What is a National Park?

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What is the simple definition of a National Park? Simply put, it is an area of land set aside by a federal government for conservation and preservation. 

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner famously said, “The National Parks are the best idea we ever had.” But what is the simple definition of a National Park? Millions of people visit America’s vast array of national parks every year. However, few stop to think about what it actually is. Well, we won’t keep you waiting! Here’s the simple answer:

A National Park is a portion of land or water set aside by the government for preservation purposes. They often hold some ecological or cultural significance. Land, plants, and animals are all preserved within the boundaries of a National Park. 

Did you ever wonder how many National Parks are in the United States? What qualifies a park as a National Park? The answers may surprise you! 

In this article, we will discuss the following: 

  • What is a National Park?
  • What makes a park a National Park?
  • How many National Parks are there in the United States?
Glacier Point in Yosemite
View from Glacier Point at Yosemite National Park.

What is the simple definition of a National Park?

As previously mentioned, National Parks are preserved segments of land or water. All flora and fauna native to the park are also protected. Scenic areas and nature reserves encompass most National Parks. 

Many National Parks are under conservation because they contain rare landscapes and wildlife. For example, Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah has the highest concentration of “hoodoos.” Hoodoos are tall spiraling rock tower formations that jut out from the desert floor. Arches Nation Park in Utah has the world’s densest concentration of natural sandstone arches. 

National Parks also grant access to public recreation for countless visitors. The National Parks Service (NPS) seeks to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”

Millions of visitors and tourists flock to America’s National Parks every year. In 2021, the NPS received an astounding 297 million recreation visits! This is an increase of 60 million (25.3%) from 2020.

what is a national park Yosemite visitor center
Yosemite National Park Visitor Center.

What makes a park a National Park?

The NPS has a clear set of procedures and screening proposals for new potential National Parks. These procedures help ensure that only the best achieve the elevated status of being a National Park. To be an eligible candidate for becoming a National Park, a park or piece of land must meet the following standards:

  •  Have outstanding natural, cultural, or recreational resources on a national level
  • Be an appropriate and realistic addition to the National Park System
  • Be fully managed by the NPS rather than preserved by a different government agency or private sector

An area needs to meet suitability standards to be a candidate for incorporation into the National Parks System. A site must show a natural or cultural theme not currently or abundantly represented in other areas or parks.

The NPS must compare potential National Parks with existing ones. Similarities and differences in the land’s character, quality, quantity, resources, and public value are considered. This is all done on a case-by-case basis.

A thorough process is involved when considering when a park or land area should be a national park. This process involves members of the NPS conducting a preliminary survey of the land area to gather info about its natural and ecological significance.

Although the NPS determines when a piece of land is a good area for study, Congress has to approve it. If approved by Congress, the land or area under consideration is designated with National Park status.

Proposals for creating new National Parks may come from multiple entities. These may include: 

  • Public, state, or local officials
  • Members of Congress
  • Native American tribes
  • The National Parks Service directly

Average citizens are encouraged to participate throughout the whole process of creating a new National Park. They can do this through workshops, meetings, tours, and opportunities to review draft documents on the proposed park. Others prefer to get involved via informal discussions with friends and family about the new park. 

Sunset on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park
Sunset on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.

How Many US National Parks are there in the US?

The number of National Parks in the United States is simply enormous! Over the years, the National Park System has grown to 423 units (sometimes called “sites”). People often refer to these units as “parks.” The 423 individual units the National Park Service manages extend over 85 million acres in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories.  

Many of these national parks don’t actually hold the “park” designation. In reality, there are 63 official US National Parks. These, of course, are your well-known go-to parks like the infamous Grand Canyon, the awe-inspiring Yellowstone, and the timeless beauty of Yosemite.

Primarily, these 63 parks consist of a diverse collection of resources and make up a significant land or water area. In truth, however, there are far more naming designations than just the title of “park.” Some of these titles include:

  • National Preserve 
  • National Monument
  • National Memorial
  • National Historic Site
  • National Seashore 
  • National Lakeshore
  • National Recreation Area

What is a National Monument?

Most of these titles are pretty clear-cut. However, some may be less obvious. For example, a National Monument is established to protect at least one notable nationally significant resource. Typically, a national monument is much smaller than a national park and has fewer sights to see. 

What is a National Preserve?

A National Preserve is put in place primarily to protect specific resources. It is somewhat similar to a National Park. However, it differs because there are far fewer restrictions on hunting, fishing, and mineral and gas extraction. 

What is a National Recreation Area?

A National Recreation Area tends to be land near large reservoirs that allow visitors to experience water-based outdoor activities. They’re a haven for swimmers, boaters, and kayakers alike.

These areas also commonly include important natural and cultural features. Take, for example, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona and Utah. Located here is the infamous Horseshoe Bend. It’s arguably the most photographed and stunning section of the Colorado River. 

Horseshoe Bend Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
The view of Horseshoe Bend, located in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

How many national park sites are there?

The list below breaks down the 423 designated areas in the U.S. associated with each title, including the 63 primary national parks: 

  • National Battlefields (11)
  • National Battlefield Parks (4)
  • National Battlefield Sites (1)
  • National Military Parks (9)
  • National Historical Parks (62)
  • National Historic Sites (73)
  • International Historic Sites (1)
  • National Lakeshores (3)
  • National Memorials (31)
  • National Monuments (84)
  • National Parks (63)
  • National Parkways (4)
  • National Preserve (19)
  • National Reserves (2)
  • National Recreation Areas (18)
  • National Rivers (4)
  • National Wild and Scenic Rivers and Riverways (10)
  • National Scenic Trails (3)
  • National Seashores (10)
  • Other Designations (11)

Quick Recap

National Parks are crucial in preserving the precious, unique landscapes and wildlife we all treasure. They inspire millions every year and allow visitors to immerse themselves in some of nature’s most magnificent settings. 

With over 423 designated units, a considerable amount of land is dedicated as part of the U.S. National Parks System. While they may not all be defined as actual “National Parks,” many are still under the national status. 

So there’s simply no excuse for you not to visit at least one of them soon! So what are you waiting for? Check out what American national treasures are in your area and make it a goal to hit the road and visit! 

Grand Prismatic Spring Yellowstone National Park
The Grand Prismatic Spring is located in Yellowstone National Park.

About Me

My husband and I have three precious daughters and live in the Kansas City, KS area. One of our favorite things to do is travel across the country visiting our extraordinary US National Parks!

Let us know what you think about our content and if you have any questions, suggestions, or have any favorite memories or tips you would like to share. We would love to hear from you!

Happy Travels! Sandy