Let me tell you about the National Park Service.
So I have this bucket-list goal of visiting all 59 National Parks. In telling people about this, I’ve gotten enough questions about the NPS and what is or is not a National Park that I thought an Info Dump Post might be useful, both for those of us here in Yankland and for not-American readers who might like to visit some of these properties (and I heartily recommend you do so if you can).
The National Parks are one of the out-and-out, no-shade awesome things about the US. In talking to a European friend once, and bemoaning the fact that we don’t have historical buildings and cathedrals and castles here - pretty much not a lot older than 200 years apart from some Native American earthworks - she said that we may envy the history in Europe, but Europeans envy our parks. The National Parks are our cathedrals. This was borne up by conversations I had with people in London. Almost to a person, when learning I was American, they asked if I’d been to the Grand Canyon. We have our issues here in the US but we also definitely have some awesome pieces of land - and that’s awesome in the sense it used to mean, before it applied to a good pizza. Every time I visit a National Park, I’m gratified by the number of international visitors.
The National Park Service was created in 1916 - curiously, several of the parks themselves (including the first national park, Yellowstone, and also Yosemite) predate the NPS itself. It employs almost 22,000 people and it manages 407 individual properties totalling 340,000 square miles of land. It is an agency of the Department of the Interior
Here’s where it gets tricky. See that number above, 407? Those are the National Park System units. Of those, 59 are National Parks. The Parks are the crown jewels in the system. Those are the properties that are extra awesome. Many sites that people think are National Parks, aren’t. Grand Canyon? National Park. Mount Rushmore? Nope, it’s a National Monument. Great Smoky Mountains? National Park. Gettysburg? Nope, it’s a National Military Park. But all of these are administered by and fall under the purview of the National Park Service.
The National Parks tend to be significant areas of natural and geologic value. Most of the other properties tend to be historic, military, or cultural. The most numerous of the properties are National Monuments (79 total) followed by National Historic Sites (78). There are also National Memorials, National Battlefields, National Historical Parks, and various National lakeshores, seashores, and rivers.
You know what are NOT park of the National Park System? National Forests. You see those all the time. Those are federal lands managed by the National Forest Service, and contrary to what you might think, they are not protected lands - resources can be and are extracted from them. The Department of Agriculture just directs those activities.
ANYWAY. There is a great deal of variety in NPS properties. The smallest one is about the size of a parking lot, the largest is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska, which is larger than Switzerland. Wrangell-St. Elias alone, incidentally, constitutes 16% of the entire land managed by the NPS.
There is at least one NPS property in every state and also in PR, Guam, and American Samoa and the US Virgin Islands. This only became true recently, though…until 2013 Delaware did not have a NPS property. The President designated a First State National Historical Park in that year (thanks, Obama!).
Total visitors to the NPS properties approached 300 million each year. Of the top ten most visited properties, only one (Great Smoky) is a national park - the others are areas such as the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Golden Gate recreation area, Lake Mead recreation area, etc.
Of the National Parks, Great Smoky is by FAR the most visited, with about 10 million yearly visitors almost double the number two park (Grand Canyon). It’s the location - GSMNP is located within a 6 hour drive of one-third of the US population. The rest of the top ten list is: Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Olympic, Zion, Grand Teton, Acadia, and Glacier.
The national parks are heavily concentrated in the western part of the US. Eight of them are in Alaska. But if history if your thing, the eastern half of the country has most of the historical parks - lots of Civil War battlefields, homes of historical figures and sites of famous historical events.
The Park Service has a Passport program. You can buy a passport at any park’s visitor’s center. It is divided up by sections of the country and has lists of all the properties. Each time you visit, you can get a cancellation (like getting a stamp in your actual passport) - they keep the ink stamps usually at the gift shop or somewhere else in the visitor’s center. It’s a fun way to be motivated to visit more sites, and you never know when you’ll discover a new historical or cultural interest at these sites you might not otherwise have visited.
Anyway, that’s my plug for the National Park Service.