Photo: John

Discover America’s National Recreation Areas

Get to know these reserves specifically designed for folks to get outside and play.

Much of the country’s 640 million acres of federal public lands balance the need for recreation, conservation, and industry. As our approach to managing public lands evolved over the last century and a half, most federal agencies were tasked with achieving some kind of happy medium centered around multiple use. 

One exception: National Recreation Areas. As the name implies, these federally protected reserves are created with a focus on people enjoying them. National Recreation Areas (NRAs) emerged in the 1960s, following a national conversation that promoted the idea that public land should increase people’s quality of life by offering as many opportunities for outdoor recreation as possible. 

“Recreation in America should never become a club for the enthusiast, a toy for the well-to-do, or an activity reserved for the vigorous. Recreation is needed by most people, of all ages, to achieve useful, satisfying lives,” wrote the Under-Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Wilbur. J Cohen in 1965. “It is from recreation that our citizens of all ages draw the strength and refreshment necessary to enjoy life and to make a worthwhile contribution to our national community.” 

Two years earlier, in 1963, the Recreation Advisory Council created by President Kennedy outlined the criteria for so-called National Recreation Areas. The council wrote that “greater efforts must be made” by the government to “fulfill adequately the steeply mounting outdoor recreation demands of the American people.” In contrast to our national parks and wilderness areas, the primary focus for these new areas should be on this growing demand rather than preservation or conservation. National Recreation Areas should then be designed for “high recreation carrying capacity” and provide significant opportunities for recreation, and ideally they should be located “not more than 250 miles from urban population centers which are to be served.”

Since the 1960s some 40 National Recreation Areas in 26 states have been created, from Arizona’s Lake Mead NRA (the country’s first) to California’s Golden Gate NRA (the most visited). At Public Lands our goal is to help more people get outside to play, find rejuvenation, and appreciate and protect our public lands. On this site you can find the tools you need to plan a great trip, buy the best gear for the job, and get inspired to explore farther.

Photo: Tusharkoley

What it Means to be an National Recreation Area

National Recreation Areas offer up a variety of things for people to do, like hiking, camping, boating, paddling, swimming, fishing, and biking. They’re often located near reservoirs and forests, and due to the push to establish them near population centers, they include some of the most-visited sites among America’s swaths of public land. The goal is for these places to be enticing enough for folks to want to come visit, both for people who live nearby and those who live a few states away. Most of the sites are managed by the USFS and NPS, but the BLM has a management role as well.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area was established in October 1964 as the country’s first NRA. About 8 million people visited its 1.5 million acres of mountains, canyons, valleys, and lakes in 2020. Mount Hood NRA in Oregon, created in 2009, is our newest NRA and includes parts of the Badger Creek Wilderness and Mount Hood Wilderness. Four NRAs top the National Park Service’s 2020 visitation leaderboard: Golden Gate NRA (12.4 million), Gateway NRA (8.4 million), Lake Mead NRA (8 million), and Delaware WaterGap NRA (4.1 million). In comparison, Yellowstone National Park received 3.8 million visits in 2020. 

Recreation in the United States

Despite the fact that the push to get Americans outside began decades ago, that encouragement hasn’t always applied to all Americans. While white climbers were making first ascents in Yosemite, Black Americans were fighting for their civil rights, and Native Americans were being pushed off their land and relocated to urban areas.

Outdoor recreation still has a long way to go in order to achieve participation statistics that mirror the demographic of the country. In 2020 the Outdoor Industry Association reported that 53% of Americans ages six and up participated in outdoor recreation at least once––with 7.1 million more people participating than in 2019. Still, that means that almost 50% of Americans didn’t participate in outdoor recreation. The report cited a stark lack of diversity: 72% of participants were white. While Hispanic participation grew by 4% over the last three years, Asian participation went down 1% per year, and participation among Black Americans increased just 1%. Of the participants, 46% were women––and that gender gap hasn’t changed in nearly eight years.

In future years, those statistics should change along with the demographics of the country, and more people from all backgrounds get outside. Public lands are for everyone, and National Recreation Areas, with their emphasis on outdoor fun, are a great place to go for your first trip or your hundredth. 

Visiting National Recreation Areas

To plan your visit or find the nearest National Recreation Area near you, head to Recreation.gov.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.