Parks V Natural Areas – The Difference

Parks V Natural Areas – The Difference

What’s the difference between a state park and a state natural area? Who cares? Well, I realized that we often miss the mark when it comes to educating folks on “why things are the way they are.” Today let’s talk about getting outdoors in our beautiful Wisconsin State Parks verses our also awesome Wisconsin State Natural Areas.

A couple of days ago we ran into some kids riding their bikes at Parfrey’s Glen State Natural Area just east of Devil’s Lake State Park. In fact, by the tracks in the mud we realized they had crossed some streams and rode quite a way back into the gorge. When I posted this on social media, most folks were appalled.. But one person said something to the effect of “At least they’re getting outside. That’s what parks are for.” So for me, a light went off.  We have an education problem.

Our state parks are places to play, recreation areas. Some have beaches and playgrounds, bike trails, camping and other amenities. Still even parks have areas that are closed to the public, places where we protect rare plants or wildlife. All in all though, Wisconsin State Parks are places to get outside and play!

Parfrey's Glen State Natural Area

Wisconsin State Natural Areas are NOT parks. As the DNR website says, they exist to “protect outstanding examples of Wisconsin’s native landscape of natural communities, significant geological formations and archaeological sites…. Wisconsin’s 683 natural areas are valuable for research and educational use, the preservation of genetic and biological diversity and for providing benchmarks for determining the impact of use on managed lands.”

So when people ride bikes through Parfrey’s Glen or bring in their dogs, when they climb up the cliffs at Pewit’s Nest State Natural Area, they are not only breaking rules but they missing the whole point. State Natural Areas are more like museums than playgrounds. These protected areas become even more valuable as time passes and our population continues to grow. They are meant to protect small, unique examples of pure, natural, healthy Wisconsin. SNAs are meant to be preservation areas.

And YES, this does mean the custodians of these natural areas are responsible to care for them properly as well.

The Message? Get outside! Enjoy and play! That’s what Wisconsin State Parks are for!! But when it comes to State Natural Areas, they are not playgrounds. They are museums, preserves, research areas, genetic banks and to some, even churches. Stay on the trails, tread lightly.


***Obligatory Disclaimer:  This website is NOT associated with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The views expressed in this blog are mine and do not represent the views of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.



  1. Julie

    Hi Derrick,
    Good info, are all state natural areas open for hunting and if so is it my resposibility to know the specific seasons?

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