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Note: All travel is subject to frequently changing governmental restrictions—please check federal, state and local advisories before scheduling trips.

What’s in a name? When it comes to exploring America’s great outdoors, National Parks, protected wilderness and natural history, the answer means a lot. Unless, of course, it doesn’t.

Let us explain.

You see, there are 419 “national park sites” in the United States. These collective “sites” cover more than 85 million acres and include landmarks, battlefields, historic parks, lakeshores, seashores, parts of the ocean, recreation areas, and even the White House. The two most popular kinds of sites are National Parks and National Monuments.

RELATED: The ultimate Southwest National Parks road trip

How can you distinguish the two? There’s no real good answer, but as a general rule, the 62 National Parks enjoy “elite” status. First created in 1872 after designating Yellowstone as the first in the world, these are the crown jewels of America, and (on the whole), the “best of the best” of national park sites. Not every state has one—in fact, only 27 do. And some National Parks aren’t nearly as impressive as some National Monuments. (More on that later.)

National Monuments, on the other hand, double in number (128 total) and are found in every state. Some people understandably mistake Monuments for only being statues, historic buildings, or smaller sites like the Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore, which are both National Monuments. But that’s not always the case.

In fact, the first National Monument—Wyoming’s Devils Tower, designated in 1906 and immortalized in Close Encounters of The Third Kind in 1977—is a radical, 5,000-foot volcanic plug that rock climbers scale. Meanwhile, at more than 1 million acres, Grand Staircase National Monument in Southern Utah is larger than all five of Utah’s National Parks combined.

Similarly, only one of California’s nine National Parks (Death Valley) is larger than the massive, 1.6-million acre Mojave Trails National Monument in Southeastern California.

So if size isn’t a reliable determining factor, what is?

Two things: One is the purpose of the area, and how is it being protected. National Parks are largely protected for their scenic, inspirational and educational value, whereas National Monuments are more broadly preserved for their historical, cultural or scientific value. Obviously those words include a huge amount of overlap, which is why people get confused.

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That said, National Parks can only be designated by Congress, whereas National Monuments are designated by order of the President. Since getting a lot of signatures is harder than getting just one, there are a lot more Monuments than Parks.

Sometimes National Monuments become National Parks—most recently when White Sands in New Mexico became one in 2019—after 86 years as a Monument. The most popular Monuments include the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., the Statue of Liberty in New York, Devil’s Tower in Wyoming and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The most popular National Parks include Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Zion, Yosemite and the Great Smoky Mountains (the most visited of them all). Both Parks and Monuments charge a fee, but some of each are actually free, especially less-visited or more remote ones.

In short, the difference is political. Which explains why Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, Indiana Dunes National Park near Chicago or Congaree National Park in South Carolina are not quite as stunning or rewarding as Grand Staircase, Devils Tower, Dinosaur, Canyon De Chelly or Colorado National Monuments—at least in our humble opinions.

Either way you win, though. Just know that some “park sites” are better than others, regardless of their official status.


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Blake Snow

Blake Snow

Blake writes for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies as a seasoned writer-for-hire and energetic travel columnist. He lives in Provo, Utah with his loving family and loyal dog, and hopes to visit all seven continents someday.

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