Everything You Need to Know About the National Park Service

Feb 7, 2020 | Travel & Destinations

Everything You Need to Know About the National Park Service

We break down the different between a national park and a national monument, along with the best way to camp your RV as close to the parks as possible.

By Togo RV

Photo: Karen Blue

This article was written in partnership with Family Motor Coach Association.

The National Parks Service (NPS) has previously been referred to as “America’s best idea.” And we can’t help but agree with that statement. If you’re a frequent traveler, you’ve probably already visited at least one place that is maintained by the NPS. In fact, all national parks, many national monuments, and plenty of other conservation and historical properties all fall under the NPS. And with so many to see across the entire United States, stopping at any one would make for the perfect detour or road trip destination.

Canyonlands National Park panorama
Photo: Laura Austin

Ways to Save When Visiting National Parks

While some of the NPS parks offer free admission, others cost money. But keep in mind these fees go towards maintaining and preserving the sites (so don’t be too upset about having to pay). If you’re interested in visiting several different NPS locations, the cost can add up quickly. Luckily, the NPS has created a variety of passes that provide U.S. residents with access to the parks, without having to pay an entrance fee. Here are a few worth checking out.

Yellowstone National Park
Photo: Alison Takacs

America the Beautiful Passes

Annual Pass: These annual passes cost $80 and grant you access to all the locations within the NPS. These are good for an entire vehicle, so you only need one when traveling with a family or group.

4th Grade Pass: Do you have a child in the 4th grade? Well thanks to a program called Every Kid Outdoors, your student can obtain a free pass for the duration of their school year and the following summer. This pass grants access to both the child and any accompanying passengers in the same vehicle.

Senior Pass: Once U.S. residents reach the age of 62, they’re eligible for the Senior Pass. These passes are available in annual ($20/year) or lifetime ($80) versions.

Access Pass: These are free for all U.S. citizens who have a permanent disability. The Access Pass also provides cardholders with a 50 percent discount on certain fees and facilities, including camping, swimming, and boating.

Volunteer Pass: If you volunteer 250 hours at any federal agency that participates in the Interagency Pass Program, then you are eligible for a free 12-month Volunteer Pass.

Military Pass: All active members of the U.S. Military are eligible for a free annual pass, which can be applied to all accompanying passengers in the same vehicle.

Hearst Castle news
Photo: Ian Anderson

Free Admission Days

Throughout the year, the NPS hosts a variety of free-admission days. This means on a given day, anyone can visit a NPS locations without paying the entrance fee. The free admission days for 2020 are:

  • Jan. 20: Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
  • Apr. 18: First Day of National Park Week.
  • Aug. 25: National Park Service Birthday.
  • Sept. 26: National Public Lands Day.
  • Nov. 11: Veterans Day.
Mount Rainier National Park
Photo: Sanna Boman

Camp Just Outside the Parks on BLM Land

If you plan on camping at these parks, it can often be difficult to secure a campsite. Some of the NPS campgrounds are only open seasonally, so they fill up quickly. If you don’t want to risk not finding a campsite (or paying higher prices), then consider camping just outside of the park. Many NPS parks are located right next to free public land or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sites. Do some research ahead of time to see where these sites are and if there are any rules to be aware of.

Camping at Joshua Tree
Photo courtesy of FMCA

The Different Types of NPS Parks

It’s easy to jump immediately to the national parks when you think of the NPS, but there are actually 419 designated units that are cared for and controlled by the organization. Some of them preserve natural beauty, while others are focused on protecting a historical area or famous American from the past. Let’s break down the various types of designations within the NPS.

National Parks

These parks offer more to see and do than any other type of NPS designation. They are large chunks of land (some of them are millions of acres) set aside for preservation, recreation, inspiration, and overall appreciation. During peak seasons, some of the more popular national parks— such as the Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains—often become overrun with crowds and people. But seeing as there are more than 60 different national parks in the United States, we recommended checking out one of the lesser visited parks. You’ll avoid the crowds and still get to experience some unbelievable sites.

Yosemite Valley
Photo: Karen Blue

National Monuments

National monuments are protected areas that contain objects of historic, scientific, or scenic significance. President Theodore Roosevelt helped defined these parameters when he designated Devil’s Tower as the first national monument in 1906. Other popular national monuments include the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, and the Vermilion Cliffs.

Devil's Tower
Photo: WTF Wanderers

National Historic Parks and Sites

While national historic parks and sites are technically different, how they were awarded is very similar. Both are considered to be areas or places that have been protected due to their historical significance. However, while historical parks are much larger and typically comprised of multiple properties or pieces of land, historical sites are specific to one single building or place of interest. Some of the most popular national historic parks are Independence Hall and Abraham Lincoln’s Birthplace. Some national historic sites include Ford’s Theater, Edgar Allen Poe’s home, and Hubbell Trading Post.

National Memorials

National memorials are places that have been set aside to commemorate a person or place of historical significance. Some of these memorials remember presidents and war veterans, while others focus on things like natural disasters or battlefields. The Lincoln Memorial, Mount Rushmore, and Pearl Harbor are all examples of national memorials.

Mt. Rushmore
Photo: Ace Goulet

National Recreational Areas

When it comes to being active and having fun, national recreation areas (NRAs) have you covered. An NRA is a plot of land or body of water that has been set aside for recreational use. This can include activities like hiking, fishing, hunting, boating, and swimming.

Even More Designations

In addition to all of the places mentioned above, the NPS also oversees national battlefields, national military parks, national lake shores, national parkways, national preserves, national reserves, national rivers, national scenic trails, national seashores, and a handful of other uncategorized sites. All in all, the NPS has a presence in every single state, overseeing nearly 400 different places and covering more than 84 million acres. So, chances are, you won’t have much trouble finding a NPS location to visit on your next road trip.

River next to a grass field
Photo: Anna Hider

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