National Park vs National Monument: What’s the Difference Between these Amazing Resources? (2023)

Uncover the intriguing differences between National Parks and National Monuments and explore their unique features and rich history.

Recently I gave a virtual tour of five national parks at a suburban Chicago library. I always allow time for questions, and one of them was, “What’s the difference between national parks and national monuments?”

Good question. 

I knew the difference in how they’re created: a national park is formed through an act of Congress, while a president of the United States can establish a national monument. Other than that? I’d have to find out.

Have you ever wondered about National Park vs National Monument? It’s easy to get them mixed up – after all, they’re both protected areas that showcase the diverse natural beauty and cultural heritage of our nation.

It can also be confusing when you realize that several national parks began as national monuments, like Zion National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, and Badlands National Park.

Creek in Zion National Park
Stunning Zion National Park, which was once a National Monument

Despite their shared objective to protect unique and valuable resources, there are some significant differences between them. 

Unraveling these differences is more than just semantics – it’s about understanding how we protect and interact with our environment and cultural heritage. 

Let’s dive into what these national treasures are, why they’re important, and what differentiates them.

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Introduction to the United States National Park Service

The genesis of the U.S. National Parks began in Arkansas. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson enacted the law protecting Hot Springs Reservation in what was then the Arkansas Territory, a decision driven by local fears of potential overdevelopment of this increasingly popular area.

The concept of national parks further crystallized when President Lincoln, in 1864, ceded the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove to California.

This action prohibited private ownership and firmly asserted the government’s right to establish parks.

On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant founded Yellowstone National Park, marking not only the first national park in the U.S. but also the first in the world.

Porcelain Basin in Yellowstone - you can see why it's been given that name!
Aptly-named Porcelain Basin in Yellowstone National Park

Its location in federally governed territory, extending into areas that would later become three different states, sidestepped any jurisdictional disputes.

Almost two decades later, the second national park, Sequoia, was established, swiftly followed by Kings Canyon and Yosemite.

President Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent conservationist, was deeply influenced by a camping trip with John Muir, often hailed as the father of our national parks.

This encounter led to Roosevelt signing the Antiquities Act in 1906, which granted presidents the power to designate National Monuments via executive orders. The first one created was Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming.

Devils Tower National Monument with field of grass and trees in foreground
Devils Tower National Monument

Fast forward to August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson founded the National Park Service through the Organic Act.

Then, in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt further shaped the administration of these protected areas by signing Executive Order 33, which transferred the management of National Monuments and military sites to the National Park Service.

Finally, the General Authorities Act of 1970 refined the role of the National Park Service, leading to the system we recognize today.

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Understanding National Parks

The term “National Park” might conjure images of vast landscapes brimming with spectacular views and diverse wildlife. And in many cases, this is true. But there’s more to the story.

Definition and brief history of National Parks in the U.S.

A National Park, by definition, is a protected area of significant natural beauty, set aside by the federal government for the enjoyment of the public and the preservation of the area’s natural condition.

The inception of the National Park concept can be traced back to 1872 with the establishment of Yellowstone – a grand mosaic of geysers, hot springs, wildlife, and wild landscapes.

Yellowstone Canyon in Yellowstone National Park
The stone really is yellow in Yellowstone National Park

Related: Best National Parks in the USA

Key characteristics of National Parks

National Parks, often vast in size, boast a variety of features, including mountains, forests, rivers, and deserts, each offering a wealth of recreational activities.

Think hiking in Yosemite, rafting in the Grand Canyon, or watching Old Faithful erupt in Yellowstone. Each park is a testament to nature’s wonder, serving as a gateway to adventure and exploration.

Creation and Management of National Parks

The road to becoming a National Park isn’t a quick one. It requires an act of Congress, which is a significant and lengthy process.

Once designated, the park falls under the management of the National Park Service, which is responsible for conserving the natural and cultural resources, all while ensuring that the masses can enjoy what these remarkable places have to offer.

The balance between conservation and public enjoyment is a tightrope the National Park Service walks with dedication and expertise.

Giant trees in Redwood National Park. Looking up from the ground.
Redwood National Park

Understanding National Monuments

National Monuments may not get as much publicity as National Parks, but they certainly don’t lack in significance or intrigue. These places are pockets of America’s rich past and vibrant natural wonders that deserve to be celebrated.

Definition and brief history of National Monuments in the U.S.

National Monuments, protected areas like their National Park counterparts, are unique in their focus on preserving not just natural landscapes, but also historical landmarks and prehistoric sites. 

Joshua Tree in Joshua Tree National Park. National park vs national monument? This park began as the latter.
Joshua Tree National Park began as a National Monument

Their inception can be traced back to the Antiquities Act of 1906, an act primarily intended to protect archaeological sites on federal lands.

However, the first National Monument was Devils Tower, a geological oddity that stands tall amidst the rolling plains of northeastern Wyoming.

Key characteristics of National Monuments

The term “National Monument” might bring to mind structures like the Statue of Liberty, but it also encompasses natural wonders and archaeological sites.

They’re typically smaller than National Parks but are equally diverse in their features. It might be a fossil-rich area, like the Dinosaur National Monument, or a significant historical site, such as the Fort Sumter National Monument.

Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaha
Craters of the Moon National Monument

Creation and Management of National Monuments

One of the key differences between National Parks and Monuments lies in how they’re established.

A National Monument can be created by a presidential proclamation, making their establishment faster compared to the congressional approval required for National Parks.

Once declared, these monuments can be managed by any of several federal agencies, or sometimes even by state, local, tribal governments, or private organizations, depending on the specific arrangements made at the time of designation.

Inscription from 1866 at El Morro National Moneument
Inscription from 1866 at El Morro National Moneument

They represent an adaptable and responsive approach to preservation and bring an exciting diversity of stories right to our doorstep.

National Park vs National Monument: What’s the Difference?

While national parks and national monuments both fall under the umbrella of federally protected lands, their establishment, purpose, size, and visitor experience vary considerably.

Comparison of the establishment process

The primary difference is in the process of their creation. National parks require an act of Congress, which is a substantial and time-consuming procedure. 

On the other hand, national monuments can be established by a presidential proclamation, a quicker and more streamlined process.

Distinction in purpose and preservation efforts

Purpose is another crucial differentiator. National parks primarily (but not always) aim to protect large areas of land of significant natural beauty, offering vast recreational opportunities.

Conversely, national monuments have a broader mandate. They preserve not only natural landscapes but also sites of historical, cultural, or scientific interest.

This could range from archeological sites and historic landmarks to areas of geological or biological significance.

The designation of Gateway Arch National Park created quite a bit of controversy, because many people believe it fits the definition of a National Monument much more than that of a National Park. It’s exemplary of the National Park vs National Monument discussion.

Inside Jewel Cave National Monument in South Dakota
Inside Jewel Cave National Monument in South Dakota

National Park vs National Monument size and scope comparison

When it comes to size, national parks generally cover larger areas, offering more expansive and varied landscapes for visitors to explore.

National monuments, while typically smaller, are no less impactful. They offer unique glimpses into specific points of interest, whether natural, historical, or cultural.

Differences in recreational opportunities and visitor experiences

The visitor experience also varies. National parks, with their grand scale and variety, provide a multitude of recreational activities like hiking, camping, wildlife viewing, and more.

National monuments, being more specialized, offer more focused, educational experiences around the site’s unique features.

In essence, while national parks and national monuments share the goal of preserving the nation’s treasures, each category offers a distinct lens through which to appreciate and explore America’s natural and cultural heritage.

Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park

The Shared Purpose of Both National Parks and Monuments

Despite their differences, U.S. National Parks and National Monuments converge on a shared mission: preservation and public enjoyment.

Both types of sites are integral to conserving our nation’s natural beauty, historical narratives, and cultural heritage.

They serve as open-air classrooms, offering in-depth and enriching learning experiences about our planet’s ecology, our ancestors, and our shared history.

Moreover, these sites provide crucial habitats for countless plant and animal species, acting as living laboratories for scientists.

Bison in Badlands National Park
Bison in Badlands National Park

They are also spaces for recreation and reflection, where visitors can connect with nature, recharge, and gain a deeper appreciation of the world around them.

U.S. National Parks and National Monuments, although distinct in their formation, purpose, size, and visitor experiences, are bound by a common goal.

They encapsulate the nation’s commitment to safeguarding its most precious natural landscapes and cultural treasures for future generations.

Each park, each monument tells a story – a tale of Earth’s geological wonders, the life that thrives within these habitats, and the imprint of human civilizations past.

Both types are invaluable parts of our national heritage. Understanding their differences and shared mission helps us appreciate not only the sites themselves but also the collective effort and vision that goes into preserving them.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument - gravemarker for a Lakota warrior
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

As we journey through these incredible places, we are not merely observers but active participants in the ongoing story of preservation, education, and admiration of our natural and cultural legacy.

List of National Park System Designations

In addition to national parks and monuments, the National Park Service has several other designations, each one protecting public lands.

  • National Parks: These are large areas of scenic beauty where the primary objective is the preservation of natural resources and public enjoyment.
  • National Monuments: These protect specific natural, cultural, or historic features.
  • National Preserves: These protect certain resources, similar to National Parks, but may permit hunting, fishing, mineral extraction, and other activities not generally allowed in parks.
  • National Reserves: Similar to National Preserves.
  • National Historical Parks: These protect places that hold historical significance and allow for public enjoyment and education.
  • National Historic Sites: Smaller than National Historical Parks, these protect a single historically significant site.
  • National Battlefield Parks, National Battlefield Sites, National Military Parks, and National Battlefields: These designations preserve and commemorate areas where significant battles or military events occurred.
  • National Memorials: These commemorate significant historical events or honor the memory of outstanding individuals. Sites include the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
  • National Recreation Areas: These are near large urban areas and provide a variety of outdoor recreation opportunities.
  • National Seashores and National Lakeshores: These preserve shorelines and offshore islands and provide water-related recreation opportunities, like Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
  • National Rivers and National Wild and Scenic Rivers: These protect free-flowing streams and their immediate environment. The Niobrara River in Nebraska is an example.
  • National Scenic Trails: These are long-distance hiking trails across some of the most scenic landscapes.
  • National Parkways: These preserve scenic drives.
  • National Heritage Areas: These are designated by Congress as places where natural, cultural, and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape.
  • Other Designations: This includes unique designations like the White House, the National Mall, and the U.S. Capitol Grounds.

Each of these designations contributes significantly to the preservation and public enjoyment of America’s natural, cultural, and historical treasures.

Petroglyph at Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, New Mexico
Petroglyph National Monument

National Park vs National Monument FAQ

What is the difference between a National Park and a National Monument?

While both National Parks and National Monuments are federally protected lands, they differ in their establishment, purpose, size, and visitor experiences.
National Parks primarily focus on preserving vast landscapes of significant natural beauty, and their establishment requires an act of Congress.
In contrast, National Monuments protect specific natural, historical, or cultural features and can be established more rapidly through a presidential proclamation.

Who manages National Parks and National Monuments?

National Parks and National Monuments are typically managed by the National Park Service, a federal agency within the Department of the Interior.
However, it’s possible for other federal agencies or sometimes state, local, tribal governments, or private organizations to manage National Monuments.

Can you camp in National Monuments?

Yes, camping is permitted in many National Monuments, although the rules and availability of facilities vary from site to site. It’s best to check the specific rules of the monument you plan to visit on the official National Park Service website.

Which was the first National Park, and when was it established?

Yellowstone National Park was the first National Park, both in the U.S. and globally. It was established on March 1, 1872.

Which was the first National Monument, and when was it established?

The first National Monument was Devils Tower in Wyoming, designated on September 24, 1906, following the passage of the Antiquities Act.

Can the public visit both National Parks and National Monuments?

Absolutely, both National Parks and National Monuments are open to the public for exploration and learning. However, the availability of facilities, visitor centers, and recreational activities can vary, and some locations may charge entrance fees.

What steps are being taken to preserve these sites?

National Parks and Monuments are protected under federal law, meaning their natural and cultural resources are preserved and managed.
This includes limiting development, managing visitor impact, conducting ongoing research, and enforcing rules and regulations that protect the wildlife, vegetation, geological features, and historical artifacts within these sites.

How do National Forests differ from National Parks and National Monuments?

National Forests are public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, a separate entity from the National Park Service. They cover vast forested areas, grasslands, and even some mountain ranges. 

What about the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM)?

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, like the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, is a federal agency that manages public lands.
However, the BLM oversees a vast range of land types and uses. Its mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.

Who manages National Wildlife Refuges?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is a federal agency primarily dedicated to the conservation, protection, and enhancement of fish, wildlife, and plants, and their habitats.
The USFWS oversees a network of lands and waters called the National Wildlife Refuge System, which provides habitat for numerous species and offers a variety of wildlife-dependent recreational activities to the public, including hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, and photography.

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