National parks are popular destinations on many travelers’ bucket lists. It seems that everyone who has been to a national park has a secret desire, or sometimes a very public intention, to visit every national park. All 59 of them, from Acadia to American Samoa, from Gates of the Arctic to Virgin Islands, and all the parks between, big and small, famous and obscure.
But what about other places in the national park system? After all, national parks amount to less than 15% of the 413 units under the care and supervision of the National Park Service. I haven’t seen any bucket lists intending to visit all 413 of these park service sites, and I am not proposing such an ambitious undertaking. But what about a list that includes at least one place in each of the 20 different categories of National Park Service units?
To get you started on a National Park Service Units Bucket List, here is a quick rundown on the 20 different categories of Park Service designations, listed in order from the most to the least number of units included in each category, with some suggested destinations:
- National Monuments (84): The first national monument was Devils Tower in Wyoming, designated in 1906; among the newest sites added to this category are Stonewall National Monument, New York, and Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine, both designated in 2016.
- National Historic Sites (78): This is the catch-all category for units of historic significance that do not fall into one of the other historic designations. It includes such varied places as the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California, the Whitman Mission in Washington, the Minuteman Missile site in South Dakota, and Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace in New York.
- National Parks (59): These are the
most famous units that most people associate with the national park system. From the first one, Yellowstone, to the most visited, Great Smoky Mountains, from the rain forests of Olympic to the lava flows of Hawai’i Volcanoes to the arid deserts of Big Bend, there is a national park for every interest.
- National Historical Parks (50): My favorite, of course, is San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, which I wrote about in my first book, Blessed with Tourists. Others you could visit include Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania and the New Orleans Jazz Historical Park in Louisiana.
- National Memorials (30): Washington, D.C., is the best place to visit sites of national commemoration, where you can find 11 of them, including the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument , the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
- National Preserves (19): These units protect key resources, but they often permit such activities as hunting and fishing as well as extraction of minerals or fuels, as long as the protected resources are not affected. The first such units were Big Thicket in Texas and Big Cypress in Florida.
- National Recreation Areas (18): Originally established on lands surrounding reservoirs, these recreational sites now include other areas of land and water, including some in urban areas. Lake Mead National Recreation Area on the Colorado River and the Delaware Gap National Recreation Area on the Delaware River are two popular destinations.
- National Battlefields (11): The largest of several categories commemorating military sites, this one includes Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland and Big Hole National Battlefield in Montana.
- Other designations (11): This is the catch-all category for sites that do not fit neatly elsewhere. Virtually all are in the Washington, D.C., area, including the White House, the National Mall, and the National Capital Parks.
- National Seashores (10): Preservation and recreation at specially designated seashore areas can be found at Point Reyes, Cape Cod, and Gulf Islands.
- National Wild and Scenic Rivers and Riverways (10): These sites preserve lands along free-flowing streams which have not been dammed, channelized, or otherwise altered. They include the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River in Texas, the Obed Wild and Scenic River in Tennessee, and Alaska’s Alagnak Wild River.
- National Military Parks (9): These commemorative parks include Civil War battle sites of Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Vicksburg.
- National Rivers (5): Like their Wild and Scenic kin, these rivers are free-flowing, undammed streams. They include Arkansas’s Buffalo National River and the New River Gorge National River in West Virginia.
- National Parkways (4): These are driving parks with great scenery: the Blue Ridge Parkway, the stirring mountain roadway in North Carolina and Virginia; the George Washington Memorial Parkway extending into Maryland and Virginia from Washington, D.C.; the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee; and Wyoming’s John D. Rockefeller Jr., Memorial Parkway connecting the Tetons and Yellowstone.
- National Battlefield Parks (4): These additional battle sites include Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia; two in Virginia, Manassas and Richmond; and the War of 1812 site River Raisin in Michigan.
- National Lakeshores (4): Like the seashores, these lake areas offer recreation while protecting important resources: Apostle Islands, Indiana Dunes, Pictured Rocks, and Sleeping Bear Dunes.
- National Scenic Trails (3): All three in the eastern half of the country, these are
- National Reserves (2): like preserves, these places have recreational opportunities but can be open to extractive activities as well; today there are only two: City of Rocks National Reserve in Idaho and Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve in Washington.
- National Battlefield Site (1): Brices Cross Roads is the only one in this category. It’s where Civil War combatant Nathan Bedford Forrest, according to the Park Service interpretation, won the battle but lost the war.
- International Historic Sites (1): Another only-in-its-class site, Saint Croix Island in Maine has historical significance for both the U.S. and Canada.
Which sites would you include in your bucket list of National Park Service Units to visit? ♨
References for National Park Service units:
Unit designations of the National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/aboutus/news/upload/Site-Designations-08-24-16.pdf
“Nomenclature of Park System Areas”: https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/hisnps/NPSHistory/nomenclature.html