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What is a National Park?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A national park refers to an plot of land set aside by a national government and usually designated as an area free of development. Often, these areas include pristine wilderness areas or other pieces of environmental heritage which the nation has deemed worthy of preservation. In the United States, national parks also include historic areas and monuments to scientific achievement. Within the United States, the National Parks Service is managed by the Department of the Interior, which manages approximately one-fifth of the surface land in the United States.

The National Park Service was founded in 1916 by Woodrow Wilson, who signed the National Park Service Organic Act. The act established the service and set forth the regulations which would govern these parks. The National Parks of the United States are a heritage which all citizens can enjoy, and are aimed at preserving wilderness areas, history, and wild life for future generations. Many Americans have visited at least one of these parks during their lifetimes.

The National Park Service employs tens of thousands of people; even more during the summer. The Service is represented by an arrowhead, standing for archaeological and historical values, which surrounds a sequoia tree and bison, representing vegetation and wildlife. The crest also includes mountains and a river to symbolize the scenic and recreational uses of these parks. The role of the Service has evolved since 1916, with several reorganizations aimed at greater efficiency and service. There has also been debate over use of the National Parks, especially surrounding off road vehicles and other such disturbances.

The first National Park was Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872. Yellowstone was set aside to preserve the land for the enjoyment of all, and restricted sale, development, or settlement. The Department of the Interior managed Yellowstone as a unique entity until 1916. The National Parks have been a popular destination for Americans ever since. Alaska houses the largest National Park, Wrangel-St. Elias, with 13.2 million acres of land. The smallest is Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania, which has an area of 0.2 acres.

Guests in a National Park can stay in luxurious accommodations like the Ahwahee hotel at Yosemite or simple camping sites. For many National Parks, reservations are recommended, especially in the Summer which is peak traveling season. Most National Parks also have an entry fee, which varies widely in price. Many travelers purchase a National Parks Pass, which allows admission to all National Parks for one calendar year.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By chicada — On Aug 26, 2010

@ Mendocino & PelesTears- The national park system is loaded with snapshots of American wilderness. I have a few friends that take part of the summer off to visit new places and parks. They are total outdoors people, and they enjoy camping, fishing, and hiking all over the country. Every summer they bring back pictures of their most recent adventure, and it is out of this world.

I moved a cross country a few years ago, and their journey has inspired me to drive and camp on the way. I drove with my girlfriend (who is now my fiancée) and stopped at a few different parks. We hit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, White Sands in New Mexico, and Zion in Utah before ending our journey in Lake Tahoe. It was a memorable trip, and we are hoping to drive back across the northern states, stopping at different parks on the way.

By PelesTears — On Aug 26, 2010

@ Mendocino- I have never been to Yellowstone, but I have heard it is amazing. I have been to Olympic National Park in Washington, and it is one of the most beautiful wilderness areas in the country. I went fly fishing with my grandfather and family when I was younger. The park is filled with winding streams and rivers, rocky shorelines, beaches, and thick dense northern rain forests.

When I was young I used to watch Grizzly Adams, and Olympic National Forest reminds me of the scenery in that movie. The area is loaded with wildlife, and Native American culture is prevalent. It has been about twenty years since I have been there, but I would love to take my family to Olympic for a camping trip.

By mendocino — On Apr 26, 2008

What a grand and visionary idea it was to create national parks. They give us all a chance to slow down, to ground us, and make us realize that we are part of something larger.

Yellowstone is one of those places, a gigantic mass of land whose grandeur humbles you. It is home to a diversity of wildlife, and unique to Yellowstone, geysers, such as Old Faithful that erupts on a regular basis.

Yellowstone has a policy of putting animals first, and people have to stay out of the way. You can not but stand in awe as you watch a herd of bison moving freely through the park, or observe elks resting in a clearing.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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