Selected rules regarding the placement and design of signs in the National Parks

A good painting of a modern American family would be a fully packed station wagon of sorts driving past a National Park sign with a scenic backdrop and clear, blue sky. A lot of energy has been spent on those signs, cultivating that American image we’re so familiar with when we enter one of the country’s pristine natural areas, or centers of our culture and heritage. It’s not just the entrance signs in the parks that are of special consideration, however. All signs are governed by rules agreed upon by the National Park Service (NPS), as well as the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Sign-governing rules in the parks are fairly intense, as they must transmit highly important information to a wide-variety of people from all over the world; furthermore, these signs must fit the aesthetic of the National Parks, so as not to be viewed as sign pollution, but as part of the park, and a delicate connector of humanity to nature.

National Parks entrance signs

The FHWA oversees signs along roadways, and ensures their uniformity. However, roads overseen by the National Parks are special cases. The purpose of National Parks roads is to essentially provide a path through the park for the enjoyment of the visitor. This special consideration was afforded to the entrance signs at the National Parks. According to FHWA rules, National Park entrance signs should be the same as any other sign denoting a landmark. However, thanks to a special agreement between the NPS and the FHWA, entrances to National Parks welcome visitors with the beautifully designed signs that are as recognizable as the scenery.

Signs in National Parks: What do they need?

According to the NPS sign manual (1988), there are some stock questions to be answered when planning a sign. The number one question is “What does the visitor need to know?” (p. 3-1). The idea of the need for the sign relates to the rest of the questions as well. Considerations such as if guidance is actually needed, where it’s needed, what message should be needed, and how it’s displayed, need to be weighed in sign design and placement.

The manual says that the aforementioned questions should be answered by a group of people. This group should also assess whether the sign is for either cars or pedestrians, or both, and what speed at which the sign will be presented.

How to make an effective sign

The NPS manual lists four ways signs are effective, and five things to ponder when making effective signs for use within a National Park. The four basic principles a sign must follow are that it must have a purpose, it must be seen easily and present itself authoritatively, its message must be simple, and it must give enough warning so as to be useful. To achieve these four goals, the NPS suggests following the following five principles.

  1. Uniformity – Simply put, “Similar situations are treated in the same way,” (p. 3-1). Messages should be easily recognizable and relatable to drivers and other park goers.
  2. Design – Take into account color and contrast, size of the sign and its text, shape and clarity of message when designing a sign. Also, lighting and reflectivity for night visibility are important considerations when making a sign.
  3. Placement – Should be in a spot that it will be seen and attention gets paid to it. It should give enough time to respond for cars moving at appropriate speeds.
  4. Operation – A sign must work like all other signs to which it’s similar. Uses of the sign must be consistent with all other uses of a similar sign.
  5. Maintenance – These signs must conform to a high standard of appearance so they remain readable and visible. Signs should be removed if they become unnecessary.


Ultimately, the park manager will sign off on the necessity of the signs. The biggest consideration they’ll likely useis that the sign fits the ideal behind park roads, which is that their intended purpose is not convenience or a fast route anywhere, but that the roads are paths being used to better the experience of National Park visitors.

Sign post considerations

Steel u-channel signposts have some particular usesin the National Parks, but in general, signposts are made from timber. There are safety considerations when choosing a sign posts.  For example, they need to breakaway if they are positioned in “an area of recovery” so that if a motorist swerves off the road andhits onethey can recover and drive back onto the roadway. For this reason, a timber sign post may not have a uniform cross section greater than 24 square inches. If a sign is of a size where a post of 24 square inches is not enough, then two or even three posts may be used. If using two posts, they may not each exceed 3”x6” or 4”x5”; round posts may not exceed 5” in diameter. For three timber posts, the biggest they can measure is 3”x5” or 4”x4”, or 4.5” in diameter.

Use of u-channel posts in National Parks

The NPS sign manual says in areas where it makes sense to use more durable signs, as well as road signs used under rules imposed by the FHWA, u-channel sign posts should be used. This includes along hiking trails, ski slopes and back country areas, where a u-channel sign post would be more durable against the elements, and where inspections are less frequent. U-channel sign posts require less maintenance than timber signs. Furthermore, u-channel sign posts should be used with aluminum, reflectorized signs, not the routed wood signs.

Sign messages

When creating road signs for the National Parks, there are rules to follow to ensure signs maintain uniformity and visibility. Road signs may not have more than eight words on them. Furthermore, each message on a sign can be no more than four words. There can also be no more than three worded messages per sign. In the event that a sign would exceed any of these limits, then another sign is necessary. Also, no more than three symbols are allowed per sign (such as directional arrows), and only one symbol per message.

The NPS sign manual is over 200 pages long, and it also references the UniGuide, which is a manual for the use of signs and giving visitor information in the National Parks. The UniGuide is over 900 pages long. It contains the vast amount of regulations regarding road signs, as well as the routed wood signs found throughout the National Parks. The attention to detail in the signs of our National Parks is impressive, but not as impressiveas the scenic beauty of the parks themselves.