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United States National Park System

set of protected areas managed by the National Park Service
Travel topics > Natural attractions > United States National Park System

The United States has an extensive series of National Parks, National Monuments, National Historic Sites, National Recreational Areas, National Preserves, and so on, which encompass some of the most spectacular landscapes and evocative landmarks in the country. Preserving much of the nation's scenic and cultural heritage, the vast National Parks system includes icons of American patriotism such as the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore, natural wonders like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite Valley, historic treasures like the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, geological curiosities such as the geysers of Yellowstone and the volcanoes of Hawaii, and memorials to the great and to the fallen of America's past.


Park rangers leading a Junior Ranger program
Some examples of the distinctive NPS brochures

The National Parks system incorporates hundreds of units spread across every state in the union as well as several U.S. territories. The vast majority of National Parks system units are administered by the National Park Service (NPS), although a few monuments and preserves are instead managed by other government agencies. These are indicated in the listings below by the following acronyms:

  • BLM -- Bureau of Land Management
  • FWS -- Fish and Wildlife Service
  • NOAA -- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • USFS -- United States Forest Service

Save for the smallest of sites, nearly all NPS units have a visitor center located near the primary entrances, where you can view exhibits about the park, ask a park ranger any questions you might have, purchase souvenirs, and pick up a map or trail guide. If you plan to camp in a park, the visitor center is often a required stop to pay camping fees or collect your permit. Park units administered by agencies other than the NPS, such as the BLM or the USFS, will sometimes also have visitor centers, although visitor facilities at these parks tend to be less developed than their NPS counterparts.

Park rangers regularly offer guided tours, nature walks, or campfire talks where they educate visitors about the park; information about these activities will usually be posted at the visitor center or campgrounds. At any NPS site, you can purchase a "passport book," which you can use to collect commemorative stamps from each park you visit. Many of the parks also have a Junior Ranger program, a learning activity for youth where children can complete an activity sheet (available at the visitor center) and return it to a park ranger in order to receive a badge or certificate.

Among the hundreds of park system units are several designations (parks, monuments, historic sites, etc.), but the designations for individual units are mostly technical and relate more to the focus of the individual unit than to the visitor experience, which is remarkably consistent across the units administered by the NPS.

  • National Parks are the crown jewels of the system, designed to preserve the most striking natural wonders in the country.
  • National Monuments are more numerous, and because they can be established by simple presidential decree, are more varied in their purpose, covering everything from scenic wonders to areas of significant historic or cultural importance.
  • Various other natural areas include National Preserves, National Seashores, National Lakeshores, and National Rivers. National Recreation Areas are intended less for environmental protection and focus on offering recreational opportunities in certain scenic areas
  • Important historic areas include National Historical Parks, National Historic Sites, National Battlefields, and National Military Parks. National Memorials pay tribute to notable American figures or events.
  • United States National Parkways are scenic roadways.

Lastly, the NPS, along with the BLM and the USFS, also maintain a series of National Historic and Scenic Trails that criss-cross the nation; for information on these, see the National Trails System page.

Fees and permitsEdit

Entrance fees for individual parks and sites vary considerably. In general, most historic sites and memorials have free admission or charge at most a few dollars, while most parks charge anywhere from only a few dollars to $30 for some of the most famous parks. Many parks that charge admission fees charge less if you enter the park on foot, bicycle, or motorcycle than if you drive. Additionally, most parks that charge make their admission fees good for a full 7 days. Annual passes for individual parks are also available, and tend to cost between $25 and $60. See the individual park pages for detailed admission info on each park.

There are several passes for groups traveling together in a private vehicle or individuals on foot or on bike. These passes provide free entry at national parks and national wildlife refuges, and also cover standard amenity fees at national forests and grasslands, and at lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation. These passes are valid at all national parks:

  • The $80 Annual Pass (valid for twelve months from date of issue) can be purchased by anyone. Military personnel can obtain a free annual pass in person at a federal recreation site by showing a Common Access Card (CAC) or Military ID.
  • U.S. citizens or permanent residents age 62 or over can obtain a Senior Pass (valid for the life of the holder) in person at a federal recreation site for $80, or through the mail for $90; applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and age. This pass also provides a fifty percent discount on some park amenities. Seniors can also obtain a $20 annual pass.
  • U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities can obtain an Access Pass (valid for the life of the holder) in person at a federal recreation site at no charge, or through the mail for $10; applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and permanent disability. This pass also provides a fifty percent discount on some park amenities.
  • Individuals who have volunteered 250 or more hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program can receive a free Volunteer Pass.
  • 4th graders can receive an Annual 4th Grade Pass that allows free entry for the duration of the 4th grade school year (September-August) to the bearer and any accompanying passengers in a private non-commercial vehicle. Registration at the Every Kid in a Park website is required.

In 2019 the National Park Service will offer five days on which entry is free for all national parks: January 21 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day), April 20 (1st Day of NPS Week), August 25 (National Park Service Anniversary), September 28 (National Public Lands Day), and November 11 (Veterans Day weekend).

See alsoEdit

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