When we cooked up the idea for visiting all the U.S. National Parks we had no clue how many National Parks there actually were, much less how the National Park System was organized. Then as we described our idea to others, we realized that many of them were as clueless as we used to be. So I wanted to define the myriad NPS designations and lay out the most basic facts you need to know. As American citizens the management of this land is up to – and funded by – us. So we better make the most of it!


And because Congress is in charge of creating and classifying these national treasures, it’s made everything about as clear as my view of the Beijing skyline. But I’ll try to hit the highlights that make up what people refer to when they talk about “national parks” and how the NPS designations (National Park, National Memorial, National Preserve, etc.) are different It’s a bit of a data dump, but understanding the elements of the National Park Service, National Park System and National Parks and how they all interact is really important context for us in our adventure. So I hope you find it interesting too!

National Park Service – an agency of the United States federal government that manages all U.S. national parks, many American national monuments, and other conservation and historical properties with various title designations.National Park Service logo

  • Created 8/25/1916 by Congress through the National Park Service Organic Act. (The NPS turns 100 next year on 8/16/2016, and that’s a big reason why we are excited to share our travels and help you #FindYourPark this centennial year.)
  • Agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior
  • 21,989 employees
  • $2.3B in operating costs in 2010
  • The NPS is divided into 7 regions
national park - jon jarvis

Jon Jarvis – Director of NPS since 2009

national park - sally jewell

Sally Jewell – Secretary of the Interior since 2013

National Parks regions


National Park System – the collection of physical properties owned or administered by the National Park Service.

  • Consists of 407 units
  • Encompasses 84.4 million acres
  • These are federally protected lands that are separate from the protected areas of the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Including these lands there are 6,770 protect areas.
  • The National Trail System consists of 30 National Scenic and Historic Trails, but even though they’re all managed by the NPS only 3 are official National Park System units. Since one of my family’s hobbies is Lewis and Clark reenactments, we give special love to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail (and they’re actually partnering with us to celebrate the NPS Centennial, so that’s awesome).
  • See a list of NPS units organized by state here
    • Besides all 50 states, NPS units are also found in D.C., Guam, American Samoa, USVI and Puerto Rico
    • Roughly 60% of the NPS units are as symbols and evidence of our history and prehistory (instead of just awesome nature stuff). These historic NPS units are automatically included on the National Register of Historic Places, which is administered by the National Park Service. But the register includes thousands of other entries with a total of 79,000.
    • Delaware was the last state to receive a NPS unit when it got the First State National Historic Park in 2013
  • The 407 NPS units are classified into 18 basic NPS designations.

NPS Designations

National Park Designations


National Parks – the “crown jewels” of the National Park System, the 59 national parks boast some of the country’s most famous natural attractions. These are the park units we are targeting for our for our year of adventure. Because, as crazy as we may seem, we’re not crazy enough to do all 407 NPS units in one year. We knew we had to limit the list somehow. Here’s the list of National Parks:

National Park 59 list

Here’s a map of all the National Parks.

national parks - map

And finally, here is one of my favorite maps from @Amazing_Maps that shows where’s the closest National Park to you. This map proves something that I learned a long time ago during our 20-hour family road trips from St. Louis to the Rockies… the Midwest is a National Park desert. I mean seriously, what’s a guy gotta do to get a National Park around here! Maybe I’ll vote for Ozark National Park in 2016. It’s also kind of funny that Hot Springs, the park closest to us now in KC, is the smallest National Parks, but it has the biggest territory. We think all parks are special in their own way and all, but, if I’m being honest, it’s probably the park I’m least excited for. Diatribes aside… here’s the map:

national parks - nearest park map


Hopefully now you have a better idea of what the National Park Service manages, what’s included in the National Park System and what it means when we say National Parks. Come back next week for the NATIONAL PARKS 201 post and we’ll give you an in depth dive on the fascinating history, usage stats and financial impact of the National Park System.

Written by Cole

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2 Comments on "NATIONAL PARKS 101 – Deciphering NPS designations, maps and stats"

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cindy brettell brown

You have done a great job of explaining the National Parks System! We visited many of the parks mentioned in the four quadrants area this summer and hope to return to some and add others as we enjoyed our travels immensely! Best of luck in your travels and we look forward to updates as you go along!

Rebecca Jewkes

That’s awesome! My family of 6 (kids ages 11, 9, 7, and 5) is also trying to visit ALL of the National Parks. We started last year and (luckily) live in Utah. We visited Arches, Mesa Verde, Yellowstone, Teton, and Grand Canyon last year. This year we are planning to visit Bryce Canyon, Zion, Capital Reef, Great Basin, Rocky Mountain, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Great Sand Dune, Haleakala and Hawaii Volcanoes.

I’m looking forward to your updates!