National Park vs. National Forest

A guide to understanding the differences between national parks, forests and other designations.

September 28, 2020
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National forests and national parks. When you mention them to people, most will nod their heads as a sign of familiarity. Almost everyone is familiar with the terms and/ or has visited some. However, few seem to know or understand the difference between them. 

The two areas are not the same. Not even close. Yes, they both preserve land for public use, but they are significantly different in the philosophy of why they were created.

They also are very different in how you can use them. If you are traveling to a national park or a national forest, you should read below to learn about these differences. 

map of national park vs national forest

What is the Difference?

National Parks are generally more regulated and are less accessible. National Forests are generally less regulated and more accessible.

National Parks National Forests
Goal Aim to maintain a pristine, undisturbed landscape. Managed for wildlife and their woodland resources
Activities Limit activities, like hunting, campfires, and backcountry camping Open to camping, hunting, biking, and similar practices
Cost Typically charge fees Typically free
Access Sometimes limit the number of visitors Typically open
Management Managed by NPS (Department of the Interior) Managed by NFS (Department of Agriculture)
Staff Have park rangers Have forest rangers
Size Cover 52.2 million acres Cover 190 million acres

To understand why we have both national parks and national forests, we need to jump back to the late 1800s and early 1900s when this conservation movement began. It all started in 1872 when then-president Ulysses S. Grant designated Yosemite as a national park. This act kicked off a campaign to conserve land under a national umbrella.

With Theodore Roosevelt at the helm, conservation in the United States exploded in the late 1800s. Roosevelt protected nearly 230 million acres of public land, forming 150 national forests, 51 bird sanctuaries, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments. People began to visit these protected areas in droves. There was a push to create a Park Service that would work alongside the newly created Forest Service to manage the growing number of visitors and to protect this land from exploitation by the railroad, ranchers and others.

Thus, the National Park Service was born in 1916 to preserve public lands for future generations while still allowing public access. It was meant to complement the Forest Service and not compete with it. As a result, the Park Service was put in charge of preserving land in its natural state, while the Forest Service focused on managing land through wood harvesting, wildlife programs and multiple public uses.

slickrock trail in Manti-La Sal National ForestSlickrock Bike Trail in Manti-La Sal National Forest

National Parks = More Restricted


  • Count: 62  parks
  • Surface: 52.2 million acres
  • Managed by: Department of the Interior

National parks came into existence in 1872 when President Ulysses S. Grant signed a law designating Yellowstone as the nation's and perhaps even the world's first national park. National parks were created to preserve our natural resources for future generations. They often have strict conservation rules limiting what you can do in the park.

National parks are administered by the National Park Service (created in 1916) as part of the Department of Interior. Inside each park are park rangers who manage the park and enforce the rules. Today, there are 62 national parks in the US that cover over 52.2 million acres.

Note: You'll often see 419 quoted as the total count of all national parks. That is because the National Park Service is responsible for 28 different land designations (ie. national monuments, preserves and memorial), and they can all technically be called "national parks". Slightly confusing...

death valley national park vs national forest
Death Valley National Park


National parks typically have strict rules to help preserve the wild beauty of the land. Regulations vary between parks, but typically they don't allow dogs, limit where you can camp, and prohibit hunting. You usually have to pay to enter a national park. There even may be limits on the number of people allowed to enter the park. You should know the national park regulations before you enter the park. You could face fines and removal from the park, even if you accidentally break the rules.


  • Acadia (Maine)
  • American Samoa (American Samoa)
  • Arches (Utah)
  • Badlands (South Dakota)
  • Big Bend (Texas)
  • Biscayne (Florida)
  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison (Colorado)
  • Bryce Canyon (Utah)
  • Canyonlands (Uta)
  • Capitol Reef (Utah)
  • Carlsbad Caverns (New Mexico)
  • Channel Islands (California)
  • Congaree (South Carolina)
  • Crater Lake (Oregon)
  • Cuyahoga Valley (Ohio)
  • Death Valley (California, Nevada)
  • Denali (Alaska)
  • Dry Tortugas (Florida)
  • Everglades (Florida)
  • Gates of the Arctic (Alaska)
  • Gateway Arch (Missouri)
  • Glacier (Montana)
  • Glacier Bay (Alaska)
  • Grand Canyon (Arizona)
  • Grand Teton (Wyoming)
  • Great Basin (Nevada)
  • Great Sand Dunes (Colorado)
  • Great Smoky Mountains (North Carolina, Tennessee)
  • Guadalupe Mountains (Texas)
  • Haleakalā (Hawaii)
  • Hawaiʻi Volcanoes (Hawaii)
  • Hot Springs (Arkansas)
  • Indiana Dunes (Indiana)
  • Isle Royale (Michigan)
  • Joshua Tree (California)
  • Katmai (Alaska)
  • Kenai Fjords (Alaska)
  • Kings Canyon (California)
  • Kobuk Valley (Alaska)
  • Lake Clark (Alaska)
  • Lassen Volcanic (California)
  • Mammoth Cave (Kentucky)
  • Mesa Verde (Colorado)
  • Mount Rainier (Washington)
  • North Cascades (Washington)
  • Olympic (Washington)
  • Petrified Forest (Arizona)
  • Pinnacles (California)
  • Redwood (California)
  • Rocky Mountain (Colorado)
  • Saguaro (Arizona)
  • Sequoia (California)
  • Shenandoah (Virginia)
  • Theodore Roosevelt (North Dakota)
  • Virgin Islands (U.S. Virgin Islands)
  • Voyageurs (Minnesota)
  • White Sands (New Mexico)
  • Wind Cave (South Dakota)
  • Wrangell–St. Elias (Alaska)
  • Yellowstone (Wyoming, Montana, Idaho)
  • Yosemite (California)
  • Zion (Utah)

grand teton national park vs forestGrand Teton National Park

National Forests = Less Restricted


  • Count: 154 forests
  • Surface: 188 million acres
  • Managed by: Department of Agriculture

Like national parks, national Forests were created to preserve land, but also allow for multiple use activities. The national forest system was created in 1891 when president Benjamin Harrison signed the Land Revision Act. This legislation was the handiwork of Los Angeles citizens concerned about the effects of mining and ranching on the nearby San Gabriel Mountains.

Today, there are 154 national forests across the US and cover 188 million acres, almost 8.5 percent of the US's total land area. These forests are managed by the United States Forest Service within the Department of Agriculture. Each National Forest has a team of forest rangers who handle the day-to-day oversight of these often large land swaths.

Note: Some national forests are administered together, like the Beaverhead-Deerlodge national forests.

© Gillfoto (CC BY-SA 4.0)

tongass national park vs national forest
Tongass National Forest


National forests vary in their rules, but overall these areas tend to have fewer restrictions than national parks. As a result, you often can hunt on federal forest land, have campfires, set up camps along a hiking trail, and don't have to pay to enter these areas. Because they are open, there also may be ATV or snowmobile use or logging, which could disrupt a hiking trail and make it difficult to follow.


  • Allegheny (Pennsylvania)
  • Angeles (California)
  • Angelina (Texas)
  • Apache (Arizona)
  • Sitgreaves (Arizona, New Mexico)
  • Apalachicola (Florida)
  • Arapaho (Colorado)
  • Ashley (Utah, Wyoming)
  • Beaverhead (Montana)
  • Deerlodge (Montana)
  • Bienville (Mississippi)
  • Bighorn (Wyoming)
  • Bitterroot (Montana, Idaho)
  • Black Hills (South Dakota, Wyoming)
  • Boise (Idaho)
  • Bridger (Wyoming)
  • Teton (Wyoming)
  • Caribou (Idaho, Wyoming)
  • Targhee (Idaho, Wyoming)
  • Carson (New Mexico)
  • Chattahoochee (Georgia)
  • Oconee (Georgia)
  • Chequamegon (Wisconsin)
  • Nicolet (Wisconsin)
  • Cherokee (Tennessee, North Carolina)
  • Chippewa (Minnesota)
  • Chugach (Alaska)
  • Cibola (New Mexico)
  • Clearwater (Idaho)
  • Cleveland (California)
  • Coconino (Arizona)
  • Colville (Washington)
  • Conecuh (Alabama)
  • Coronado (Arizona, New Mexico)
  • Croatan (North Carolina)
  • Custer (Montana, South Dakota)
  • Daniel Boone (Kentucky)
  • Davy Crockett (Texas)
  • Delta (Mississippi)
  • Deschutes (Oregon)
  • De Soto (Mississippi)
  • Dixie (Utah)
  • Eldorado (California)
  • El Yunque (Puerto Rico)
  • Finger Lakes (New York)
  • Fishlake (Utah)
  • Flathead (Montana)
  • Francis Marion (South Carolina)
  • Fremont (Oregon)
  • Winema (Oregon)
  • Gallatin (Montana)
  • George Washington & Jefferson (Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky)
  • Gifford Pinchot (Washington)
  • Gila (New Mexico)
  • Grand Mesa (Colorado)
  • Green Mountain (Vermont)
  • Gunnison (Colorado)
  • Helena (Montana)
  • Hiawatha (Michigan)
  • Holly Springs (Mississippi)
  • Homochitto (Mississippi)
  • Hoosier (Indiana)
  • Humboldt (Nevada, California)
  • Toiyabe (Nevada, California)
  • Huron (Michigan)
  • Manistee (Michigan)
  • "Idaho Panhandle (Idaho, Montana, Washington)
  • Coeur d'Alene, St. Joe, Kaniksu (Idaho, Montana, Washington)
  • Inyo (California, Nevada)
  • Kaibab (Arizona)
  • Kisatchie (Louisiana)
  • Klamath (California, Oregon)
  • Kootenai (Montana, Idaho)
  • Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (California, Nevada)
  • Land Between The Lakes (Kentucky, Tennessee)
  • Lassen (California)
  • Lewis and Clark (Montana)
  • Lincoln (New Mexico)
  • Lolo (Montana)
  • Los Padres (California)
  • Malheur (Oregon)
  • Manti (Utah, Colorado)
  • La Sal (Utah, Colorado)
  • Mark Twain (Missouri)
  • Medicine Bow – Routt (Colorado, Wyoming)
  • Mendocino (California)
  • Modoc (California)
  • Monongahela (West Virginia)
  • Mount Baker (Washington)
  • Snoqualmie (Washington)
  • Mount Hood (Oregon)
  • Nantahala (North Carolina)
  • Nebraska (Nebraska)
  • Nez Perce (Idaho)
  • Ocala (Florida)
  • Ochoco (Oregon)
  • Okanogan (Washington)
  • Wenatchee (Washington)
  • Olympic (Washington)
  • Osceola (Florida)
  • Ottawa (Michigan)
  • Ouachita (Arkansas, Oklahoma)
  • Ozark (Arkansas)
  • St. Francis (Arkansas)
  • Payette (Idaho)
  • Pike (Colorado)
  • Pisgah (North Carolina)
  • Plumas (California)
  • Prescott (Arizona)
  • Rio Grande (Colorado)
  • Rogue River (Oregon, California)
  • Siskiyou (Oregon, California)
  • Roosevelt (Colorado)
  • Sabine (Texas)
  • Salmon (Idaho)
  • Challis (Idaho)
  • Sam Houston (Texas)
  • Samuel R. McKelvie (Nebraska)
  • San Bernardino (California)
  • San Isabel (Colorado)
  • San Juan (Colorado)
  • Santa Fe (New Mexico)
  • Sawtooth (Idaho, Utah)
  • Sequoia (California)
  • Shasta (California)
  • Trinity (California)
  • Shawnee (Illinois)
  • Shoshone (Wyoming)
  • Sierra (California)
  • Siuslaw (Oregon)
  • Six Rivers (California)
  • Stanislaus (California)
  • Sumter (South Carolina)
  • Superior (Minnesota)
  • Tahoe (California)
  • Talladega (Alabama)
  • Tombigbee (Mississippi)
  • Tongass (Alaska)
  • Tonto (Arizona)
  • Tuskegee (Alabama)
  • Uinta (Utah)
  • Wasatch (Utah)
  • Cache (Utah, Idaho)
  • Umatilla (Oregon, Washington)
  • Umpqua (Oregon)
  • Uncompahgre (Colorado)
  • Uwharrie (North Carolina)
  • Wallowa (Oregon, Idaho)
  • Whitman (Oregon, Idaho)
  • Wayne (Ohio)
  • White Mountain (New Hampshire, Maine)
  • White River (Colorado)
  • Willamette (Oregon)
  • William B. Bankhead (Alabama)

coconino national park vs national forest
Coconino National Forest

Other Types of Land Designations

National parks and national forests are only two of many different land designations. When backpacking, you also may encounter other areas such as state parks, wilderness areas, and others. We explain each type below so you’ll know what to expect when you enter some of these alternative land use areas.

Like a national park, a state park protects and preserves an area for current and future generations. Instead of being managed by the federal government, a state park is controlled by a state. Most state parks offer discounts to state residents and are tightly regulated to minimize the impact on an area.

The national grasslands were established in 1960 to protects these delicate ecosystems known for their flowing grasses and abundant wildflowers. Many of these areas were decimated by the overfarming in the late 1800s and the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. There are 20 nationally owned grassland areas, mostly in the midwest extending from North Dakota to Texas.

© Paxson Woelber (CC BY-SA 3.0)

gates of the arctic national park vs national forestGates of the Arctic wilderness area

Enacted in 1964, the Wilderness Act allows the government to keep select areas in their natural wild state. These areas are kept untamed with as little human impact as possible. Though these areas may have hiking trails or sometimes even dirt roads, they typically don't have paved roads, bridges, and other signs of development. There are more than 608 wilderness areas that pro 106 million acres across 44 US states.

NATIONAL MONUMENTS: National monuments preserve a specific natural area, historical places, or a cultural feature significant to the country. There are over 120 monuments across the country, including Devil's Tower in Utah, White Sands in New Mexico, and the Statue of Liberty in New York. Some areas began as national monuments and were redesignated as parks or historical places.

WILDLIFE REFUGES: Unlike other conservation areas that balance human recreation with landscape preservation, wildlife refuges focus on preserving habitat for wildlife. Though most are open to the public, activities are strictly regulated to protect the species that inhabit the preserve.

© Diego Delso (CC BY-SA)

tetlin refuge national park vs national forest
Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge

Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, these conservation areas protect the landscape for future use while allowing various scientific, exploration, and traditional use. These areas often have scientific, cultural, historical, or ecological importance that makes them worthwhile to preserve. There are 17 national conservation areas across ten states that protect 35 million acres.

NATIONAL RECREATION AREAS: Located near bodies of water, national recreation areas offer kayaking, fishing, and boating as well as hiking and biking. There are 12 national recreational areas, including a few that are located near urban areas.

Kelly Hodgkins photo

About Kelly Hodgkins

By Kelly Hodgkins: Kelly is a full-time backpacking guru. She can be found on New Hampshire and Maine trails, leading group backpacking trips, trail running or alpine skiing.

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