What Makes a National Park?

Kennicott Glacier(Wrangell- St. Elias National Park, 13,188,000 acres)

February 22, 2018, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial became Gateway Arch National Park. It is a lot easier to say and remember than the original title. Because of this re-designation, our list of remaining National Parks to visit is now 9 rather than 8. In our minds, the jury is still out on whether this really should be a National Park.

National Parks are often referred to as the “crown jewels” of the park system and contain some of the country’s best-known natural attractions. They are generally large, diverse areas with outstanding natural features and ecological resources and tend to be the most strictly protected unit in the system. Having said this, the newest National Park is only 91 acres in a metropolitan area and, other than being located on the banks of the Mississippi River contains no outstanding natural feature.

(Arches National Park)                               (Lassen Volcanic National Park)

We have concerns beyond whether this area is “worthy” of being a national park. Our national parks are in trouble financially. Even a change in designation from memorial to national park will incur large expenditures to change signage, promotional materials and operations. Rather than adding more units to the park service or changing designations, our Congress first should properly fund the system we have. Our national parks have been underfunded for quite some time and it continues to get worse. The National Park Service deferred maintenance backlog reached nearly $12 billion at the end of fiscal year 2017. The President’s current budget recommends extreme staffing cuts of nearly 2,000 National Park Service rangers at a time when national park visitation is at an all-time high. There are more than 20,000 permanent, temporary and seasonal employees but without the 315,000 volunteers who help take up the slack, our parks would suffer even more severely. Please consider contacting your congressmen/women and asking them to act responsibly concerning our national parks – a true treasure.

What makes a national park different than a memorial or a monument, or any of the different naming designations? Why are some places designated as national parks and then later “demoted” to a different status or even to no status? That has happened!

America’s second national park, Mackinac National Park, was established in 1875 and disbanded in 1895 becoming a Michigan state park. Platt National Park, established in 1906, was disbanded in 1976 and became a part of Chickasaw National Recreation Area. Sullys Hill National Park, established in 1906 was disbanded in 1931 and became Sullys Hill National Game Preserve. General Grant National Park, established in 1890 was absorbed into Kings Canyon National Park in 1940. Hawaii National Park, established in 1916, was split into two separate National Parks, Haleakala and Hawaii Volcanoes in 1960.

(Kings Canyon National Park)                                 (Haleakala & Hawaii Volcanoes )

The result of my research on the various designations of national park units has been nothing less than confusing. It seems rather willy-nilly in some respects.

For the most part, the different titles signify different types of resources and attractions: one expects historic buildings at a national historic site, natural attractions at a national park and recreational opportunities at a national recreation area. The title may also signal information about who established the unit (Congress or the President), who manages it, and what activities Congress has chosen to permit or prohibit in the unit. National monuments are the only units that may be established by the President although they may also be established by Congress. Most are smaller and less diverse than national parks.

102_4809 (San Antonio Missions National Historical Park)

IMG_2281 (Washita Battlefield National Historic Site)

IMG_4270 (Fort Union National Monument)

As of May 13, 2018, the National Park Service manages 417 individual units covering more than 84 million acres in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and US territories. There are at least 19 naming designations.

  • National Battlefields (11)
  • National Battlefield Parks (4)
  • National Battlefield Sites (1)
  • National Military Parks (9)
  • National Historic Parks (52)
  • National Historic Sites (77)
  • International Historic Sites (1)
  • National Lakeshores (4)
  • National Memorials (29)
  • National Monuments (87)
  • National Parks (60)
  • National Parkways (4)
  • National Preserves (19)
  • National Reserves (2)
  • National Recreation Areas (18)
  • National Rivers (5)
  • National Wild and Scenic Rivers and Riverways (10)
  • National Scenic Trails (3)
  • National Seashores (10)
  • Other Designations (11)

For information on units within these designations go to:


(Everglades National Park)                              (Katmai National Park)


This entry was posted in National Historic Site, National Monuments, National Park, National Park Travels, National Park Units, U.S. national parks and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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