Park vs. Refuge: What's the Difference?

Here's how to tell national and state wilderness designations apart.

A fall day along the Green River in Ouray National Wildlife Refuge. Wildlife refuges not only create habitats for critters, but they can also serve as a site of wilderness conservation. USFWS Mountain-Prairie/flickr

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a national park and a national forest? How about a preserve versus a refuge? And what is a national monument? There are many types of designations, some with a focus on conservation and others that prioritize recreation or allow mining and timber production.

Our list of federal and state designations will help you understand the differences.

National Park

The Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park
The Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park is just one thousands of visitors flock to the park each each. Kevin Vance/flickr

National parks are large, public, natural spaces managed by the National Park Service. They have been kept wild to preserve natural habitats for plants and animals. Scientists can study the flora and fauna on the land while the public can enjoy camping, hiking, and exploring the natural world.

National parks are the best-known category of land maintained by the National Park Service. Of the 63 total national parks, you're likely familiar with quite a few, from Acadia and the Grand Canyon to Yosemite and Zion.

Yellowstone National Park, established by Congress in 1872, was the first national park. It laid the groundwork for the National Park Service, which today oversees more than 400 parks, monuments, refuges, and more.

State Park

An pronghorn in the fields of Antelope Island State Park
An pronghorn in the fields of Antelope Island State Park in Utah. Ed Yourdon/Wikimedia Commons

Think of a state park like a national park, but under the management of an individual state. Like a national park, state parks preserve outdoor spaces and offer recreational areas as well as camping and public beach access.

They can also encompass other designated areas like nature preserves. There are more than 6,000 state parks across the United States.

National Forest

Fall colors in their full glory in West Virginia's Dolly Sods Wilderness National Forest
Fall colors in their full glory in West Virginia's Dolly Sods Wilderness National Forest. ForestWander/Wikimedia Commons

National forests and national parks are often confused. A simple way to understand the difference between the two is the level of conservation.

National parks are often created with preservation of the area in mind. National forests tend to allow a wide array of activities from the cutting down of trees for timber, cattle grazing, and mining to various forms of recreation with and without vehicles.

National Preserve

he sun shines through the swamp's trees at the Big Thicket National Preserve
Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas became the country's first national preserve in 1974. Larry Rana/USDA/Wikimedia Commons

National preserves are managed similarly to national parks and are open to the public. However, on preserves, activities like hunting, trapping, mining, and oil and gas exploration are generally allowed. To find out which preserves are authorized for which uses, you need to visit the website for each location.

National Monuments

Mount St. Helens
Mount St. Helens was named a national monument not long after its 1980 eruption. Bala Sivakumar/flickr

A national monument is a piece of land or historical site that has been granted protection either by Congress or by the president of the United States.

Some notable examples include the Statue of Liberty, Mount St. Helens and Giant Sequoia National Monument.

In most instances, anything that was previously allowed at a national monument site—such as obtaining oil and gas, mining, building roads, as well as recreational activities like hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, and biking—continues to be allowed.

National Recreation Area

The Golden Gate Bridge is photographed from the Coastal Trail, part of the Lands End park
The Golden Gate Bridge is photographed from the Coastal Trail that runs through the Lands End Park. This park is a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. In addition to hiking trails, the area includes camping sites, natural preserves and sites like Alcatraz Island. Dawn Endico/flickr

When National Recreation Areas were established, it was to make an effort to provide the public with natural spaces where they could enjoy various recreational activities.

These spaces differ from national parks and forests in that they are chosen for their ability to fulfill demands for recreation rather than preserve the natural area. While having natural features (like waterways and forests) for people to enjoy, those features are of "lesser significance" than national parks.

To best serve the public, these NRAs must be located within 250 miles of major urban populations.

State Nature Preserve

Cascade Springs Nature Preserve in Georgia
A wooden walkway guides nature-lovers in Cascade Springs Nature Preserve in Georgia. Cody Wellons/flickr

At State Nature Preserves (SNPs), environmental preservation is a top priority. Indiana calls its SNPs "living museums."

These preserves are created on lands that have natural significance and are protected to be used for scientific research as well as an educational resource. The public is allowed to enjoy the SNPs, but human activities are regulated to help preserve the flora and fauna in each area.

National Wildlife Refuge

A mink stands up in a creek in the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge located in Maine.
A mink stands up in a creek in the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge located in Maine. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region/flickr

While all natural spaces provide vital habitats for wildlife, national wildlife refuges were built specifically to create a network of habitats for wild animals. There are over 560 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, these refuges provide habitats for more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 1,000 species of fish, and 250 reptile and amphibian species. That includes 238 threatened or endangered plants and animals.

Unlike national and state parks, refuges aren't available (for the most part) for camping. They are used for wildlife observation, photography, education, hunting, and fishing. Refuges, in addition to conserving and managing natural spaces, also help to restore habitats under certain circumstances.

Waterfowl Production Areas

A willet forages along a wetland edge on the Schneider Waterfowl Production Area in North Dakota
A willet forages along a wetland edge on the Schneider Waterfowl Production Area in North Dakota. USFWS Mountain-Prairie/flickr

Waterfowl production areas (WPAs) are actually a part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, created to preserve wetlands and grasslands that are vital for waterfowl and other species of wildlife.

If you’ve never heard of a WPA, it's because 95% are located in the prairie pothole areas of the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Montana. Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, Idaho, and Maine also have WPAs in their borders.

"Prairie wetlands, or 'potholes,' are the lifeline for fish and wildlife of the entire prairie landscape from the Rockies to Wisconsin," writes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "If wetlands in this vast Prairie Pothole Region were not saved from drainage, hundreds of species of migratory birds would literally have gone down the drain."

Generally, photography, wildlife observation, environmental educating, hunting, fishing and trapping can take place at the sites.

National Grasslands

Oglala National Grassland
Oglala National Grassland is located in North Dakota is one of a handful of recognized national grasslands in the U.S. Jeff B/flickr

When people started flocking to the grasslands in the 1860s, no one yet knew that if you removed the grass in order to plant crops, during droughts, all that nutrient dense topsoil would blow right off. That was known as the Dust Bowl.

Many decades later the government helped to move farmers and restore public lands. Around 100 years after settlers came in droves, the National Grasslands were established. Grass is absolutely critical to keeping these habitats healthy. We now have 20 national grasslands covering almost 4 million acres.

The areas provide habitats to wildlife including threatened and endangered species. However, these areas aren't refuges. The land can also be used for minerals, oil and gas, as well as recreation such as hiking, mountain bicycling, hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, and sightseeing. Most of the national grasslands extend from North Dakota down to Texas. Three more can be found to the west in Oregon, California, and Idaho.

National Marine Sanctuary

A diver takes in the ocean wilderness at Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary off the Georgia coast
A diver takes in the ocean wilderness at Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary off the Georgia coast. NOAA's National Ocean Service/flickr

National marine sanctuaries protect more than 170,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters. The sanctuaries are in place to help preserve biodiversity, historical sites such as shipwrecks and naval battlefields, and the economic benefits that come from thriving ocean and lake systems.

A great many environmentally destructive behaviors are either prohibited or highly regulated within the marine sanctuary system including trawling, detonating explosives, drilling or coring the seabed, and discharging waste material.

Sanctuaries are also interested in protecting whales from ship strikes and working to fight against climate change. Certain kinds of fishing, diving, and recreation are also possible within marine sanctuaries.