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National Parks vs. National Monuments


I think the question I’ve been asked the most when discussing National Parks in the United States relates to today’s article title.

What’s the difference between a National Park and a National Monument? The National Parks Service – the agency that oversees the National Parks System – doesn’t exactly make it easy on us (although, it’s also not really their fault). The question becomes even more confusing when the question becomes something along the lines of “what’s the difference between a National Park and a National Historical Park?”

The National Parks System currently comprises 423 units. Of those units, only 63 are actually National Parks or, at the very least, what National Parks nerds call “Capital N Capital P National Parks.” The remaining units are spread across 19 other designations, including National Monument and National Historical Park. Honestly, it’s a bit overwhelming, but we’ll go through it a step at a time!

The insignia of the National Parks Service

The easiest thing to address is the original query. There are two main differences between a National Park and a National Monument, one of scope and one of origin.

National Parks must be created through an act of Congress. The Antiquities Act of 1906 allows the president to designate National Monuments via executive order. Though there are exceptions, National Parks also tend to be large swaths of land, while National Monuments are usually “singular” locations. The first monument ever decreed does a great job of illustrating the difference between the scales. Devils Tower, dedicated in 1906, is a world-class structure. It dominates the surrounding prairies. Though the region is gorgeous, Devils Tower is the main attraction, whereas a complex like the Grand Canyon is vast and tough to distill to one location.

Several current National Parks started as National Monuments before being “upgraded” by congressional decree. The Grand Canyon, the Badlands, and Zion were all National Monuments first. I know it’s shocking, but sometimes congress drags their feet. Sometimes they get it wrong, too. In 2018, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis was upgraded to a National Park. If this spot doesn’t have “monument” written into its genetics, I don’t know what does.

Devils Tower in 1900, six years before it became a National Monument - photo by Nathaniel Darton

The general differences between a National Park and a National Monument are easy to grok, but, as we noted above, 18 other designations exist within the National Parks System. They are:

  1. National Battlefields
  2. National Battlefield Parks
  3. National Battlefield Sites
  4. National Military Parks
  5. National Historical Parks
  6. National Historic Sites
  7. International Historical Sites
  8. National Lakeshores
  9. National Memorials
  10. National Monuments
  11. National Parks
  12. National Parkways
  13. National Preserves
  14. National Reserves
  15. National Recreation Areas
  16. National Rivers
  17. National Wild and Scenic Rivers and Waterways
  18. National Scenic Trails
  19. National Seashores
  20. Other Designations

Some of these distinctions make sense. Lakeshores, Seashores, Rivers, and Parkways seem straightforward and they are certainly distinguishable from a National Park. But then we have the overlaps, such as Battlefields, Battlefield Parks, and Battlefield Sites. Seems a bit much, but at least there’s a general rule here, too. Based on the sizing, Parks > Battlefields > Sites.  Then, we still have the case of National Military Parks and National Battlefield Parks. It seems some historical jurisdictions are responsible for the differences here and some logic surrounds the designations, but each of these explanations balloons past the scope of one article.

If you’re interested in reading some of the histories of the unit designations, point your browser here.

The site of the Battle of Gettysburg is now a National Military Park

The historical sites tend to deal with, you guessed it, specific historic happenings. They tend to be smaller than a National Park and far less “outdoorsy.” Many National Historical Parks are intriguing and worth visits, but purists might become upset if you claim you went to a “National Park.” Sure, it’s kind of arbitrary and a bit pedantic, but I’m just looking out for you!

As of publication, 63 locations carry the big-girl classification of National Park. The first was Yellowstone, dubbed thusly in 1872; the most recent is New River Gorge, which joined the prestigious group in 2021. For a full list of the National Parks, click this hyperlink.

My favorite descriptor in the list of units above is “Other Designations.” If the system wasn’t sprawling enough, might as well just add a catch-all category. Looking at the units within that designation, they do sort of make sense there. They include the White House and the National Mall. Where would you toss them? Other Designation works!

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