Glacier National Park, Montana

America's National Parks
An introduction to our country's natural and historical wonders

hree hundred and ninety-seven units currently managed by the National Park Service are scattered throughout the United States, with Delaware being the only state left out of the mix.  Only 58 of the 397 park units are officially designated national parks. Other units are authorized as national monuments, national seashores, national historic sites, national lakeshores, national battlefields, national historical parks, etc. Regardless of classification, each unit offers something special that makes a visit worthwhile.

An Overview of America's National Parks

   In general, national parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Glacier, Sequoia, Great Smoky Mountains, Everglades, and Olympic are large, diverse areas that offer a variety of natural features and activities. Each of these units is a destination park in which visitors can easily spend a week or more. National Park Service areas designated as other than national parks tend to be somewhat more limited in both size and scope. Still, don't overlook these other areas because they each enjoy their own special features and are often less crowded compared to the better known parks. For example, Yellowstone, our first national park, welcomed slightly less than 3.4 million visitors in 2011, while Devils Tower National Monument, our first national monument and located in the same state of Wyoming, had only a tenth as many visitors.  We consider Fort Laramie National Historic Site in southeast Wyoming one of our favorite stops when we travel to the West from our home in South Georgia. Likewise, if you are driving west to Yellowstone National Park, be certain to take time to visit Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Badlands National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, and Wind Cave National Park that are located nearby in western South Dakota. Each of these units is administered by the National Park Service and worthy of a visit. Big Bend National Park in southern Texas is in an out-of-the-way location, but the isolation is one the attributes that makes a trip to this park worth the effort.  This large, scenic national park had approximately 360,000 visitors during 2011.

National Park units with the greatest visitation

Themes of the National Park Units

   Most individuals hear the words "national park" and immediately visualize a natural wonder such as Yellowstone's Old Faithful geyser, Glacier's towering mountains, or the barren and sun-baked land of Death Valley.  The national park system is much more than this.
   Many areas managed by the National Park Service emphasize historical themes. For example, the homes of former U.S. presidents Hoover, Lincoln, Kennedy, Taft, Truman, Van Buren, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and Carter are all managed by the National Park Service. Likewise, many battlefields of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War are preserved and managed by the National Park Service. In the Plains and western United States, the National Park Service welcomes visitors to a number of  historic forts including Fort Davis, Fort Laramie, Fort Scott, Fort Larned, and Bent's Old Fort. Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site in western North Dakota offers a living history program to help interpret this important fur trading post that operated from 1828 to 1867 on the upper Missouri River .  Scotts Bluff National Monument (photo lower right) interprets an important landmark on the Oregon Trail.  The National Park Service manages all of these units and many more. In general, the large, well-known natural areas are in the western United States, while the eastern United States serves as home for many of the smaller, historical units.
   Other national park units are primarily for recreation.  This is particularly true of large urban units such as California's Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Gateway National Recreation Area, the latter of which is spread over New York and New Jersey.  Other units devoted primarily to recreation such as Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Mead National Recreation Area are in the West.

Entrance and Activity Fees

    Many national park units charge an entrance fee. Some parks charge by the vehicle while others charge by the person. If you expect to visit several park units within a period of months consider buying an America the Beautiful Pass that permits a year of unlimited visits to all the parks and other federal lands. The year begins on the day the pass is purchased. Special lifetime passes are available for seniors (62 years and older), active military, and the disabled. Inquire about these passes at any park entrance station or visitor center. The America the Beautiful Pass is available to anyone and can be purchased by mail but a lifetime pass for seniors or the disabled must be acquired in person.  Additional information about national park fees

Lodging and Camping

    Some units managed by the National Park Service offer lodging facilities, campgrounds, or both. Yellowstone National Park, a large and heavily visited national park has nine lodges and numerous campgrounds. Likewise, Yosemite National Park offers seven lodging facilities and many campgrounds. Devils Tower National Monument provides no overnight lodging accommodations but has one of our favorite campgrounds. Other areas managed by the National Park Service offer neither camping or lodging. Andersonville National Historic Site, the site of a famous Civil War prison and P.O.W. museum, is a wonderful yet somber place to visit if you are driving through Georgia. Neither lodging or camping is available at the site, although both can be found a short distance outside the park. Likewise, Jimmy Carter National Historic Site in nearby Plains, Georgia, does not offer lodging or camping.  In general, units designated national parks nearly always have campgrounds and often offer lodging.

Additional information about national park campgrounds
Additional information about national park lodges

Zion National Park - Utah

What to Do When You Arrive at a Park

   A park brochure or newspaper is generally available at entrance stations where fees are collected. Entrance station rangers will also be able to provide information about scheduled activities and campground availability. If the park does not collect an entrance fee or have an entrance station, the first order of business should be to locate the visitor center where information on guided walks, trails, museums, and activities is available. In fact, this should be your first stop even if you have picked up a brochure at the entrance station.  Most visitor centers offer exhibits and audio-visual presentations that provide an overview of the park's history. This is nearly always a good way to gain an overview of what to see and do during your visit.  Check the park schedule or talk to a ranger and determine if any presentations or guided walks are available.  These are nearly always worthwhile so take advantage of them.

Some of Our Favorites

    Everyone who has spent years traveling to and through the national parks can generally list some favorites.  Keep in mind that experienced travelers will often disagree about the parks that appear on such a list.  Even the two of us don't always agree. One of us chooses Glacier as the favorite while the other chooses Yellowstone.  We have a good friend who believes Yellowstone is way overrated in the list of best parks.  We have found central and southern Utah and northern Arizona to be a particularly attractive region to visit because so many beautiful national park units are in close proximity. Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Natural Bridges National Monument, and, of course, Grand Canyon National Park include some of the most spectacular landscapes found anywhere in the United States. Nearby are Colorado National Monument just outside Grand Junction, Colorado, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. Even if you have visited the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, take time to enjoy the entirely different experience of a stay at the North Rim. Fall and spring are probably the best seasons to visit southern Utah that often experiences relatively high summer temperatures.

Authors in front of Old Faithful Inn

About the Two of Us

     We have spent most of thirty-five summers traveling to and through America's national parks.  Six of these summers were devoted to visiting and staying in national park lodges.  We have visited nearly all of the units managed by the National Park Service, most of them many times. We have driven up and down the West Coast, up and down the East Coast, and back and forth across the United States, both across U.S. 2 in the north and U.S. 90 in the south. We have hiked the Freedom Trail in Boston National Historical Park, walked the beautiful beach at Cumberland Island National Seashore, sweltered in the Needles area of Canyonlands National Park, and celebrated a Fourth of July at Death Valley National Park in 125-degree heat.  We hope that our experiences and the resulting advice will benefit your own travels.


Scotts Bluff National Monument, Nebraska