National Park Or National Forest?

Big, pink blooms of Catawba rhododendron in the foreground, with green mountains shading to blue as they stretch to the far horizon.

Kristina Plaas photo.


What's in a name?

National park or national forest; park ranger or forest ranger... Is there a difference between these often confused names? The answer is yes. Although many visitors are not aware of it, national parks and national forests have very different purposes; together they provide us all with a wide spectrum of uses.

National parks emphasize strict preservation of pristine areas. They focus on protecting natural and historic resources "unimpaired for future generations". Park rangers work for the National Park Service (NPS) under the Department of Interior.

National forests, on the other hand, emphasize not only resource preservation, but also other kinds of use. Under this concept of "multiple use", national forests are managed to provide Americans with a wide variety of services and commodities: lumber, cattle grazing, mineral products, and recreation (with and without vehicles). The national forests are managed by forest rangers with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) under the Department of Agriculture.

Because they have different purposes, adjoining national parks and national forests may need to have very different rules. For example, national parks usually forbid hunting, while national forests usually allow it. Dogs are typically permitted on national forest trails, but not those in many national parks. National forests may provide trails for motorcycles; national parks do not. Both agencies have designated wilderness. In these areas, both agencies strive for maximum protection of natural landscapes.

Because Great Smoky Mountains National Park is next to Cherokee, Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, visitors need to pay attention to where they are. A perfectly legal activity in a national forest may get you cited before a court of law in a nearby national park.

When you visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park, use the free map to see where you are and which rules apply, or ask a park ranger.

In this case, there is a lot in a name.

Visit the U.S. Forest Service website to learn more about national forests.

National forests surrounding Great Smoky Mountains National Park:

Last updated: July 28, 2023

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