“There’s Only 58, So Get Over It!”

truncate (TRUNG-kate) v. To shorten, as by cutting off.

My cousin Barb’s husband Jim is doubly entitled to be a crusty old bugger, being a retired police officer (he was a Captain on the Berkeley, California, police force) and a retired full-bird Colonel (USAF). Every time I visit Jim at his Bay Area home, he and I spend a lot of time discussing things. We do love to get under each other’s skin. Jim is an S.O.B. (Sweet Old Buddy) and I am a PCPWHNIHTWRW (Pinko College Professor Who Has No Idea How the World Really Works). Barb referees our discussions, being careful to duck out of the way and shield her ears when we really get into it.

During my most recent visit to the Left Coast, Jim and I were discussing national parks and he was rattling on about how he and Barb intended to visit all of them before they died. I told him that he’d have to step up the pace if he expected to visit all 391 before we planted him. He told me that he only has to visit 58, there being only 58 National Park System units designated National Park. He added that I was sadly uninformed for a geography professor, and that he intended to live long enough to dance on my grave. He did not actually say “dance.”

This conversation took place last January, and I thought I had paid no heed to Jim’s argument. (After all, I almost never pay serious attention to anything that Jim says.) But just recently I noticed that my use of national park terminology has shifted perceptibly. In the past few months I’ve gotten into the habit of referring to the 58 national park-designated units as national parks and the rest as simply NPS units.

Without benefit of conscious decision, I have subscribed to the notion that “All national parks are NPS units, but not all NPS units should be called national parks.” In other words, I have, at least at some subconscious level, come around to Jim’s way of thinking.

What a revolting development! The very thought that Jim will now be given free rein to gloat is almost more than I can bear. I briefly considered not telling him about my cognitive conversion but decided that this would be the coward’s way out. So, when I see him next month (the three of us are going to visit Redwood and Crater Lake together) I’m going to tell him that, after allowing for legitimate differences of opinion, and with due regard for his woeful ignorance of enabling legislation, Congressional intent, Supreme Court rulings, and National Park Service traditions, policies and practices, it may be technically appropriate for him to truncate his national park life list at 58.


that was a priceless bit of commentary. i am laughing inwardly not trying to wake up the children. my eyes are streaming but so glad you enlightened us on how many national parks we have. i see i have many to see but have visited several of them many times. do repeats count?

Silliness. The title national park is meaningless and confuses the public. Witness the recently published National Geographic Guide to the National Parks. The previous edition did not include Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area or Congaree Swamp National Monument. Now, because their names were changed, they are in. Nothing about the parks has actually changed. Same size, same resources, same governing laws. Only the names. So, now they are worthy of putting in the guide book and being placed on a "life list," but before they were not? Silliness.

Anon: Of course you can count repeats if you want to! It's your hobby.... :o)

I couldn't agree with you more, Rangertoo. I've written on this topic before, and I intend to do it again. Traveler readers who've joined this general thread late might want to have a look at our article "Are There Really 391 Units in the National Park System? You Won’t Think So After You Read This!".

And in the end, what does it matter? We all choose to go to "units" of the NPS for different reasons...peace, serenity, beauty, history, education, adventure, love of nature and all things outdoors. As long as we can protect AND enjoy, I'll visit them whatever they're called. Once I recover from laughing at this story!

I thought this item would be a reflection on the late presidential campaign .....

" It is wonderful to be back in Oregon," Obama said. "Over the last 15 months, we’ve traveled to every corner of the United States. I’ve now been in 57 states? I think one left to go. .... " May '08.

Har har

I think the name does matter. For instance there's a big difference between a national park and preserve. In any case, non-national parks like to say they are national parks too.

From Ozark NSR FAQ page:

Is this a state or national park?

Many people are surprised to learn that the Ozark National Scenic Riverways is a national park, just like Yellowstone or Gettysburg. The three largest campground areas, Alley Spring, Big Spring and Round Spring all used to be Missouri State Parks and some people still refer to “Alley Spring State Park,” which adds to the confusion. These three places stopped being “State Parks” in 1964 when the people of Missouri generously donated them to the federal government as the anchors for the new Ozark National Scenic Riverways. They were essentially the gift of Missouri to the nation.

Also Boston Harbor Islands apparently likes to call itself a "national park area."

The absurdity of this will become more obvious when the Ken Burns series on national parks airs on PBS next month. Mr. Burns chose to focus only on the "national parks," not any other designation. And ignored national parks he did not find worthy like Cuyahoga and Hot Springs. The NPS is playing this series up and telling all the parks to catch this wave of publicity. I think it will leave the public confused when they try to relate their nearby national monument or national seashore to a “national park”. I also think many NPS employees will also see this as insulting to their units because they are left out of the series. Is Dinosaur National Monument really inferior to Congaree National Park? Is a series that omits Gettysburg, the Statue of Liberty, and Cape Cod really showing the greatness of the National Park System? I think not.

Jim is absolutely correct.

The 58 National Parks are recognized as the "crown jewels" of the NPS system.

It's not just a name.

They do benefit from more protection and resources than other units.

You will learn in the Ken Burns movie that although some areas were already National Monuments, there was a considerable effort done by individuals to have them re-designated as National Parks, because it was thought that only then they would be safe.

It is true that the area itself does not change, but what changes is our perception of its value. When Gates of the Arctic gained NPS protection, and two years later, NP status, no physical changed occurred on the land. No roads, trails, ranger stations, or visitor centers were built. Yet the area took a new dimension.


National Parks images

Ken Burns did not "ignore" some national parks because of their presumed lack of worth, but simply because he had only 12 hours to tell a good story (and a *very* good story this is). However, I think he made sure that an image of each of the national parks (this means the 58 ones :-)) was seen.

Moreover, the narrative, although centered on the national parks, is not confined to them. There are mention of other type of units, including long segments on Dinosaur NM and obscure ones such as Manzamar NHS, and their meaning within the expended mission of the NPS to preserve all aspects of the American heritage and history.

Please note that I have seen the 12 hours of the Ken Burns movie. Comments based only on partial previews may not be fair to the series.


National Parks images

With all due respect, this is not the case. All units are protected by the same laws and regulations (courtesy of the General Authorities Act and Redwood Act amendments). When Petrified Forest, Congaree, Cuyahoga, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, changed their designations to national park their protection and resources did not change. If Pinnacles changes to a national park its resources will not change. There are national parks you can hunt in and national lakeshores you cannot hunt in. There are hotels and other development in some national parks you will not find in some national monuments. Craters of the Moon National Monument has outstanding natural resources and is far larger than many national parks. I could go on. My point is, there is no objective criteria that defines the title designation. Designation is often political and often driven by the desires of local tourism boosters. There is no defending a nomenclature that has no rationale.

"Sweet Old Buddy"? That's LOL hilarious - mind if I use that? Seriously, if there are only 58, then I've actually visited a third of them! You've made my day, Bob - thank you!

Great story! I am now putting all 58 on my bucket list less the 8 that i've been to. That leaves a lot of travelling to do. Can't wait to start it, which will be in Sept with a trip to Arcadia.

Actually, Bat, I just borrowed the idea. There are baseball caps for sale with "SOB" printed on the front in large letters with "Sweet Old Buddy" beneath in tiny letters. The first time I ever saw one was in 1970 when a fellow graduate student at the University of Illinois presented an SOB cap to a geography professor during a Christmas party. It was richly deserved, I might add.

Bucket list is a great term in this context, mimi. I should have stolen that phrase too. Darn!

We still call the people that interpret and protect these places "park" rangers. Wouldn't it be hard work to create a whole new set of job series for monument rangers, preserve rangers, historic site rangers?

A friend of mine used to say, "the sweetest sound a man can hear is the sound of his own name." Guess he was right.

And can you imagine anybody wanting to be called an "NPS unit ranger"?!


Boston Harbor Islands has cultural sensitivity issues for the phrase "recreation area" due to the Native American burial grounds. Their name on their demo annotated species list website (http://science.nature.nps.gov/im/monitor/DemoSpecies/BOHA/index.cfm) went from "Boston Harbor islands National Recreation Area" to "Boston Harbor Islands, a Unit of the National Park System", and finally to simply "Boston Harbor Islands".

Rangertoo is absolutely correct: from the inside, the unit type (Park, Monument, NRA, NHS, and the others) doesn't matter. However, the public/political view is very different, and National _Park_ status is perceived as a higher status. Backers of several units have made great efforts to obtain the name change.

I admit I was unaware of current legislation, thanks for pointing that out. One of the facts that contributed to my error was that I remembered that quite a few National Monuments had been abolished, while to the best of my knowledge, this hasn't happened to any National Park.

While, technically, the change to NP status doesn't bring in itself more resources, it is often associated with an acreage acquisition and a potential increase in visitation (perception is important). Those can justify more resources.

I agree the limit can be arbitrary, however, not units have the same interest, so there is some rationale on having different designations.


National Parks images

@Quang-Tuan Luong:

There are a number of former National Parks. Most of them have been incorporated or split into other National Parks and a few have been "down graded" to other designations but stay within the NPS. But one has been given to the state of Michigan as a State Park and one former National Park is now a National Game Preserve of the FWS.


Be very careful when using Wikipedia as a source of information about America's national parks. It is riddled with mistakes and contains serious omissions. Always use more reliable sources if you have a choice.

Where can I find an accurate and up to date list of the 391 NPS units?


Regarding Wikipedia and the NPS: I see many omission, which is natural as the whole project is a "work in progress". But "riddled with mistakes"? Have you found serious mistakes in NPS-related articles at Wikipedia recently?

Call for participation: Let's collect five Wikipedia articles on NPS units that need improvement. Then we choose one and put all our expertize together and brush up this article.

I have found numerous mistakes in Wikipedia articles about national parks, including many I personally consider to be serious. I'm not going to joust with anybody about what is serious and what is minor. Accuracy matters, period. I stand by my original advice: Never use a Wikipedia article as a primary information source if a more reliable source is readily available. I do encourage people to fix the problems in the Wikipedia articles if they have the expertise, time, and inclination.

Anon, If you're simply after a handy reference source for the national parks, I suggest that you download a copy of the new NPS Index 2009-2011 to your desktop. It's available online in two versions. You'll find the pdf version at http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/nps/index2009_11.pdf. The index lists national parks by state, with affiliated areas, wild & scenic rivers, and national trails at the rear. The alphabetical index, which begins on page 119, lists all the parks, affiliated areas, wild & scenic rivers, and national trails. It is current through January 2009.


I tried but I can't help you with 391 units. If you look at the NPS Planning site:
you get a list of 467, which includes administrative offices.

If you go to the public use site
and select Annual Park Type Report for 2008, you get visitation numbers from 358 :
10 National Battlefields
1 National Battlefield Park
74 national historic sites
43 national historic parks
4 national lakeshores
27 national memorials
9 national military parks
69 national monuments
58 national parks
4 national parkways
9 national preserves
17 national recreation areas
1 national reserve
4 national rivers
10 national seashores
7 national wild & scenic rivers
11 "Park (Other)"

The internal NPS site has a "NPS Park Unit List" of 466 names, with flags indicating whether that name is not in the 390 units, is counted once in the 390 units, or is counted twice in the 390 units (park & preserve). I've posted a pdf version on the public side at:
The 391st unit might be Flight93 Memorial.

And, don't forget that several Clinton-era National Monuments are administered by BLM (1 by FS) and thus don't count in the 391 number.

Dear tomp:

just to pick nits, a "national park" and a "national preserve" are separate units of the National Park System, established separately by the Congress. So they should be "counted twice" as you noticed.

Even when you see the area(s), for example, referred to as "Wrangel-St. Elias National Park and Preserve" by the National Park Service. A 'park and preserve' is just an administrative concoction, not a legal designation.

Wrangel St. Elias National Park is a separate unit from Wrangel St. Elias National Preserve.

There is a movement afoot to name every Unit a "national park,' but it will be interesting to see how they deal with situations like Wrangels or Gates of the Arctic NP/Preserve. The reason the were designated, in Alaska, differently is because the Government of Canada and many US conservationists reacted so strongly to the NPS proposal that sport hunting be permitted in the new, proposed, 'National Parks' in Alaska. Canada pointed out that many countries in the world had taken the NPS lead that the park designation would mean: NO SPORT HUNTING. At some political peril, it took political discipline for these countries to hold the line, and they expected the NPS to show some guts as well.

Plus, when Yellowstone was established the term "conserve" the wildlife was taken to be a term of art to mean: NO SPORT HUNTING. NPS even won a case against the National Rifle Association based on the idea that under the 1916 Act 'conserve' when it applied to an NPS Unit meant no hunting.

There is an argument that the 'park/preserves' in Alaska are not actually distinct units when it comes to the character of the area: all those alaskan areas are geographically unified places. But, it will take an Act of Congress to unify them, and it would be really dumb to have TWO Wrangels, if they simply rename all existing Units of the NPS "national park."

But the National Preserves in the lower 48 -- unlike the "park/preserves" of Alaska -- have integrity as areas distinctive for their ecological purposes, to be managed (like wildlife refuges) consistent with their specific features and needs.

While regulations may not be much different between park designations, that does not mean that "nothing changes."

Those of us who are familiar with NPS operations know that the real rules for how parks are managed are not in the Code of Federal Regulations, but in park management plans. Are different units designated differently managed differently, with different emphasis on resource protection vs. development and tourism? You can bet your bippy.

To quote from the article on Sandy Hook posted 8/13 on this website:

"The decision was quickly applauded by U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., who previously had called for an investigation into the Park Service's actions over the lease.

"The National Park Service's decision today is a major victory for New Jersey and the Sandy Hook Unit of Gateway National Park," Congressman Pallone said in a release. "This is a tremendous opportunity for the state, the federal government, local universities and other public entities to become engaged in the restoration of Fort Hancock. It is important that any redevelopment plan does not include commercialization of our national park."

Congressman Pallone seems to be confused. Is Gateway a national PARK? He thinks so.

Whether 'Park' or 'Recreation Area,' I hope that Mr. Pallone now walks his talk by getting support for the money for Sandy Hook.

Personally, I don't think he has enough support in Congress or with the Administration to support any initiative. But it would be great if he did, and if Sandy Hook, within Gateway, could finally live up to its potential. There are fine resources there, national landmark historic structures, and a beautiful beach close to large populations. But people think Gateway managers have been focused on the New York part of the 'recreation area' and ignore the New Jersey parts.

Whatever, Rangertoo, maybe you are right the name IS meaningless! But the resources DO need help from someone smart and able, whether in park management or from political supporters.


Sorry, I wasn't arguing that the park & preserve units shouldn't be counted twice.

The San Jose Mercury News has an article today:
"What's in a name? Congressman wants to put Pinnacles on the National parks A-list"

The article is pretty good: it notes both the perception of "higher profile" for parks, and "As a practical matter, there's not much difference what a national park property is called."

Rep Farr, the congressman, is wrong about Pinnacles being the only national park in the US where you can see condors: you can see them in Grand Canyon.

And, as a bonus, the article even cites a previous comment from National Parks Traveler!