National Park vs. Monument vs. Preserve

The United States established Yellowstone as the world’s first national park with an Act signed by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872.  This was the first time in human history that a country set aside a large block of land “for public use, resort, and recreation” that “shall be inalienable for all time.” 

Bryce Canyon National Park

The National Park Service is a bureau of the Department of the Interior and was created by an Act signed by President Woodrow Wilson on August 25, 1916.  There are about 22,000 full time and seasonal employees and 221,000 volunteers for the National Park Service.  Its budget in fiscal year 2011 was $3.14 billion.

The National Park System comprises 397 areas covering more than 84 million acres in every state (except Delaware), the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.  These areas include national parks, monuments, preserves, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers, trails, and the White House.  The largest national park is Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska (which we plan to visit this summer) at 13.2 million acres.  The largest national park in the lower 48 states is Death Valley in California at 3.3 million acres.  In 2010, over 281 million people visited the National Park System.

Areas are added to the National Park System for their natural, scenic, scientific and/or historical values.  These areas are typically (but not always) large expanses that contain one or more distinctive resources such as mountains, mesas, caverns, forests, grasslands, deserts, thermals, tundra, estuaries, lakeshores, or rivers.  These areas may also be habitats for abundant or rare wildlife or plantlife.

On our trip we are visiting a variety of national parks, national monuments, national preserves, and state parks.  So what’s the difference between them?

A national park contains a variety of the resources listed above, and encompasses large land or water areas to help provide adequate protection of these resources.  Hunting, mining, logging and grazing are not allowed, but recreational fishing may be OK in some areas.  An Act of Congress is required to create a national park.  There are 58 national parks in the United States.

A national preserve is similar to a national park but may allow certain activities prohibited in a national park, such as sport hunting and livestock grazing.  An Act of Congress is required to create a national preserve.  There are 18 national preserves in the United States.

A national monument preserves at least one nationally significant resource.  It is usually smaller than a national park and lacks its diversity of attractions.  National monuments also typically receive much less funding than national parks.  Hunting, fishing, mining and grazing may be permitted if they do not jeopardize the natural values.  Many national monuments are managed by the Bureau of Land Management.  The Antiquities Act of 1906 authorized the President to create a national monument on Federally controlled land with a public proclamation and does not require Congressional approval.  There are 101 national monuments in the United States.

A national wilderness is a wilderness area within a National Park System area.  Wilderness areas provide even higher protection for the natural resources than do national parks.  ALL human development and improvements, including buildings and roads, and all consumptive activities such as hunting, mining, logging and grazing, are prohibited in a wilderness area.  Human activities are limited to non-motorized recreation such as hiking, backpacking and horseback riding.  Even ATVs and bicycles are prohibited.  Today there are 107.5 million acres of federal wilderness in 44 states and Puerto Rico, protecting 4.82% of the United States.

These are the official designations, but what do these designations mean to us on our trip of a lifetime?


Death Valley National Park, California

So far we have visited 4 national parks and plan to visit a total of 25 on our trip.  To us, national parks are the gems of our country’s natural lands.  They contain many high-value attractions.  They tend to be very crowded, with many hikers on the trails and lots of cars on the roads.  They require an entrance fee, but we bought an $80 annual pass to all national parks.  RV camping is allowed only in a few campgrounds, where fees range from $10-$20/night, and there are no electric or water hookups.  Dogs are not allowed on any trails and must remain in the RV while we go hiking.


Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

So far we have visited 3 national monuments and 1 national preserve and plan to visit a total of 9 on our trip.  To us, national monuments and preserves show the true restraint of our forebears.  These lands tend to be less dramatic but no less special than national parks, therefore it must have taken even more foresight from our leaders to set aside these lands for future generations.  National monuments and preserves tend to be much less crowded, with few hikers on most trails and few cars on the road.  Often there are no marked trails, so we can hike anywhere.  There are typically no entrance fees.  There are often RV campgrounds, but we prefer to roadside camp, which is allowed in many areas, is free of charge, but of course there are no electric or water hookups.  Dogs are allowed on most trails and in many cases can run free off the leash.


Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

So far we have visited 7 state parks and plan to visit a total of 20 on our trip.  To us, state parks are the mini-gems of each state.  They have many of the same qualities as national parks, in terms of crowds, entrance fees, and camping restrictions.  However, dogs are allowed on most state park trails.  State parks also tend to be much smaller than national parks, so there are often signs of encroaching civilization such as suburban development, air and light pollution, and noise.


Timm & Theresa enjoying our 20th anniversary in Death Valley National Park

Which do we like best?  That’s like asking a parent to choose their favorite kid.  We love the WOW factor of national parks.  But this comes at the expense of crowds.  We love the isolation and raw beauty of national monuments and really enjoy roadside camping.  We love how both national parks and monuments tend to be so vast that you can look to the horizon in any direction and see no signs of human development.  And we are continually surprised and amazed at how beautiful state parks can be.  In short, we love them all.  Thank you John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and all our leaders who had the incredible foresight to set aside these natural lands for all future generations to enjoy.


Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks