The National Park Service might be best known for its collection of amazing National Parks, but alongside the 58 National Parks that span the country, there are also an additional 350 units within the National Park Service (408 total). Some of these additional areas are small, some are huge and all offer significant cultural, historical and environmental values that are worth checking out. And while the list is long, to help you understand the meaning behind the different NPS designations, as well as give you an idea of which ones to visit, here is a complete list of the different units within the National Park Service.
The cream of the crop in the NPS, there are 58 National Parks spread throughout the country with each providing their own unique landscapes to explore. From the bottom of Grand Canyon National Park to the peak of Mount Rainier National Park, from the vistas of Shenandoah National Park to the solitude of Isle Royal National Park, unbelievable beauty can be found around every corner of our nation’s National Parks, all waiting for you to explore.
The distinction between a National Monument and National Park is that a National Monument holds within itself objects of historical, cultural, and/or scientific interest. For example, the George Washington Birthplace National Monument has clear historical value, the Statue of Liberty National Monument holds deepening cultural value, and the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is a great place for scientific discovery.
Of the 19 National Preserves supervised by the NPS, 10 of them are in Alaska. Not much different than the National Parks, National Preserves differ by permitting certain resource extraction within their borders. That means you can fish, hunt, and trap in both Denali and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, and oil extraction is regulated by the Park Service in Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas.
National Historic Park & National Historic Site
Of the 78 National Historic Sites, every single one of them focuses on one particular building or grounds where history took place (i.e. MLK Jr.’s home at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site). A National Historic Park on the other hand generally goes beyond the specific site and has a larger area to explore (i.e. Chaco Culture National Historical Park). Within these two categories also lies the NPS’s only International Historic Site, Saint Croix Island.
National Battlefield Park / Military Park / Battlefield / Battlefield Site
National Battlefield Parks, Military Parks, Battlefields, and a singular Battlefield Site (Brices Cross Roads) make up the 25 battle sites preserved by the NPS for their historical significance. A few familiar battle sites in these categories may include Antietam National Battlefield, Richmond National Battlefield Park, and Gettysburg National Military Park.
Without too much of a stretch of the imagination, National Memorials are designated to commemorate certain events or people significant to national history. The most commonly associated place for memorials is Washington D.C. which includes memorials such as the Lincoln Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but there are also many others including Flight 93 Memorial in Pennsylvania and Wright Brothers National Monument in North Carolina.
National Recreation Area
National Recreation Areas within the United States are mainly run by the NPS, but others fall within the sanction of the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. Of the National Recreation Areas managed by the NPS, many are centrally based on water reservoirs including Lake Chelan National Recreation Area in Washington and the first NRA, Lake Mead, in Arizona. Others are based on surrounding metropolises including the first “Urban National Park”, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
National Seashore and National Lakeshore
What the NPS lacks in creativity for their naming process, they make up for in a wide range of scenic beauty. As in the title, National Seashores and Lakeshores are areas of land bordering great bodies of water, and whether you get to visit the Cape Cod or Point Reyes National Seashore, or you check out Apostle Islands and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, you are guaranteed quite the sight and appreciation for these near water locations.
There aren’t too many National Rivers under the NPS, only five in fact, but as you can guess they cover a lot of ground. Including in this category is the Buffalo National River, which is one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the United States, and the New River Gorge National River in West Virginia which is a mecca for kayakers, climbers, and base jumpers from across the world. Also included in this list are Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, and the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
Fitting right in with National Preserves, a National Reserve is an area of cultural or biological significance protected from further development. And like preserves, the two National Reserves within the NPS also offer some of the best recreation opportunities you can find including the rock climbing at City of Rocks National Reserve in Idaho and scenic hikes to be found at Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve in the Puget Sound of Washington.
National Parkways are perhaps the only units within the NPS that represent true automobile travel. But we’re not talking about the Autobahn here, instead, the 4 National Parkways — Blue Ridge, George Washington Memorial, John D. Rockefeller, and the Natchez Trace Parkway — all encourage plenty of pullovers and a strict speed limit that hovers around 35 miles per hour.
National Scenic Trail
While there are a number of different National Scenic Trails, National Historic Trails, and National Recreation Trails in the United States, the NPS only officially claims three National Scenic Trails under their regulation. These three trails are the 450-mile Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail, the multi-sport Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, and perhaps the most famous trail of them all, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.