The National Parks Service officially turns 100 today, and the old bird has never looked better. Seriously! Not only are there 59 majestic national parks across the U.S. and its territories (47 in the continental U.S.), but there are 412 designated areas maintained by the NPS (and many more if you count “affiliated areas”). These protected lands fall into 19 very specific designations (20 if you count “other” — lots of counting here).
The differences in these designations are often arbitrary and exist in name only, sort of like “astronaut” and “cosmonaut” or “soda” and “pop.” For example, there are technically four designations for preserved battlefields — national military park, national battlefield park, national battlefield site and national battlefield — and the NPS manages and preserves them all in the same capacity. But hey, over the course of a century, one is bound to shake things up.
We salute this centenarian by looking at an example of each designated protected area under the NPS umbrella (and it’s a big umbrella). You can check out the complete registry of national protected areas here.
National Parks — Yellowstone, Wyoming/Idaho/Montana
The granddaddy of them all, Yellowstone was established as the first national park in 1872, predating the formation of the NPS by nearly 45 years. From geysers to lakes, from canyons to pic-a-nic baskets, Yellowstone is in an inspiration to people and cartoon bears alike.
National Parkways — Natchez Trace, Mississippi/Alabama/Tennessee
The U.S. features four scenic national parkways that all beg the question: Why do we drive on parkways and park on driveways? Anyway, this 444-mile stretch of Southeastern beauty runs through Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.
National Battlefields — Cowpens, South Carolina
Cowpens National Battlefield was a frontier pasture that became a significant battleground during the Revolutionary War after revolutionary forces executed a double envelopment — or pincer attack, the only successful use of this tactic during the war — on advancing British troops.
National Battlefield Parks — Manassas, Virginia
The Union and Confederate armies fought two battles in Manassas, both resulting in Confederate victories and heavy casualties on both sides. The first clash took place in 1861, when civilians were still showing up to Civil War skirmishes to spectate (maybe that’s why this site is a “battlefield park“), but both battles hinted at a long, bloody conflict.
National Battlefield Sites — Brice’s Cross Roads, Mississippi
The only area listed as a “national battlefield site”, Brice’s Cross Roads saw Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest successfully command a small force of Confederates against a significantly larger number of Federal troops in 1864. But Federal troops crucially managed to escape in defeat, resulting in a turning point with a “lose the battle, win the war” feel. (Perhaps the end was in “site”?)
National Military Parks — Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Likely the most well-known of Civil War battlefields, Gettysburg saw the the farthest northern advance of Confederate troops, the bloodiest battle of the war, and the speech most regularly memorized by fourth graders.
National Historical Parks — New Orleans Jazz, Louisiana
Mercifully, not all NPS-protected lands are somber reminders of conflict. The New Orleans Jazz NHP celebrates NOLA’s rich musical history and the evolution of jazz through regular live performances. The site even has its own SoundCloud page.
National Historic Sites — San Juan, Puerto Rico
Did you know that 100 years is a long time, but 500 is even longer? San Juan National Historic Site includes the ruins of three Spanish forts (San Cristobal, San Felipe del Morro, and San Juan de la Cruz) and the city walls of Old San Juan, all of which are more than five centuries old.
International Historic Sites — Saint Croix Island, Maine
Oh là là! Here we have Saint Croix, the international playboy of the NPS system. This small island was home to an early French settlement that included cartographer Samuel de Champlain, and serves as part of the modern-day border between Maine and New Brunswick, Canada. Not only is it the only “international” site, you can’t even visit the island itself (just the mainland visitors’ center). Very exclusive.
National Lakeshores — Pictured Rocks, Michigan
National Recreation Areas — Golden Gate, California
Sure, there are great views of Marin County and the Golden Gate Bridge. There are also whales to spot, beaches to explore, a closed island prison to tour, and countless other ways to spend a day in this national recreation area.
National Memorials — Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, D.C.
The nation’s capital features the highest concentration of national memorials (12), including this 30-foot stone monument to the great civil rights leader.
National Monuments — Tule Springs Fossil Beds, Nevada
“Vegas wetland” may be little more than an oxymoron these days. But way back when, before Moe Greene invented Sin City, wetlands dominated the geography north of the area. Today, Tule Springs offers a glimpse into the Ice Age through thousands of fossils recovered at the site.
National Preserves — Bering Land Bridge, Alaska
Like D.C. and its national memorials, Alaska features far more national preserves (10) than any other state. The Bering Land Bridge is believed to have been a connector between modern-day Siberia and Alaska, over which humans crossed into North America for the first time.
National Reserves — City of Rocks, Idaho
The NPS preserves some sites, and reserves others, but one thing is for sure: both are typically outdoors. Pioneers traveling the California Trail found this rocky “city of tall spires” on their way to the Golden State in search of, well, gold.
National Rivers — New River Gorge, West Virginia
The New River sculpted the longest and deepest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains, and makes for some incredible whitewater rafting, but apparently wasn’t quite wild enough to fulfill the obligations of our next designation…
National Wild and Scenic Rivers and Riverways — Rio Grande, Texas
A wetland corridor set amidst desert, the Rio Grande offers incredible views of limestone cliffs and some wild rapids for adventurers, along with a sense of superiority over regular ol’ national rivers.
National Scenic Trails — Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Maine to Georgia
This 2,180-mile trail was built by private citizens between 1921 and 1937, and spans 14 states. Today, it is managed by the NPS, and offers hikers mountains, forests, rivers, incredible views, alarmingly high natural observation points (see photo below) and more.
National Seashores — Padre Island, Texas
Padre Island is a 70-mile barrier island — the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island — that separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Laguna Madre. Padre Island is a proud papa who nests sea turtles and 380 species of birds.
Other Designations — White House, Washington, D.C.
That’s right, the White House and President’s Park are managed by the NPS, meaning that the POTUS technically lives in a park. The “other” sites are all concentrated around the greater D.C. area in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.
There are celebrations happening across the country this weekend and throughout the year for the NPS centennial. Check out the NPS site for more info on happenings in America’s protected areas, and get out this weekend and #FindYourPark — Happy birthday, NPS!