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Are There Really 391 Units in the National Park System? You Won’t Think So After You Read This!


Columbus crew 1493 landing site at Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve. This park would make a dandy poster child for national park designation chaos. Photo by Eoghanacht via Wikipedia Commons.

The National Park Service says there are currently 391 units or areas in the National Park System. You’ll see this number used an awful lot, particularly when the National Park Service wishes to highlight the vast breadth and depth of the National Park System. Likewise, park advocates also use this number on a regular basis when quantifying the various threats to the National Park System as a whole.

Of course, that is not quite the same as saying that there are 391 “National Parks” in the National Park System, as only 58 of those 391 carry the designation National Park. The rest have some other designation, such as National Historic Site, National Memorial, or National Seashore. We’ll leave the discussion of all those different designations and what they really mean for another day and ask an even more interesting question: Are there really 391 units/areas/parks in the National Park System?

We’ve investigated the matter and can tell you that the answer is yes and no. It’s yes if you count the way the federal government counts. But it’s no if you count the way almost any rational human being would count.

The way that units in the National Park System are counted is truly bizarre. People who inquire deeply into the matter come out of the experience shaking their heads in wonderment. They don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Have the inmates been put in charge of the asylum?

We’ll let you decide for yourself.

Here is the official National Park Service breakdown of National Park System units by designation type. The number of units in each designation category is shown in parentheses.

National Historic Sites (79)
National Monuments (74)
National Parks (58)
National Historical Parks (42)
National Memorial (28)
National Preserves (18)
National Recreation Areas (18)
National Battlefields (11)
National Wild & Scenic Rivers & Riverways (10)
National Seashores (10)
National Military Parks (9)
National Rivers (5)
National Lakeshores (4)
National Parkways (4)
National Battlefield Parks (3)
National Scenic Trails (3)
National Reserves (2)
National Battlefield Site (1)
International Historic Site (1)
Other [unique] Designations (11)

Total Units = 391

OK; to see whether you understand what’s really going on here, you’ll need to take a little quiz. Refer to the above list as much as you like. Just don’t expect it to help as much as you’d like. Answers follow; no peeking, please.

1. How many National Preserves have been designated by Congress and put under National Park Service management?
a. none
b. 8
c. 18
d. more than 18

2. Nez Perce National Historical Park consists of 38 sites. If you were to visit all of the sites, how many units of the National Park System would you visit?
a. one
b. two
c. three
d. thirty-eight

3. Golden Gate National Recreation Area includes more than 15 sites in the San Francisco vicinity. If you were to visit all of the them, how many units of the National Park System would you visit?
a. none
b. one
c. three
d. five

4. How many components of the Wild and Scenic River System have been assigned to the National Park Service for management?
a. fewer than 10
b. 10
c. 21
d. about 40

5. How many National Scenic Trails have been assigned to the National Park Service for management?
a. none
b. three
c. five
d. eight

6. Last year, Peggy O’Dell was named Superintendent of National Mall and Memorial Parks. How many units of the National Park System is she responsible for?
a. none
b. one
c. less than one
d. more than five

7. Gayle Hazelwood is Superintendent of National Capital Parks-East. How many units of the National Park System is she responsible for?
a. none
b. one
c. less than one
d. more than five

8. Is the White House included in the National Park System unit count?
a. no
b. yes, as one unit
c. yes, as two units
d. yes, as three units

9. How many units does Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve account for in the National Park System grand total of 391 units?
a. none
b. one
c. two
d. three

10. South Carolina's Fort Moultrie is administered by the National Park Service. How many units does Fort Moultrie account for in the National Park System?
a. none
b. zero
c. zippo
d. nada

Extra Credit Question:

11. How many National Historic Trails count as units towards the 391?
a. None
b. Three
c. Seventeen
d. Eighteen

Super Bonus Question:

12. The Western Arctic National Parklands has two superintendents and the four-letter code NOAA. How many units does it account for in the National Park System?
a. one
b. two
c. three
d. four


(1) d -- Congress has designated at least 20 National Preserves that are managed by the National Park Service. However, as the list shows, only 18 are counted as units of the National Park System. The two that don’t count as units are the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve and the Salt River Bay National Historical Park & Ecological Preserve. All of the land within each of these parks carries both of the title designations. That's right; Congress has given two different designations to exactly the same area of land and water, and they've done that more than once.

(2) b -- Big Hole National Battlefield is part of Nez Perce National Historical Park and is also counted as a unit of the National Park System. To add to the confusion, the Bear Paw Battlefield is a sub-unit of both Big Hole National Battlefield and Nez Perce National Historical Park, but does not count as a separate unit towards the Park System’s 391 total.

(3) c -– Two of the 15 sites, Muir Woods National Monument and Fort Point National Historic Site, are part of Golden Gate NRA and count as separate units. That makes three units -- one each for Golden Gate NRA, Muir Woods NM, and Fort Point NHS.

(4) d -- The National Park Service has been assigned nearly 40 other such rivers, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why some count as Park System units and others do not. Several of the rivers are wholly contained within Alaskan National Parks and don’t count, but the Middle Delaware National Scenic River is wholly contained within the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and does count. The Great Egg Harbor Scenic and Recreational River in New Jersey is almost entirely locally managed and counts, but the Maurice Scenic and Recreational River in New Jersey is managed very similarly and doesn’t count.

(5) c -– Of the eight National Scenic Trails, five have been assigned to the National Park Service for administration. For unknown reasons, the Appalachian, Natchez Trace, and Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trails all count as units, but the Ice Age and North Country National Scenic Trails do not.

(6) c and d –- Of all the bizarre ways in which the National Park Service counts its units, this one may take the cake. The Superintendent of National Mall & Memorial Parks is actually one of two superintendents for a unit called National Capital Parks. At the same time, the Superintendent of National Mall and Memorial Parks also has responsibility for Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the National World War II Memorial – each of which is counted as a separate unit of the National Park System towards that figure of 391 units. Further adding to the confusion, this superintendent has responsibility for a number of other areas, including the District of Columbia War Memorial, the George Mason Memorial, the National Japanese-American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II, and the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, none of which count as units.

(7) c and d -- The other half of the unit called National Capital Parks is National Capital Parks-East. The Superintendent of National Capital Parks-East also has responsibility for the Carter G. Woodson Home NHS, Frederick Douglass NHS, Fort Washington Park, Greenbelt Park, the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House NHS, and Piscataway Park. To complicate matters further, this superintendent also has responsibility for places like the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, Fort Dupont Park, the Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens, and the Sewall-Belmont House National Historic Site, none of which count as units. The Sewall-Belmont House & Museum is in fact an Affiliated Area of the National Park System (which is a post for another day) that does not include “National Historic Site” in its name, even though the National Park Service does, at least for some purposes (see this site).

(8) b -- The White House counts as one unit of the National Park System.

(9) c -- Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve counts as two units of the National Park System. According to the National Park Service, this is based on the fact that a small area on the far western edge of the park (representing less than 2% of the total park acreage) is designated National Preserve and allows sport hunting.

(10) a -- Fort Moultrie is an administrative component of Fort Sumter National Monument.

(11) a -- This is an easy one if you consulted the list at the top. Of the 18 National Historic Trails designated by Congress, only one, the Iditarod National Historic Trail was not assigned to the National Park Service. Of the remaining 17, however, the National Park Service doesn’t count a single one as a unit of the National Park System. This is despite the fact that many of the Trails have their own superintendents and some even have visitors centers (like the Lowndes County interpretive center on the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.)

(12) d -- The Western Arctic National Park Lands is a National Park Service administrative designation that encompasses four units of the National Park System, including Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Cape Krusenstern National Monument, Kobuk Valley National Park, and Noatak National Preserve.

How did you do? Not very well, I’d wager. You see, you are a rational person, and therefore ill-equipped to deal with the federal government’s way of counting things.

Here at Traveler we call the federal government method of counting National Park System units the “Nominally Understandable Tallying Scheme.” When we encounter some aspect of the parks count that we cannot understand, we find it helpful to remember that the scheme used for counting National Park System units is NUTS.

Think of what you could do if you used this method of counting. When counting people attending an event, say a party held in your honor, you wouldn’t be restricted to counting each whole person. You could also count each person’s head, legs, and arms. Two people who are holding hands can be counted as one person – unless you’d rather count them as two people, which is perfectly fine. And of course, you need not count a person at all if it doesn't suit your purposes.

Who is responsible for the unholy mess that is the official tally of National Park System units?

It’s not entirely clear. Some of the blame surely belongs with Congress, which often designates units for political purposes (Cuyahoga Valley National Park anyone?) and often fails to follow the National Park Service’s conventions in designating units (which is why we have “The National Park of American Samoa” instead of “American Samoa National Park.”)

On the other hand, the Traveler staff has not yet found any evidence that the magic number of “391” units of the National Park System has been set by any law or combination of laws. For example, the National Park Service says that it counts attached “National Parks” and “National Preserves” as separate units because they have separate management guidelines. But this rings somewhat hollow, since lands within a single national park can often be managed by separate guidelines as well, such as when part of the park is federally designated wilderness.

And as to why some Rivers, some Trails, and some Memorials are counted as separate units and others are not? We’ve not been able to find anyone who can give us a consistent explanation. It seems that the Park Service deserves its own share of criticism for reporting a National Park System unit count that is at best unintelligible, and at worst, manifestly inaccurate.

It is that double counting that bothers us most here at Traveler. There is not even so much as an asterisk acknowledging the fact that double counting is going on in such cases as the National Mall and Memorial Parks, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and any of the "National Parks and Preserves".

So how did we get here? It seems to us that there are only two ways to interpret this. Either Congress and the National Park Service do not realize that the 391-count is bogus, or they do not care. Neither explanation satisfies.

In the meantime, this nonsensical counting system will surely continue to frustrate efforts by national park advocates to quantify the needs of the National Park System and draw attention to potential solutions. The first step to identifying your needs is to identify what you have, and with the National Park System’s method of counting, identifying what you have is nearly impossible.

So, the next time you hear one of the many park advocates say that X number of national parks are threatened by this, or are in need of that, you may just ask yourself: what exactly are they counting?

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Sabattis, whose contributions have been invaluable. Any sins of commission or omission are, of course, mine alone.

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Another intriguing thought-piece by Bob!

Bob, I think it never gets to the heart of the crazy things that go on in an agency or in the Congress by thinking of either one AS A MONOLITH. The NPS certainly does not act as one voice, especially since most of the people in the NPS think they are working for the American People and The Future, not for some office-holder. Mostly, that is great, but creates confusion.

But it is not true that the park service does not worry about this thing at all. The main guy in NPS who used to worry about this all the time was the head of the Park Planning office. He seemed to spend about half his time on this topic, frequently even arguing over whether a park really was "administered" by the NPS or not: he never got over the idea that Ebey's Landing was either administered by or a Unit of the NPS. One day he would win his argument over one site. Another day, he would lose. He got into that running fight over the New Jersey and Delaware River designations, for example, even managing to get the authorizing legislation to state explicitly that this or that river was not a "unit of the NPS." The problem with this approach is the Wild Rivers, according to the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, are all supposed to be Units of the NPS, and he was not able to interpose himself and change all the ones he did not think were truly being "administered" by the NPS. He objected to the idea that a River unit with no land ownership by the NPS and "administered" not by NPS people but by others through a "cooperative agreement" could be considered a Unit, no matter what the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act said.

Two more historical quickies. On the Alaska Rivers, at the time the agency in charge of rivers was a separate agency from the NPS. So if a river was within a park also being designated, it seemed to avoid confusion just to think of the River as a designated river within a national park, rather than a separate Unit. Rivers inside Bureau of Land Management lands, on the other hand, were seen as less restrictively managed, and the River designation was seen as necessary to protect the land within the boundary of the give river. LATER, that River agency, called either the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation or HCRS, was folded by Secretary Watt into the NPS, adding to the confusion. There are still die-hards inside the NPS who dream for the day HCRS/Bureau of Outdoor Recreation is reestablished as a separate agency again.

Also, the Alaska national preserves: Preserves at the time were thought of as an entirely different kind of management than a national park. Big Thicket and Big Cypress were the examples. The uses, even visitor use, were to be adjusted to meet the ecological goals of management, somewhat like a wildlife refuge, and very different from a national park. There was great angst that all the carefully secured restrictions for national park management would be up for grabs with this kind of system. In Alaska, the United States actually was challenged by foreign governments, especially the Government of Canada, for originally (1973) proposing that the parks in Alaska allow sport hunting. the compromise was to forget about the idea that a "preserve" is an area for ecologically-based management, and use the name only to permit hunting. To zone hunting within the national park was decided as a) opening the door to hunting in other parks and watering down the "national park" designation just as the National Rifle Association was starting to sue the United States to allow hunting in NPS units, starting with their lawsuit over opening hunting in all national recreation areas, and b) undermining the international concensus (?) over what the designation of "National Park" means. Bottom line: the preserves in Alaska were determined to fully merit designation as separate units of the NPS. The guy who dreamed this one up ended his career as Deputy Director of the National Park Service, so somebody must have thought it was a good idea !

Interesting article. Just goes to show how absolutely confusing the whole system has become.

I know of one misplaced "Recreational Area" designation in the whole works, but anyone who has read my past posts knows my stance on that....

I find this one the most curious, since I've been there on several occasions:

(10) a, b, c, and d - Fort Moultrie National Monument (near Charleston, SC) is part of Fort Sumter National Monument. Even though Congress designated Fort Moultrie a national monument, and the National Park Service administers it, Fort Moultrie National Monument is not counted as a unit of the National Park System.

These 2 units are literally across a body of water from one another, and the two even exchanged fire during the civil war. Moultrie predates Sumter by something like 100 years! Moultrie's action in the revolutionary war actually gave South Carolina both its State Flag and the moniker "Palmetto State", as the orignial fort was made of stacked palmetto logs, and suprisingly deflected British canon ordinance due to its flexible characteristics. Moultrie sadly lacks the tourist numbers that Sumter enjoys, although tremendously more intact. Moultrie in many cases looks terribly neglected compared to other like parks.

In my mind, the two couldn't be more different, and should have equal and seperate status.


The National Park Service isn't the only agency guilty of toying with the public's perception of what is and what isn't an agency's unit and merrily confusing people. Here in Colorado, we have a variety of national forests that are combined for administrative purposes, and are referred to by the agencies as their cumbersome, combined names: The Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnision National Forests, commonly referred to by the feds as "the GMUG," for example. We also have the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forests, the Summit County portion of which is administered by and labeled White River National Forest even though it's called "Arapaho National Forest" on USFS maps. So confused are these forests that the popular Benchmark atlas of Colorado doesn't distinguish among the individual forests and just refers to them by their combined administrative names.

Similarly, on the NPS side, we have Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, two separate units administered as one, but are almost always referred to by the NPS as a single unit even though they count as two.

I'd bet that in Charleston, SC, where I grew up, that most people don't even know what the Fort Moultrie designation really is because nowhere does it say that it's a national monument by itself, but only a unit of Fort Sumter, whose headquarters are at Fort Moultrie. Charlestonians think of Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter as two separate places managed by the same entity. Does it really matter to them that one is an administrative unit of the other? By the way, Charles Pinckney NHS is also administered by Fort Sumter, but there's no sign anywhere announcing that it's a unit of any other park.

I don't think the public really cares a bit about what these units' administrative idiosynchracies are. They don't care if three separate national forests or two national parks are administered as one. They want to know which unit they're actually in and, unless visitors are delving into park or forest management issues, little else matters. When I go to Grand Mesa, I'm going to Grand Mesa National Forest, not someplace cumbersomely titled "the GMUG." When I go to Kings Canyon, I'm in Kings Canyon National Park, not Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. The feds should stop confusing people and confusing congressionally-designated units. The public might gain a little more respect for these agencies and and do a little less head scratching if they did.

About Fort Moultrie:
Fort Sumter gets all the tourist traffic and Fort Moultrie sees a lot of locals. Indeed, Fort Moultrie is both a park and a very significant historic site. While I was in college, I used to take breaks from classes with a drive out to Fort Moultrie to study on its green grass lawn within earshot of crashing waves on the Sullivan's Island beach. Plenty of locals could be seen playing frisbee, flying kites, having picnics and running on the beach. Conversely, while I lived in Charleston, where I was born and raised, I didn't know any other local who had been to Fort Sumter more than once or twice. I've been there only once. You really have to go out of your way to drop the money on the boat ride there and take quite a bit of time to pay Fort Sumter a visit. Tourism drives the Charleston metro economy for the most part, and it's no wonder the high-stature Fort Sumter might get more funding allocated to it than the elder Fort Moultrie.

SaltSage is correct:

By the way, Charles Pinckney NHS is also administered by Fort Sumter, but there's no sign anywhere announcing that it's a unit of any other park.

One would never know the site was more than a dredge island, as the "Castle" is covered by growth. A brief mention of it is made whilst passing by on the ferry to Sumter. Really sad! I tried once to access it on my own boat, but was turned back by "No trespassing" signs.

Plenty of locals could be seen playing frisbee, flying kites, having picnics and running on the beach.

There is a really nice beach area in the shadow of the redoubts. I still think Moultrie is quite deserving of its own designation, due to its historical importance and state of preservation. Perhaps it would receive more tourism if only people knew about it!

Charles Pinckney National Historic Site is not in Charleston harbor; it's well north of Charleston just off US-17 and not far from Boone Hall Plantation. The park's main physical entity is Snee Farm (a remnant of the original plantation that doesn't have a single Pinckney-era structure on it!). That little island in Charleston harbor is Castle Pinckney, which was once a National Monument, but got delisted.

Thanks for a good article on a pet peeve topic. I had to put a disclaimer on my own blog because I couldn't figure out where the 391 unit count comes from.


My travels through the National Park System:

Thank you, Mr. Janiskee, for this relevant article!

Your findings reveal the truth behind the federal management of national park areas; indeed the inmates have taken charge of the asylum. The weight of all that bureaucracy dulls--crushes!--reason and logic. Whatever the real answer (how many parks do you think are in the system?), the rhetorical answer is "too many!" Consider that the administration of the entire system costs more than the operation of the 58 "national park" in-name units (the very same bureaucracy that can't provide a realistic or accurate count of actual units under its purview), and you'll realize the system has grown unwieldy.

Of course, one solution would be to kick the "inmates" out and shut down the "asylum". Each park should be able to stand on its own and provide its own definition of how many units it is (one).

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