Kids to Parks Day 2017 is fast approaching in the United States, and the event raises an interesting question: what exactly is a “park?” City parks are familiar to all of us – from tiny neighborhood playgrounds to larger areas of trees, ponds, wildlife and even trails. But when it comes to other types of parks out there – state and national parks, for instance – I find much confusion over the meaning of this humble word. Read on for help making sense of it all.
Girl looking through telescope at a park

You Have a Big Backyard

No matter where you live, how small your yard at home, how urban your neighborhood…you, my friend, have a very big backyard. It’s called “public land” and it belongs to all citizens of the United States. It includes vast wilderness areas, lakes, rivers and forests. Having access to such great places to play is a unique privilege, found in very few other countries!

But All Parks are Not Created Equal

Kids to Parks Day Logo
In my neck of the woods, I have several nearby public lands. You might have similar types near you, too:

Ashford County Park

Nisqually Mashel State Park

Gifford Pinchot National Forest

Mount Rainier National Park

Four different agencies manage these four parks (and forests): one at the county level, one at the state level, and two at the federal level. The name is often your first clue to the type of park you’re heading into and what sorts of activities are allowed there. This varies quite a bit because …

It’s All About the Mission

The agency’s mission dictates how land can be used by the public. For example, the National Park Service’s mission is “to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources.” The US Fish and Wildlife Service must “protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.” State park missions often emphasize providing recreation opportunities.

What’s Allowed and What’s Not?

First, find out the rules and regulations before you go because they can vary greatly! Rules about whether or not dogs, bicycles or strollers are allowed on trails may impact hikers. Camping may be allowed anywhere, or only in designated areas. Not sure where to look? Start with the park’s website, where regulations are almost always posted. Additionally, entrance stations may hand out literature, or signs may be posted at trail heads. You can also stop at visitor centers for information. Playing by the rules protects you and the park you’re visiting.

Buddy Bison on top of a rock

Buddy Bison and Kids to Parks Day are part of National Park Trust’s mission to get kids outside!

Find the Right Park For You

Then, determine if a particular type of park is going to give you the experience you’re looking for before you go. If you’re envisioning a great family hike but can’t dream of leaving the dog behind, then head to a trail in a national forest instead of a national park, since dogs are prohibited on most national park trails. If you’re looking for a purist backpacking experience with no bikes or pets and very few people, then a wilderness area might be a good fit, as they have the strictest rules on types of use. Looking to canoe or kayak with the family? A national recreation area may have the perfect lake for you.

Get Outside!

Finally, wherever you decide to go, get out there and enjoy your parks! Plan to join Hike It Baby and thousands of others outdoors in every type of park on May 20!

Need more info?  Check out these websites:

State Parks:  http://www.stateparks.org/find-a-park/

National Parks:  www.nps.gov

National Forests:  www.usda/gov/usfs

Bureau of Land Management: www.blm.gov

US Fish & Wildlife Service:  www.usfs.gov

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