget Sound protects the historical, agricultural, and cultural traditions of Native and Euro-Americans.

+National Lakeshore

These all currently exist on the Great Lakes in Michigan and Wisconsin and both preserve the freshwater lake and provide water-based recreation. For example, the 21 islands of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin. 

+National Seashore  

Preserves shorelines and offshore islands and their natural resources. New York’s Fire Island National Seashore has 26 miles of shoreline, dunes, maritime forests, and 17 residential communities.

+National Recreation Area  

Areas surrounding reservoirs blocked by dams, and land and water areas that have been set aside for recreation, like Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. 

+National Cemetery

These are both active and inactive cemeteries, like the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery in Tennessee.

+National Heritage Area 

In these places, historic, cultural, and natural resources form cohesive, nationally important landscapes like the Cache la Poudre River National Heritage Area in Colorado. 

+National Scenic Trails

These preserve trail systems of national significance, and must have a natural, cultural, and historic value. An example of this is the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, which is 2,180 miles long and crosses 14 states. 

+National Wild and Scenic Rivers and Riverways

These preserve both the flowing streams and the environments around them like the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River in Texas.

+Other

Places like Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, the parks along our National Mall and Memorial Parks, and even the White House fall into this “other designations” category.

 

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