national park vs national forest
· · ·

National Park vs National Forest: What’s the Difference?

We have likely all heard the terms National Park and National Forest, and have maybe even visited our share of each.  But it is easy to get confused between the two and find yourself wondering, what is the difference between a National Park vs a National Forest?



The difference between a National Park vs National Forest

Disclosure: Below are some affiliate links-these are all products I highly recommend. I won’t make any recommendations on this page that I haven’t tested or personally used!



Main Differences Between National Parks vs National Forests



The main differences between National Parks vs National Forests can be summarized in 4 categories:


  • Management
  • Regulations
  • Accessibility
  • Size



Before we delve into the details of each category, let’s take a look at the Mission Statements of the National Park Service, who runs the National Parks, and the National Forest Service, who runs the National Forests, to get a sneak peek of the differences and similarities between National Parks and National Forests.



*Mission Statement of National Parks Service:


“To preserve 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 key word here is unimpaired, and is one of the main differences in the goals between the National Park Service and National Forest Service.



*Mission Statement of National Forest Service:


“To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations”.



Productivity is a key word here, and one of the notable differences when comparing National Parks vs National Forests.



As you might be able to tell by these mission statements, the major difference between a National Park and a National Forest is how they are managed, specifically involving the concept of “multiple use”.  






National Parks are primarily focused on preserving and protecting natural resources, while National Forests exist for multiple uses, including preservation, but also uses like timber and logging, grazing, wildlife, fishing, hunting, and recreation.



According to the NPS (National Park Service)  National Parks emphasize strict preservation of pristine areas. They focus on protecting natural and historic resources “unimpaired for future generations.” 



National forests, on the other hand, emphasize not only resource preservation, but those other kinds of multiple uses as well that were mentioned above.



Another main difference in management is that National Parks aim to be as unaltered as possible.  The goal is to keep them in their natural state as much as possible.  National Forests, however, allow for the possibility of alteration, for example, like logging and timber.  



Another difference is that National Forests are managed by the U S Forest Service, which is part of the US Dept of Agriculture.  National Parks are managed by the National Parks Service, which is part of the U.S. Dept of the Interior.



Within the land regions themselves, National Parks are cared for and managed by park rangers, and National Forests are cared for and managed by forest rangers.  


Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park






The next main way that National Parks and National Forests are different is in respect to regulations.  Rules are different in a National Park vs a National Forest.  National Parks are generally more regulated, and National Forests are less regulated.  The following are a few examples:



  • Hunting is prohibited in National Parks (with a few small exceptions regarding wildlife quotas and control), but is usually allowed in National Forests.  


  • Dogs are usually prohibited on most National Park trails, but are generally allowed without restrictions in National Forests.  


  • National Parks typically charge fees, and National Forests are typically free.


Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia
Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia






National Forests may be more accessible than National Parks in many ways.



As previously mentioned, National Parks often charge a fee, which makes accessibility more limited for some visitors in comparison to National Forests that are generally free. 



Additionally, National Parks may limit the number of daily visitors that can enter the park, such as Arches National Park’s timed reservations system, but National Forests are generally open without limits.



There are more land areas and total acreage of National Forests than there are National Parks, therefore making them more accessible in quantity. 



National Forests are often less crowded than National Parks as well, especially when it comes to popular National Parks in peak season, like Yellowstone National Park or Great Smoky Mountains National Park during the summer months.



Ironically, the National Parks get more annual visitors as a whole than National Forests do as a whole.


Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio
Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio






The final major way that National Parks are different from National Forests is in relative size of their respective nationwide systems as a whole.  One popular question that is often asked is whether there are more National Parks or National Forests in the U.S.?



Are There More National Parks or National Forests?



While there are just 63 National Parks and 155 National Forests, there are more designated National Park Sites, which include National Parks, National Rivers, National Recreation Sites, and National Battlefields, just to name a few. But as far as size in acres go, there is more acres of National Forest in the U.S. than there is National Parks.  



According to the National Forest Foundation, there are 84 million acres of National Parks, vs 193 million acres of National Forests in the U.S.



One thing to keep in mind is that in the U.S., National Parks are continually being added, like the two most recent additions: White Sands National Park in New Mexico, and New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia.  National Forests, however, are not being continually added.



National Parks:



  • 84 million acres


  • 423 National Park Sites including: 


-63 National Parks

-the rest of the National Park sites include National Monuments, Preserves, Parkways, Rivers, Battlefields, Seashores, Scenic Trails, Memorials, Historic Sights, and even the White House!



Map of the 63 U.S. National Parks:




Alphabetical List of the 63 National Parks in the U.S.:



  • Acadia (Maine)


  • American Samoa (American Samoa)




  • Big Bend (Texas)


  • Biscayne (Florida)


  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison (Colorado)


  • Bryce Canyon (Utah)


  • Canyonlands (Uta)


  • Capitol Reef (Utah)



  • Channel Islands (California)


  • Congaree (South Carolina)


  • Crater Lake (Oregon)



  • Death Valley (California)


  • 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 and Tennessee)



  • 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)


  • New River Gorge (West Virginia)


  • North Cascades (Washington)


  • Olympic (Washington)


  • Petrified Forest (Arizona)


  • Pinnacles (California)


  • Redwood (California)


  • Rocky Mountain (Colorado)


  • Saguaro (Arizona)


  • Sequoia (California)



  • Theodore Roosevelt (North Dakota)


  • Virgin Islands (U.S. Virgin Islands)


  • Voyageurs (Minnesota)



  • Wind Cave (South Dakota)


  • Wrangell–St. Elias (Alaska)



  • Yosemite (California)


  • Zion (Utah)




>>>MORE: Get your own National Parks Checklist Here!




National Forests:


  • 193 million acres


  • 155 National Forests


  • 20 National Grasslands


  • 1 National Tallgrass Prairie



Alphabetical List of the 155 National Forests in the U.S.:



  • Allegheny (Pennsylvania)


  • Angeles (California)


  • Angelina (Texas)


  • Apache (Arizona)


  • Sitgreaves (Arizona and New Mexico)


  • Apalachicola (Florida)


  • Arapaho (Colorado)


  • Ashley (Utah and Wyoming)


  • Beaverhead – Deerlodge (Montana)


  • Bienville (Mississippi)


  • Bighorn (Wyoming)


  • Bitterroot (Montana and Idaho)


  • Black Hills (South Dakota and Wyoming)


  • Boise (Idaho)


  • Bridger (Wyoming)


  • Teton (Wyoming)


  • Caribou (Idaho and Wyoming)


  • Targhee (Idaho)


  • Carson (New Mexico)


  • Chattahoochee (Georgia)


  • Oconee (Georgia)


  • Chequamegon (Wisconsin)


  • Nicolet (Wisconsin)


  • Cherokee (Tennessee and North Carolina)


  • Chippewa (Minnesota)


  • Chugach (Alaska)


  • Cibola (New Mexico)


  • Clearwater (Idaho)


  • Cleveland (California)


  • Coconino (Arizona)


  • Colville (Washington)


  • Conecuh (Alabama)


  • Coronado (Arizona and New Mexico)


  • Croatan (North Carolina)


  • Custer – Gallatin (Montana and 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)


  • George Washington & Jefferson (Virginia, West Virginia, and 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 – Toiyabe (California)


  • Huron (Michigan)


  • Manistee (Michigan)


  • Coeur d’Alene (Idaho)


  • St. Joe (Idaho)


  • Kaniksu (Idaho, Washington, and Montana)


  • Inyo (California and Nevada)


  • Kaibab (Arizona)


  • Kisatchie (Louisiana)


  • Klamath (California and Oregon)


  • Kootenai (Montana and Idaho)


  • Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (California and Nevada)


  • Land Between The Lakes (Kentucky and Tennessee)


  • Lassen (California)


  • Lewis and Clark (Montana)


  • Lincoln (New Mexico)


  • Lolo (Montana)


  • Los Padres (California)


  • Malheur (Oregon)


  • Manti (Utah and Colorado)


  • La Sal (Utah and Colorado)


  • Mark Twain (Missouri)


  • Medicine Bow – Routt (Colorado and 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 and Oklahoma)


  • Ozark (Arkansas)


  • St. Francis (Arkansas)


  • Payette (Idaho)


  • Pike (Colorado)


  • Pisgah (North Carolina)


  • Plumas (California)


  • Prescott (Arizona)


  • Rio Grande (Colorado)


  • Rogue River (Oregon and California)


  • Siskiyou (Oregon and 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 and 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 and Idaho)


  • Umatilla (Oregon and Washington)


  • Umpqua (Oregon)


  • Uncompahgre (Colorado)


  • Uwharrie (North Carolina)


  • Wallowa (Oregon and Idaho)


  • Whitman (Oregon and Idaho)


  • Wayne (Ohio)


  • White Mountain (New Hampshire and Maine)


  • White River (Colorado)


  • Willamette (Oregon)


  • William B. Bankhead (Alabama)



Hiawatha National Forest in Michigan
Hiawatha National Forest in Michigan



Similarities Between a National Park vs National Forest



There are still several ways that National Parks and National Forests are similar to each other:



  • both National Parks and National Forests are federally managed public lands, run by the federal government in Washington.  The states are not responsible for the management of National Parks or National Forests.



  • essentially the US government owns both National Parks and National Forests



  • though they have their differences, at their heart, both National Parks and National Forests contain undeniably incredible natural landscapes



Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Hiking in Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas




What Year Was the First National Park Established?



  • 1872 Yellowstone National Park in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana (first in world and US) by then President Ulysses S. Grant



What Year was the First National Forest Established?



  • 1891 Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming



Targhee National Forest in Idaho
Targhee National Forest in Idaho



Other Points of Interest Between National Parks vs National Forests



Often National Parks lie within close range of National Forests, so visitors need to be mindful in what area they are, and coincide their activities as such.  For example, Smoky Mountains National Park is adjacent to Cherokee, Pisgah, and Nantahala National Forests.  Walking your dog is fine in the National Forests, but not in Smoky Mountains National Park, for example.


Now that you know all about National Parks vs National Forests, use these resources to plan your trips to both!


Hiking Itinerary Planner – get to know all about your chosen trail ahead of time!

Wilderness Hiking Safety Form – accidents happen in National Parks and forests, but you can be one step ahead of helping yourself by completing this simple form before your hike and leaving it in your car!

Day Hiking Essentials Checklist – absolutely every single item of gear you need for a safe and successful day hike in any park or forest!

Backpacking Essentials Checklist – there’s a lot to remember when camping overnight, but you can make it easy on yourself with this handy checklist!

6 Hiking Training Exercises you can do no matter where you live – because hiking in our amazing parks and forests can get intense, but the payoff is worth it!

Hiking Snacks Checklist – fuel your outdoor adventures with the best snacks!



  >>>>MORE: don’t forget your own National Parks Checklist Here!





National Parks vs National Forests

Get Your FREE Hiking Checklist PDF

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *