A hiker viewing the Grand Tetons and Jackson Lake in Wyoming
A hiker viewing the Grand Tetons and Jackson Lake in Wyoming.

The Difference Between National Parks and Monuments

Size has something to do with it, but it is more about why the land is being preserved

A hiker viewing the Grand Tetons and Jackson Lake in Wyoming.

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To laypeople, the distinction between lands designated as national parks and national monuments can appear finite. The primary difference lies in the reason for preserving the land: National parks are protected due to their scenic, inspirational, education, and recreational value. National monuments have objects of historical, cultural, and/or scientific interest, so their content is quite varied. For example, national monuments protect wilderness areas (such as Muir Woods), fossil sites, military forts, ruins (such as the Gila Cliff Dwellings), and buildings (such as Ford’s Theatre, where President Lincoln was assassinated).

On the bureaucratic bent, the National Parks Service oversees all parks and some monuments. However, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Defense, and Bureau of Land Management may also supervise monuments, depending on the location of the lands and the reason for their protection. Some of these agencies are better than others at providing visitor information. Congress designates national parks; in general, presidential proclamations establish national monuments.

In this case, size matters. Although some national parks are quite small—the smallest is Pennsylvania’s Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial at 0.02 acres—the minimum size today is 1,000 hectares. By requiring that much space, nearly 2,500 acres, the NPS ensures national parks have sufficient area for recreation and natural diversity. The largest national park is the 13.2-million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska. National monuments are generally smaller, and the designation requires only one item of interest (not a variety, as parks do).

The Most-Visited National Parks In 2018

  1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee and North Carolina) 11,421,200 visits
  2. Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona) 6,380,495 visits
  3. Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado) 4,590,493 visits
  4. Zion National Park (Utah) 4,320,033 visits
  5. Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho) 4,115,000 visits
  6. Yosemite National Park (California) 4,009,436 visits
  7. Acadia National Park (Maine) 3,537,575 visits
  8. Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming) 3,491,151 visits
  9. Olympic National Park (Washington) 3,104,455 visits
  10. Glacier National Park (Montana) 2,965,309 visits

Popular National Monuments

Because various agencies administrate national monuments, nailing down a list of the most popular is challenging. Here are ten that are widely acknowledged visitor favorites: