The Differences Between National Parks and National Forests

These 7 key differences will help you better understand the distinction between a national park and national forest.

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Written by Jason Barnette
Published on July 15, 2020

This post may contain affiliate links. Read my Affiliate Disclosure here.

On the surface, it’s easy to get national parks and national forests confused. It’s even forgivable to assume they are one and the same. Although both preserve the great outdoors for recreational opportunities, that’s about where the similarities end. What exactly are the differences between the national parks and national forests?

Founding and Organization

In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed The Act of Dedication. The act officially established Yellowstone National Park as the first national park in the country. Over the next thirty years an additional 35 national parks and monuments were established across the country.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service in the Department of the Interior. The newly created NPS was to maintain the existing national parks and monuments, and in 1933 an Executive Order transferred an additional 56 monuments and sites to their control.

Today, the NPS manages 419 sites across the country and U.S. Territories, including 62 national parks.

READ MORE: The Complete List of All National Park Sites in the U.S. (and the Ones I’ve Visited)

The story of the national forests began in 1876 when the Congress established the office of Special Agent within the Department of Agriculture. The office was tasked with assessing the quality and condition of forests across the country. In 1881, the office was expanded into the Division of Forestry.

In 1891, the Forest Reserve Act granted the President the right to designate “forest reserves,” or what are now called national forests. Shoshone National Forest was the first national forest to be created, set aside from the forests of the Yellowstone Timberland Reserve.

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service and transferred the care of the national forest system to the new department.

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Mission Statement

The mission of the National Park Service is to preserve significant historical, cultural, and natural sites across the country. The ultimate goal is to alter as little as possible within NPS boundaries and, in certain cases, to walk properties back through time to their historical time period.

By contrast, the mission of the U.S. Forest Service is to maintain the health and productivity of the national forests for multiple uses. Chief among those uses are outdoor recreation, but unlike NPS properties, national forests are not limited to that function. The USFS oversees logging, grazing, and mining throughout the national forests and grasslands.

Scope of Operation

The U.S. Forest Service almost entirely focuses on land management. There are very few museums, historical structures, or cultural monuments in the national forest system.

However, the National Park Service has a broader scope of operation. Thousands of historical buildings, battleground sites, museums, and cultural monuments fill the national park system. This is in addition to the land management conducted by the NPS.


The National Park Service operates 419 sites across the country and territories, with 62 designated as national parks. The entire land area covered by the NPS is around 84 million acres, with nearly 55 million of those acres in Alaska. To operate this vast system, the NPS employees around 20,000 people in addition to volunteers.

The U.S. Forest Service is bigger, but smaller. The USFS operates 154 national forests and grasslands across the country, but those properties cover a whopping 190 million acres of land. The USFS employees around 30,000 people in addition to volunteers.

READ MORE: The Complete List of All National Forests in the U.S. (and the Ones I’ve Visited)

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Public Access

Most National Park Service sites have a dedicated entrance, sometimes more than one, with closed boundaries and few general access public highways. This creates a funnel for entry to some of the most popular national parks and quite often long lines.

Quite the opposite, the only real boundaries of the U.S. Forest Service exist on a map. Federal, state, and county highways frequently cross through national forests and grasslands without entryways. It creates a much easier access to recreational opportunities, and much shorter wait times to begin a hike.

Admission Fees

Most National Park Service sites require an admission fee, though those fees vary greatly from site to site. Often times, the admission fee for an historical site or museum is good for a single entry. But other times, a single admission price will be good for several consecutive days.

Quite the contrary, the U.S. Forest Service does not charge admission into any national forest or grasslands in the country. Although fees may be charged for outdoor recreation permits and camping, similar to national parks, it costs nothing to enter a national forest and go for a hike.

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Did you know?

The America the Beautiful Pass is an $80 annual pass that allows free admission into National Park Service sites for the cardholder and three guests. The pass is a must-have for frequent visitors to NPS sites that charge admission fees. Purchase a pass at any NPS site or online at

Average Yearly Visitors

Each year, about 330 million people visit a National Park Service site. The top three most visited sites (Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park) bring in a total 42 million on their own.

Despite the fact the U.S. Forest Service has twice the land area, fewer than 150 million people visit a national forest or grassland each year. But an interesting quirk of the USFS, with public access highways freely passing through, is that in 2016 nearly 300 million people drove along one of the 138 scenic byways through a national forest.

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