At first glance, national parks and national forests can appear the same. It’s easy to confuse them as serving the same purpose – recreation in the great outdoors. Although both federal agencies preserve the land for recreation, that’s about where the similarities end. So, what are the differences between national parks and national forests?
And, more importantly, what do these differences mean to you? You may find planning a road trip or vacation to one or the other offers a very different experience. This list will help you decide which is best for your next trip.
Although the first national park was created in 1872, the U.S. Forest Service is older than the National Park Service. But the idea of federal agencies preserving land for recreation and history evolved about the same time in the late 1800s. It’s interesting to see how two distinct preservation methods developed during this time.
National Park Service Origin
In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed an act creating Yellowstone National Park. It was more than just the first national park in the United States – it was the first national park in the world. Over the next thirty years, an additional 35 national parks and monuments were established.
Initially, the Department of the Interior individually managed the parks and monuments. In the early 1900s, the War Department began preserving historically significant forts and monuments.
In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed an act creating the National Park Service in the Department of the Interior. The new federal agency managed the existing national parks and monuments. Then, in 1933 President Franklin Roosevelt signed an Executive Order transferring control of an additional 56 sites from the War Department and Forest Service to the National Park Service.
U.S. Forest Service Origin
The story of the national forests began in 1876 when Congress established the office of Special Agent within the Department of Agriculture. The office was tasked with assessing the quality and condition of forests nationwide. 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 is now called national forests. Shoshone National Forest was the first national forest created, set aside from the forests of the Yellowstone Timberland Reserve.
In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service. Forests under the management of the Department of the Interior were transferred to the new agency.
Although the national parks and forests originate with the Department of the Interior, they are managed by different departments today. And they are managed in very different ways.
National Parks Management
The National Park Service is a federal agency in the Department of the Interior. The agency is headed by a director appointed by the Secretary of the Interior. Individual national parks are run by a National Park Superintendent.
Some national parks are managed together under a single superintendent. For example, in South Carolina, Ninety Six National Historic Site, Cowpens National Battlefield, and Kings Mountain National Military Park are managed by a single office. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park in California are managed by a single office.
National parks are staffed by park rangers. These rangers, sporting the iconic flat-brimmed hats, work to maintain the parks, lead activities, and demonstrate living history.
National Forests Management
The U.S. Forest Service is a federal agency in the Department of Agriculture. The Chief Forester heads the federal agency and reports to the Secretary of Agriculture. The agency is divided into nine regions and overseen by the Regional Forester. Finally, individual national forests are managed by the Forest Supervisor.
National forests are staffed by forest rangers. But, unlike their national park counterparts, forest rangers are not required to wear a hat outdoors. And, when they do, it’s typically a ballcap sporting the agency’s signature yellow and green logo.
The most significant difference between the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service is their mission. The two federal agencies take very different approaches to managing the public lands. And it is this difference that could determine which would make a better destination for you.
National Park Service Mission
“The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”
The NPS mission statement explains that the agency’s focus is preserving natural and cultural resources. Unlike the U.S. Forest Service, the NPS preserves historical structures in its parks. However, the goal is not to preserve the structures as they were when the NPS took possession. Instead, the NPS restores historic landscapes and structures to their most significant time.
An excellent example of this practice is the reintroduction of elk to the Great Smoky Mountains. Historically, elk roamed the mountains in their natural habitat. But overhunting and loss of habitat led to their disappearance from the region by the end of the 1700s.
In 2001, the national park released a herd of elk at the Oconaluftee entrance in North Carolina. Since then, the herd has grown to more than 200, and an additional herd has been released in Cataloochee Valley, restoring the landscape to its historical origins.
U.S. Forest Service Mission
“To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.”
Interestingly, the U.S. Forest Service’s mission statement includes nothing about preservation. That’s because, unlike the National Park Service, the Forest Service’s goal is to conserve the productivity of their public lands.
The U.S. Forest Service is less concerned with the cultural or historical significance of public lands. Instead, it focuses on conserving the quality of the land. Timbering, grazing, and hunting are frequent activities in the national forests, requiring good land.
An example of this is the practice of controlled burns. The U.S. Forest Service regularly manages controlled burns of national forests nationwide. Before the practice began, natural fires burned millions of acres of forests yearly. But under the control of the Forest Service, the prescribed burns are smaller and more beneficial to the forests.
It’s interesting to note that the National Park Service manages more sites but covers less area in the country than the U.S. Forest Service. This difference creates two very different experiences between national parks and national forests.
National Park Service Size
The National Park Service manages 424 sites. The sites cover about 84 million acres – although 55 million are in Alaska alone. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve in Alaska covers an incredible 13.2 million acres. And the smallest is the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania, covering a meager 0.02 acres.
Between those two extremes are national park units ranging from museums like First Ladies National Historical Park to giants like Yosemite National Park. Because of the National Park Service’s mission of preserving history as much as landscapes, the size of their parks varies greatly.
U.S. Forest Service Size
The U.S. Forest Service manages a much larger area with a whopping 190 million acres. But the USFS manages only 154 national forests divided into 9 regions nationwide.
Since the Forest Service’s mission is the conservation of land for public use, there are very few historical structures to maintain or staff. Instead, the staff is spread throughout the national forests in ranger stations and visitor centers.
But despite operating fewer sites, the USFS employs about 30,000 people – quite a bit more than the National Park Service’s 20,000 employees. Although the Forest Service has fewer sites and buildings to operate, they perform more work on the properties that requires a larger workforce.
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The national parks are the most popular destinations for recreation in the country. And in recent years, that has led to an overcrowding issue that isn’t going away anytime soon. By comparison, the national forests see less than half the number of visitors. And that opens an opportunity for planning an outdoor adventure.
National Park Visitors
Over 300 million people visit a national park unit each year. The top three most-visited units – Blue Ridge Parkway, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park – account for almost 45 million visitors.
In recent years, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has suffered from overcrowding at popular hiking trailheads and scenic overlooks. Unfortunately, it led the NPS to create a lottery system for crowd reduction. Hiking the summit of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park and rafting the Grand Canyon now require you to win the lottery.
But sometimes, the real challenge of visiting a national park is getting through the entrance, to begin with. At Shenandoah National Park, Arches National Park, and Zion National Park, long lines of cars packed with eager adventurers sometimes wait for hours to gain admission.
But while overcrowding has become a hot topic at national parks, the national forests have seen quite the opposite.
National Forest Visitors
Despite a post-pandemic surge in visitors to national forests, there are still only about 150 million people recreating in a national forest. With nearly four times more acreage than the National Park Service, overcrowding in the national forests has mostly been absent.
One of the quirks of national forests vs. national parks is public access. With no admission booths or dedicated entrances, millions of people each year travel through a national forest between home and work. In 2016, about 300 million people drove one of the 138 scenic byways through a national forest – even if it wasn’t their intent to drive the highway for recreation.
But there are also fewer things to do in national forests. Activities are almost entirely limited to outdoor recreation, like hiking, fishing, and kayaking. With fewer activities, visitors to the national forests tend to cluster in small areas more than in national parks. Popular trailheads and picnic areas can sometimes be just as overcrowded in national forests as in national parks.
Comparing national parks and national forests, you will see far fewer fellow visitors on a national forest visit. But it also entirely depends on your purpose for visiting.
Another significant difference between national parks and national forests is public access. While most national park units have dedicated entrances or admission booths, none of the national forests have a specific entrance. That means it’s much easier to visit a national forest, which might make all the difference in your travel plans.
National Parks Access
Most national park units have a gated entrance frequently, along with a ticket booth. Arches National Park and Shenandoah National Park are two examples of dedicated entrances that can sometimes become quagmires of traffic awaiting entrance.
But not all national parks have such entrances. Visitors to the Blue Ridge Parkway and Natchez Trace Parkway can freely come and go at any of the dozens of parkway intersections with local highways. And Great Smoky Mountains National Park remains one of the few national parks in the country without an admission fee – although they have recently instituted a permit fee for parking.
Many national park units include historic structures and museums that operate daily. As staffing shortages continue to plague the NPS, visitor centers and museums are frequently closed during normal business hours.
National Forest Access
Few roads through national forests are maintained by the U.S. Forest Service. That’s because national forests do not have gated entrances and enclosed borders, unlike national parks. Public highways crisscross national forests, which means it’s possible to visit one at any time without waiting for admission or traffic.
But although entering a national forest is significantly easier, that doesn’t mean recreational opportunities are always available. Like national parks, most national forest sites, like picnic areas and scenic overlooks, operate on a day-use basis. Once the sun hits the horizon, it’s time to go home on the public highways without gated entrances.
One of the most confusing differences between national parks and national forests is the type of activities for visitors. National parks are more restrictive, while activities in national forests are nearly limitless. The best way to remember this difference is that you can use anything you buy at an REI in a national park and anything you buy at Dick’s Sporting Goods in a national forest.
National Park Activities
As stewards of public lands to preserve natural, cultural, and historical sites, activities in the national parks are limited to anything non-destructive. Hiking, kayaking, and camping are all acceptable activities.
But hunting is almost entirely restricted in the national parks. And for commercial purposes, logging and mining are strictly prohibited.
One of the most interesting differences between national parks and national forests is over the issue of swimming. Swimming in national park rivers is almost always prohibited. However, swimming in lakes and along seashores is allowed in certain areas.
Ranger-led activities are more common in national parks than in national forests. These activities include 30-minute historical speeches, hikes on popular trails, or living history demonstrations like firing canons and rifles.
National Forest Activities
Activities in national forests are less regulated because the open-door nature of the forests makes them impossible to enforce. Hiking, swimming, and camping are allowed throughout the forests with few restrictions.
But a big difference is hunting and fishing. Seasonal permits allow these activities throughout many national forests. And some national forests have special programs that enable people to search for and cut down their own Christmas trees.
Another significant difference is commercial activities. Unlike national parks, businesses can apply for logging, mining, and grazing rights in national forests. The U.S. Forest Service’s mission is to preserve good quality land precisely for this type of activity as well as hiking and camping.
The National Park Service is infamous for its backlog of maintenance requests and future projects. In recent years, fees have increased at most national parks in a small attempt to balance the budget. But in stark contrast, visiting national forests is almost entirely free and will probably always be free.
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 store.usgs.gov/pass/index.html
National Park Service Fees
Only about 25% of the 424 national park units charge an admission fee. The fees range from a $5 individual rate to $35 for a vehicle. But getting into the park for free doesn’t mean you’ll never pay something – activity fees are more common in national parks.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park recently instituted a parking permit fee for visitors to the national park. Although there is no admission fee – and never can be on the public highway – the NPS now charges for the right to park along the way.
This is just one type of permit you’ll find in the national parks. Permits are frequently required for popular hiking trails, backcountry camping, and using picnic shelters. Lotteries are becoming more popular to deal with overcrowding – a ticket typically costs only a few dollars, but there is no guarantee you’ll win the lottery.
Another type of fee more commonly found in national parks is for tours and admission to museums and historical structures.
One significant difference between fees in national parks and national forests is the time the fee covers. Visitors must pay a $30 per vehicle entrance fee at Shenandoah National Park, which is good for seven consecutive days. And at Point Park at Chattanooga & Chickamauga National Military Park, the $7 per person fee is good for a week from purchase. Be sure to read the fine print of the fee or risk accidentally paying again and again – like me.
U.S Forest Service Forest Fees
If you browse Recreation.gov, you’ll see that national parks and national forest campgrounds charge a fee. But that’s just about the only fee the two federal agencies have in common.
There are no entrance fees for any national forest in the country. And nearly 90% of activities like hiking, backpacking, and kayaking do not require a fee in a national forest.
However, certain activities unique to national forests require permits. Hunters must buy daily or annual permits for hunting seasons, and if you want to go fishing, you’ll need a fishing license and permit.
The U.S. Forest Service has always required payment for parking, although it’s entirely on the honor system. Popular areas in national forests, like Sliding Rock in Cherokee National Forest, have seasonal attendants to collect parking fees on arrival. But other areas, like Upper Whitewater Falls near Cashiers, North Carolina, rely on honest visitors throughout the year.