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What makes a National Park?

Some quick background:

Although many people think that Theodore Roosevelt was the creator of the National Parks, he actually was not. His presidency lasted from 1901-1909, but the first National Park, Yellowstone, was created in 1872, by none other than Ulysses S. Grant. It wasn't until 1916, that the National Park Service was created, by Woodrow Wilson, to maintain and protect the land.

Theodore Roosevelt should get some credit however, during his presidency he signed into law the Antiquities Act, which, among many other things, stated that the president has power to create a National Monument (more on those below), without having to pass it through Congress (like a National Park has to).

The first National Monument to be set aside and federally protected was Devil's Tower in Wyoming. In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt wrote this protection into law, creating a space for future lawmakers to participate in conservation, preservation and protection.

Within a year, there were five National Monuments created, and within Teddy Roosevelt's presidency, he created 18 National Monuments and protected over 230 million acres of public lands.

It should noted that NPS is a department within the Department of Interior (DOI). The DOI manages millions of acres of public and protected land, including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Wildlife Refuges and many other departments. So when you read above that Theodore Roosevelt protected 230 million acres of land, this includes any land protection under the DOI.

Photos: Devil's Tower National Monument (Wyoming), Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming), Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)

But, before we get into what makes a National Park, we should probably define it.

Because, while you may know that there are 63 National Parks, did you know that there are 423 National Park units in the United States?

The National Park System operates these 423 units, which span 85 million acres, across all 50 states, the District of Columbia and US Territories. National Park units consist of National Monuments, National Battlefields, National Historical Sites, National Wild and Scenic Rivers and Riverways, National Lakeshores, National Preserves, National Reserves, and many, many more.

So, while there are at least 19 different naming designations, they are collectively known as "parks", and as the National Park Service (from here on, we'll refer to this as "NPS") puts it "the diversity of the parks is reflected in the variety of titles given to them."

There are two ways these sites become part of the National Park Service:

  • Through a vote in Congress.

  • By presidential declaration, using the Antiquities Act.

In recent years, NPS and Congress has attempted to simplify the terms and set conditions on each designation.

Areas protected for their natural value, and scenic and scientific quality are Parks, Monuments, Preserves, Seashores and Lakeshores.

  • National Parks: Typically, these contain a variety of resources, and encompasses a large area of land or water to protect it's resources.

  • National Monuments: Given to areas with at least one nationally significant resource. It is usually smaller than a National Park and lacks the diversity of resources.

  • National Preserves: The first National Preserve was created in 1974 (Big Cypress in Florida and Big Thicket in Texas), and was created for the protection of certain resources. The main difference is that hunting, fishing or the extraction of minerals and fuels may be permitted if they do not jeopardize the natural values. National reserves are similar to the preserves; and the first reserve, City of Rocks, in Idaho, was established in 1988.

  • National Seashores and Lakeshores: This category "focuses on the preservation of natural values while at the same time providing water-oriented recreation".

Occasionally you will see a National Monument upgraded to a National Park. Congress can re-designate a presidentially proclaimed Monument to a National Park or Historical Site. For example, it declared Grand Canyon National Park, which had been created as Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908 or Acadia National Park, which had created as Sieur de Monts National Monument in 1916.

During the Trump administration we saw the shrinking of protected areas in Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Because these were National Monuments, the creation and diminishment didn't have to go through Congress.

When you see a National Monument get re-designated as a National Park, it takes it out of the hand of the President and gives an extra layer of protection to the park.

Photos: City of Rocks National Reserve (Idaho), Chiricahua National Monument (Arizona), Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (Michigan)

Areas that preserve places and commemorate persons, events, and activities important in the nation’s history make up over half of the areas in the National Park System. "These range from archeological sites associated with prehistoric Indian civilizations to sites related to the lives of modern Americans."

Sites include National Battlefield Park, National Battlefield Site, National Battlefield (so much for simplification), National Military Park, National Historical Site, National Memorial, and more. And honestly, it is really muddled who and what gets which name. It seems like whoever creates the bill for it to be protected can call it whatever they want.

(If you want to see NPS try to categorize the uncategorizable, you can read their article What's In a Name? It's helpful... kinda.)

Photos: Mount Rushmore National Memorial (South Dakota), San Juan Island National Historic Park (Washington), Gettysburg National Military Park (Pennsylvania)

So, as we wrap this up, the conclusion that you should walk away with is this:

  • Even NPS doesn't understand why certain things are named the way they are.

  • Your tax dollars are hard at work protecting beautiful places across the country.

  • There are so many more parks you have to add to your bucket list!

Photos: Dinosaur National Monument (Colorado), Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Arizona), Glacier National Park (Montana)

Trivia Time!


  1. Which state has the most National Monuments?

  2. Which president set aside the most amount of land and water for federal protection?

  3. Which state has the most National Parks?

  4. What and when was the second National Park created?


  1. Arizona

  2. Barack Obama; setting aside 265 million acres of land and water

  3. Alaska; eight National Parks, plus nine National Park units

  4. Sequoia, created by Abraham Lincoln in 1890, followed closely by Yosemite

Photos: Sequoia National Park (California), Yosemite National Park (California)

**This blog was written in the afternoon of March 21st, 2023. Just three hours earlier, and unbeknownst to the writer, two additional National Monuments were written into law by President Biden. The two newest National Park units are Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Nevada and Castner Range National Monument in Texas.**


This is Nomadic By Nature’s earliest backpacking trip in Yellowstone — while most trails lie under a blanket of snow, Black Canyon of the Yellowstone remains mostly snow-free because of its low elevation. As we hike along the Yellowstone River, you will gain perspective of how wild the canyon really is.

This region is home to big wildlife — big horn sheep, elk, deer, bison, birds of prey, and the possibility of grizzly bear, to name a few. Highlights include a raging and untouched river, amazing geology, waterfalls, wildflowers and ever-present wildlife — all combine for a powerful experience in the World’s First National Park.

On the six-day version of this trip, we will have the opportunity to explore the lesser-traveled Buffalo Plateau. This area is surrounded by mountains, full of wildflowers and gives you the chance to unwind and relax in the solitude.


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