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Outdoor Destinations

The United States of America

National parks are the crown jewels of America, generating awe and wonder. Iconic places such as Yosemite and Yellowstone draw people from all around the world, but our public lands include much more than simply the 61 national parks. They are also beautiful rivers, national maritime monuments, national battlefields, and wilderness areas.

Every day at Interior, we work to conserve our country's exceptional locations so that following generations can enjoy our cultural and natural riches for years to come. There is at least one public land near you, with more over 400 national parks, 560 national wildlife refuges, and approximately 250 million acres of additional public lands maintained by Interior.

What exactly is the distinction between a national park, a national forest, and a national monument? What about national wildlife refuges, national historic sites, and protected areas? 

National Parks

towering mountain, green trees, lake and purple flowers

National parks are often enormous swathes of territory that safeguard a range of resources, including natural and historic elements. National parks can only be established by Congress (Yellowstone was the first) and are overseen by the National Park Service. National parks work to preserve landscapes for future generations while also providing recreational possibilities.

There are also national preserves, such as Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida and Lake Clark National Park & Preserve in Alaska. Hunting, fishing, and oil and gas exploitation may be permitted in federal preserves if they do not endanger the park's natural resources.

The National Park System has 28 different kinds of designations in all, although they are all designated national parks regardless of the name.

National Forests

snow-covered peaks in a lush green valley

National parks may safeguard some of the most well-known landmarks, but national forests feature equally stunning scenery. The United States Forest Service, which is part of the Department of Agriculture, maintains 154 national forests under a multiple use philosophy, which means they provide a variety of benefits to Americans, such as lumber, grazing, minerals, and recreation.

National forests are sometimes less popular than national parks because they are located near them. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for example, is surrounded by three national forests: Cherokee, Pisgah, and Nantahala. These woodlands frequently serve as a protective buffer around parks.

National Wildlife Refuges

sunlight bursting through clouds over a walkway

If national parks are America's best concept, national wildlife refuges are the country's best-kept secret. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service oversees wildlife refuges in order to protect America's fish, wildlife, and plants.

The Refuge System, which began in 1903 with the establishment of Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge by President Theodore Roosevelt, has grown to include over 560 locations. With at least one wildlife sanctuary in every state and territory (and one within an hour's drive of most large cities), they provide an opportunity for urbanites and others to reconnect with nature.

While national wildlife refuges seek to protect wildlife populations and ecosystems, more than 500 of them also offer a variety of recreational possibilities, such as hiking, canoeing and kayaking, vehicle tours, wildlife watching, hunting, fishing, and more! Every year, more than 47 million people visit these natural treasure troves.

National Conservation Areas

field of wildflowers and beach in background

National conservation areas are tracts of public land maintained by the Bureau of Land Management that have been set aside for the benefit and pleasure of current and future generations. National conservation areas, like national parks, are declared by Congress and include scientific, cultural, historical, and recreational characteristics. They include the Lost Coast of California, the King Range National Conservation Area, and the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area in Utah.

National conservation areas are a subset of the Bureau of Land Management's National Conservation Lands, a network of public lands that includes some of the country's most stunning landscapes. They consist of 873 federally authorized regions covering over 32 million acres, predominantly in 12 western states. National conservation lands, in addition to national conservation areas, include national monuments, wildernesses, wilderness study areas, wild and scenic rivers, and national scenic and historic routes.

National Monuments

colorful sandstone cliffs

National monuments safeguard a particular natural, cultural, or historic aspect. These could include places like Wyoming's Devils Tower National Monument or Chicago's Pullman National Monument. Some exceptional areas, such as the Grand Canyon, Badlands, and Zion, were designated as historic sites before becoming national parks.


mountain peaks, green flowery meadows

Humans have not tamed wilderness areas. The Wilderness Act of 1964 empowers Congress to create wilderness areas in order to preserve America's pure natural regions. Wilderness areas may be part of national parks, national wildlife sanctuaries, national forests, or Bureau of Land Management-managed public lands. There are about 680 wilderness areas in 44 states, preserving over 106 million acres.

The Bureau of Land Management also has 517 wilderness study areas, which are regions that have not been tainted by highways or other forms of development and offer excellent opportunities for isolation. Handies Peak in Colorado or Slinkard in California, for example, have exceptional ecological, geological, or scenic values. Some wilderness research areas have been classified as wild areas or historic landmarks, whilst others have been made available for non-wilderness use.

National Historic Sites

pink and blue sky, golden gate bridge, black shoreline

The National Park Service is best recognized for conserving some of our country's most beautiful landscapes, but it is also America's storyteller. Over half of the national park sites preserve places and remember people, events, and actions significant to our country's history. National historic sites (such as Lincoln Home or Tuskegee Airmen) contain a single historical feature, whereas national historical parks (such as Independence National Historical Park, where the Continental Congress voted for independence and then where the Constitution was written years later) discuss multiple stories from different eras.

National Recreation Areas

curving river cutting through red rocks

National recreation areas are grounds surrounding big reservoirs that allow tourists to participate in water-based recreational activities like as swimming, kayaking, fishing, and boating. These recreational places frequently incorporate significant environmental and cultural characteristics. The United States has 12 national recreation areas managed by either the National Park Service or the Forest Service, with five of them located near urban areas, giving excellent opportunity for Americans to engage with nature close to home.

Wild and Scenic Rivers

white cliffs reflected in flowing river

Rivers that are wild and scenic protect rivers and the area that surrounds them in their natural form, providing Americans with excellent outdoor leisure. The fact that wild and picturesque rivers are free-flowing rivers that have not been blocked or altered in any way is essential. While the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 provides varied levels of protection based on the state of the river, it has protected and over 200 rivers in 35 states and Puerto Rico in total.

National Seashores, Beaches & Lakeshores

pastel sky, sandy beach, tall grass

National shorelines and national lakeshores protect coastlines and some nearby islands. They are also fantastic areas for water activities. Although national lakeshores can be located on any fresh water lake, the 4 existing national lakeshores are all located on the Great Lakes. The ten national seashores are located on each of America's three coasts: the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific.

National Trails

two people watching sunset

National trails are classified into three types: scenic, historic, and recreational. Congress establishes national scenic paths. The Secretary of the Interior or Agriculture can designate national recreational trails (including national water trails) in response to an application by the managing agency or group.

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