National Parks 101: An Introduction to America’s National Parks

Some people would say that a park is a park. But if you’ve ever visited a national park, you might beg to differ.

National park sites preserve lands, buildings, and sites that are naturally, historically, scientifically, or culturally significant to the American people. They are managed by a federal entity known as the National Park Service (NPS), which is governed under the United States Department of the Interior. There are 401 national park sites across the United States, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the territories of Guam and American Samoa.

Hot Springs Reservation, now Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, was the first land to be set aside by Congress for preservation and recreational purposes in 1832. Established in 1872, Yellowstone National Park was second, and Casa Grande Ruins National Monument was third, in 1889. The conservation movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the work of prominent historical figures such as John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt prompted the establishment of Sequoia, Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Mount Rainier, and Crater Lake national parks. The Antiquities Act of 1906 gave the president power to set aside lands without the approval of Congress, and Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming was established as the first national monument on September 24, 1906.

The Arrowhead: Official Logo of the National Park Service

The Arrowhead: Official Logo of the National Park Service

The NPS was established in 1916 to manage the 30 or so national parks and monuments that had previously been managed directly by the Department of the Interior. Less than two decades later, the NPS went through a reorganization, and about 45 military parks were transferred to the NPS from the War Department, in addition to 13 parks that were transferred to the NPS from the Forest Service. By the NPS’s 50th birthday in 1966, about 225 sites were under its authority.

The mission of the National Park Service states:

The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world.

Today, with a $2.75 billion annual budget and 28,000 employees, the National Park Service manages 84 million acres of park lands, 121 million museum artifacts, 27,000 historic structures, 2,461 national historic landmarks, 582 national natural landmarks, 400 endangered species, 68,000 archaeological sites, and provides administrative support to 49 national heritage areas. [1] About 280 million people visit national park sites each year. The most-visited park is Blue Ridge Parkway (over 15 million visitors in 2012) and the least-visited park is Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve (19 visitors in 2012). [2] Sites range in size from 13,000,000 acres (Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, AK) to .02 acres (Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial, PA), and themes include natural, historic, cultural, scientific, and recreational.


Everglades National Park

But what are the parks all about? Some parks commemorate the contributions of great literary figures such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Eugene O’Neill, and Carl Sandburg. Others preserve sacred Native American sites such as Hohokam Pima National Monument and Aztec Ruins National Monument. American presidents are memorialized at sites like James A. Garfield National Historic Site and Andrew Johnson National Historic Site. Fragile and unique ecosystems are preserved at sites like the Everglades National Park and Congaree National Park. Important and sometimes tragic events in American history are interpreted at sites such as Whitman Mission National Historic Site, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, and Manzanar National Historic Site.  Great wars and military conflicts are preserved at sites like World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, Minute Man National Historical Park, and Gettysburg National Military Park. Cold War history is told at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site and Gateway National Recreation Area. Wondrous geologic features are showcased at Lava Beds National Monument, City of Rocks National Reserve, and Devils Tower National Monument. Exploration and Westward expansion is interpreted at Cabrillo National Monument, De Soto National Memorial, and Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. Scientific and archaeological discoveries awe visitors at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument and Thomas Edison National Historical Park. The possibilities to learn, experience, and explore are limitless at America’s national parks, and they are as diverse as the American people themselves.

What’s the difference between a national park and a national monument or a national historic site? The NPS has 19 official designations and an “Other” category. The term “designation” denotes what type of park it is. The “Other” category includes parks in the Washington DC area such as Rock Creek Park and Greenbelt Park, whose designations were not changed when their management was transferred to the NPS from the District of Columbia in 1975. This chart explains the designations:

NPS Designation Chart JPG

Click to enlarge.

National park sites are more than what you could read about in a book; history comes alive when you visit a park. Interesting interpretive programs for people of all ages enhance visitors’ experiences when visiting a park. Special events like historical reenactments and living history demonstrations allow visitors to experience first-hand what life was like for the peoples of the past. Cultural events provide entertainment, enjoyment, and education to visitors who participate in them. Educational programs give visitors different perspectives, and engage and excite children.

A visit to a national park site can offer children an exciting experience, that could influence their future career path and instill in them an understanding and respect for history, nature, science, and culture. Visiting a park can also be a remarkable experience for families as a unit, and provide a family with lifelong memories.

The Passport To Your National Parks® program, launched in 1986, promotes appreciation and visitation of America’s national parks. Start by purchasing a Passport book at or at any national park site. The handy, pocket-sized Passport book includes maps and information about national park sites across the country. When you visit a park, “cancel” your Passport book with free cancellation stamps, available at 400 of 401 national park sites. It’s a great way to commemorate your visits, and collecting the stamps can become a family hobby in which everyone gets to participate. The Passport program even has free iPhone and Android Smartphone applications, that act as a companion to the Passport book. Learn more:

More than 280 million people visited national park sites last year. Visit a park near you and begin your journey of discovery. What are you waiting for?

To learn more about the National Park System, visit





Passport To Your National Parks®: A Healthy Obsession

A Guest Post by John D. Giorgis

PassportCoverMockUp2Even though as far as I know, my grandma never owned a Passport to Your National Parks®, I think in many ways she is ultimately responsible for getting me hooked on this wonderful, fun hobby.   You see, even today, my mom will still tell stories about her childhood in the suburbs of Buffalo, NY and how my grandma would pack my mom and her four brothers and sisters into the back of the station wagon every summer for a family vacation.  Those trips would take my mom all over the country, and more often than not, those trips would include visits to national parks.

When it came time for my mom to raise her own family, the tradition of packing myself and my two sisters into the back of a station wagon each summer for a family vacation was just as-important a family tradition as having turkey on Thanksgiving.   Now our family was never quite so ambitious as to do the cross-country road trip to California (although our final family trip before I went to college was a flight to Arizona to visit my Aunt and to see Grand Canyon & Petrified Forest National Parks), we did go up and down the east coast of the United States during my childhood – and even though I didn’t realize it at the time, many of our trips did include national parks, such as the National Mall in Washington, DC; Independence Hall in Philadelphia; the Boston Freedom Trail; and Cape Cod National Seashore.

So, with road trips “in my blood,” it’s probably no surprise that once I was in college, I jumped at the chance to take a Geology Field Camp course in the summer after my junior year of college – and not just any field class, but one that advertised itself as visiting some of the greatest national parks of the American West, including Badlands National Park in South Dakota, Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming, Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho, and the granddaddy of them all, Yellowstone National Park.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI wouldn’t really get hooked on the Passport Program, however, until the following summer – which I spent as an intern for the National Park Service at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Colorado.   If you’ve never been to Florissant, this national park is a true hidden gem.  The park could almost stand on its own on the basis of the 35 million-year-old stumps of redwood trees found there (yes – very much like the ones found in California today), which have now turned to petrified wood.  What truly amazes here, however, are the multitudes of tiny insect fossils that have been so-perfectly preserved that you can still see the veins in the wing of a bee or stripes on the back of a beetle.   And as if that was not enough, there is also the human history of Adeline Hornbek, the remarkable pioneer woman who made a claim for herself under the Homestead Act in the valley.

Thus, it was while I was spending that summer among the alpine forests and meadows, almost literally in the shadow of beautiful Pike’s Peak in the distance, that it occurred to me – if there could be a place this amazing that I had never heard of, then how many other amazing places like this are also out there that I have never heard of?   And then it hit me – if I set out to try and collect a Passport cancellation from each of the national parks, then I would be sure to discover many more amazing places along the way.

At that point, I was hooked.   And pretty soon, I was quickly becoming known among my friends as “the crazy guy who is trying to visit all the national parks.”

JohnWedding-115-106As I was discovering so many amazing places in the national park system, it became only natural that I would plan one of the biggest days of my life in the national parks.  In October 2007, I proposed to my then-girlfriend Sara on a beautiful fall colors day at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.   Nine months later, we returned to Harpers Ferry, and were married at Historic St. Peter’s Chapel overlooking the town.  For Sara’s bridal shower, I bought her a Passport Explorer book, which we decided to use to collect cancellations for all the national parks we would visit together as a married couple.  So, of course, on our wedding day – we had to start things off by getting our first stamp in our Explorer!   Once we did that at the Lower Town Information Center, though, there was only way to get up to the Church – a set of ancient stone steps that form part of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.   So, yes, my bride can say that she hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail in her wedding dress!

Over the years, I’ve also become increasingly involved with the National Park Travelers Club – an organization which brings together enthusiasts of the national park system and the Passport to Your National Parks® Program to plan trips to the parks and provide resources to help collect the cancellations.  Visit our website at to learn more about the National Park Travelers Club and our 11th annual convention, to be held at Shiloh National Military Park this summer.

Featured Image: John Giorgis at Badlands National Park