Gaze up at Half Dome, and it’s obvious why Yosemite has national park status. Witness the wildflower bloom in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park during spring, and it may be less clear why California’s largest state park doesn’t.
The United States’ parks and public lands fall under a number of designations. Most of us have probably not reflected on what it means to be a national park rather than, say, a national monument, and those who have likely stumbled over the confusing nomenclature. To make things simpler, we’ve unpacked some of the most common and coveted designations, from what it takes to become a national park to who’s responsible for national forests. Here’s our handy guide to the US’ big, beautiful backyard and the different ways we protect it.