National parks and national monuments are popular destinations for adventure seekers, but what is the difference? They both feature incredible scenery, both are managed by the National Park Service, and both are generally easy to visit. Is there really a difference at all?

Historical Significance

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The reason why a site is protected is what determines whether a site becomes a national monument or a national park. National parks are preserved for their scenic, inspirational, educational, and recreational value while national monuments display historical, cultural, or scientific importance. Because of this distinction, national monuments can be quite varied, ranging from sacred wilderness areas spanning millions of miles to a single building of historical significance such as Ford’s Theatre (pictured above).

National parks tend to have a few different areas of interest. Yellowstone National Park has several hot springs, geysers, and canyons for visitors to enjoy. National monuments generally have one point of interest. Because of this, national parks are typically more diverse.

Management and Establishment

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While both national parks and national monuments are overseen by the National Park Service, national monuments may also be supervised by the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Defense, and the Bureau of Land Management, depending on where the lands are located and the purpose of protection.

National parks and monuments are also established by two different entities. National parks must be established by Congress while national monuments are created by a presidential proclamation.

Size Doesn’t Matter

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It would be easy to believe that national parks tend to be larger than national monuments, but size is not part of the classification. National monuments can range from a single building to millions of acres. In fact, the largest national monument covers more area than the largest national park. The largest national monument is more than 370 million acres while the smallest is just a single statue. The largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska covers around 13 million acres.

National Memorials

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National memorials are different from national monuments as they are built specifically to memorialize a person or historical event. George Washington’s Birthplace in Virginia is a national monument because a historical event took place there. The Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., is a national memorial that was built specifically to memorialize George Washington, but no historical event, at least related to Washington, took place there.

National Forests

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National forests are very similar to national parks but with one major distinction. National parks are all about preservation. They are designed for people to enjoy the natural beauty of the area but without making an impact on the natural ecosystem. Cutting for timber, drilling, and mining are not permitted in national parks. National forests, however, are meant to be enjoyed and used. Cutting timber, drilling, and mining are permitted in national forests with permission. There are also more options for camping and recreational activities.

National Lakeshores and Seashores

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There are 10 protected national seashores and three national lakeshores in the United States. Similar to national parks, they are areas designated by congress as having natural and recreational significance. These are publicly owned lands that are designed to preserve shorelines and provide people with water-oriented recreation. Cape Cod in Massachusetts is a national seashore.

Other Distinctions

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There are at least 16 different types of federally protected land, including national preserves, historic sites, historic parks, battlefields, cemeteries, recreation areas, rivers, parkways, trails, and affiliated areas. Each distinction is preserved for a different purpose and enjoyed in different ways and can be found in every state.