The Quick and Dirty Guide to American National Parks

This guide is for both Americans who are looking to explore their own country, and for those from outside of the US who are looking to make a trip to America. It is by no means an exhaustive treatment of the subject, but it should answer some of the obvious questions and give you a place to start your planning.

The National Park System

Parks in the United States can be very confusing. Every level of government has their own parks. Cities (Central Park in New York), states (Redwood State Park in California) and federal (Yellowstone) all have their own park systems. The National Park System is a division of the Department of the Interior and is responsible for the 418 units in the National Park System.

They should not be confused with the National Forest system which is run by the Department of the Agriculture (yes, trees are viewed as a crop). National Forests are often run like parks but with important differences. They usually are not as developed for tourism, often allow hunting and fishing and limited firewood gathering. National Parks seldom allow hunting (none that I am aware of) and does allow the collection of firewood and rocks. The National Park Service also manages historical sites as well as the city park system in Washington DC.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Park System Naming Conventions

The National Park System includes not only national parks, but monuments, historic sites, battlefields, recreation areas, preserves, seashores, lakeshores, trails, scenic rivers, and other designations. Officially, there is no difference between the titles given to locations. Unofficially, locations given the designation of “National Park” are usually considered the premier destinations in the system.

Sometimes a site might be upgraded from a preserve or monument to the status of a park. Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge was upgraded to a national park in 1978, for example.

What Is And Isn’t In The Park System

Many of the famous landmarks in the United States are not part of the National Park System. The Golden Gate Bridge, the Hollywood sign in LA, The Smithsonian Museums, Mount Vernon, and Monticello are not part of the park system. The decision process of what is and what is not part of the park system is often a matter of politics. Only a few blocks from Independence Hall in Philadelphia is the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial. Who is Thaddeus Kosciuszko you ask? Exactly. It was basically a bone thrown to the Polish-American community.

There is a National Park Service location in every state and US Territory including Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

Bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The Crown Jewels in the Park System

You are probably aware of the top attractions in the park system. The big three are usually considered to be The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite. After this, there are a large group of second-tier parks which outstanding in their own right, but just don’t get as much attention. These include: Death Valley (CA), Glacier (MT), Denali (AK), Rocky Mountain (CO), Grand Teton (WY), Zion (UT), Sequoia (CA), Arches (UT), Great Smoky Mountains (TN/NC), Acadia (ME), Everglades (FL), Volcanoes (HI), and Olympic (WA). You will notice that all but three of these (Acadia, Everglades and Smoky Mountains) are located west of the Rocky Mountains.

On a related note, most of the major historic sites in the park system are located in the east: Statue of Liberty (NY), Independence Hall (PA), Gettysburg (PA), Valley Forge (PA), National Mall (DC), Gateway Arch (MO),

National Park Passport and Season Pass

One other thing should be noted. You can purchase a small passport book in any bookshop in the park system. You can then collect stamps (rubber stamps with ink) at every park service location. It is great fun for kids and adults. I’ve collected over 100 stamps so far in the 10 years I’ve been doing it. In fact, I’ve purchased three books because I’ve been to locations and forgot to bring my book. While I have read of people who have visited every national park, it is something which would be difficult for most people to achieve in a lifetime.

You can also get a year pass to every national park location for $80 per year. If you do a lot of traveling it can quickly pay for itself. Each entrance to Yellowstone, for example, is $25 and most large parks have some sort of entrance fee. Some parks do not have an entrance fee but do charge for parking, which is not covered by the pass.

Ellis Island National Monument
Ellis Island National Monument


With 418 locations in the National Park system, there will probably be something in the area no matter where you travel in the US. Take the time and do some research before you make a visit. The US National Park system is arguable the best in the world and worthy of exploration.

13 thoughts on “The Quick and Dirty Guide to American National Parks”

  1. What the east lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. The Everglades and the Great Smoky Mountains are two of my favorite places on earth that keep me coming back again and again.

  2. I love the national parks in Canada but, other than the Grand Canyon, I haven’t gone to the parks in the US. Seems to me that a road trip is in order.

  3. I agree with you about our great national parks. I’ve visited many of them and have a lifetime senior pass, acquired when they were free! I lived close to Rocky Mountain National Park for years. Love the picture of the buffalo, which is the mascot of the University of Colorado football team. I am a world traveler and am running a contest on my website. Give me the location of the photo on my site and I’ll send you a free book about my world cruise. Thanks. Janet Go, www.

  4. Cool post! My husband and I live in Colorado and are planning a backpacking trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in a couple weeks. Hopefully I will get to blogging about it soon after. I love how you mention Rocky Mountain in your “crown jewels” section. It is definitely a park that deserves more attention.

  5. Having worked for the National Park Service and enjoyed the locations since childhood, it is an institution near and dear to my heart. I’m glad to see so many people recently realizing the system’s worth and beginning to support it.

  6. I’m pretty sure there are no NPS units in Delaware. Sorry to nitpick. Love the blog (I check in everyday) and the new podcast- a great listen.

  7. One thing that might bear mentioning is that in the east, state parks frequently play that role that National Parks do in the west. Niagara Falls and the Adirondacks are both New York State Parks, for instance. Visitors should definitely not avoid state parks just because they’re not part of the National Park System.

  8. How funny, I never took the time to think about how confusing our park system must be to people from outside the U.S.! But seeing it written out like this, it does look a bit convoluted. The Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is one of my all-time favorites…it has some of the best hiking in the country!

  9. When my grandparents retired, they spent the next, idunno, 10 years or so touring the country in a fifth-wheel RV. They’d stay in some places for a few days, some for longer, and just kinda roll on when they felt like it. I think they’ve visited most of the national parks in the contiguous 48, tons of great stories.

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