By Melissa Hart on July 20, 2021 in Travel
Historical homes. Military forts. Fossil beds. Caves, burial grounds, and coral reefs. Each represents land designated as national monuments across the United States. While the government protects national parks because of their scenic and recreational value, national monuments are preserved based on their scientific, historical, and cultural characteristics.
In June 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, which ensured that he and future presidents would have the power to protect “objects of historic and scientific interest.” Since then — by using the authority granted to them by Congress — a president has been able to designate any land owned and controlled by the federal government a national monument. Our great nation features 158 national monuments, offering visitors a wealth of educational and recreational opportunities.
Below, we’ll describe some of the most beautiful and inspiring national monuments across the country, from Aztec Ruins to Yucca House. First, some travel tips to ensure your exploration runs smoothly.
Preparation is key. Whether you plan a road trip to visit several national monuments at once or a daylong journey to see just one, it’s critical to know a few details ahead of time. First, choose a monument from this list maintained by the National Park Service. Each monument has a website that provides information on what time the area opens and closes, directions to the monument, and whether there’s a fee. These sites also tell you if pets are allowed, what types of accessibility you can expect, and average temperatures for the time of year you’d like to visit. In addition, some national monument websites offer lists of nearby attractions as well as information on where to stay.
It’s a good idea to book lodging in advance. Reserve a hotel room or vacation rental well ahead of time. If you’re traveling during the summer, you may need to book six months to a year in advance. Plan to camp? Search online for campgrounds close to the national monuments you plan to visit. No spots available? You may still be able to score tent space at a campsite maintained by the Bureau of Land Management, and don’t forget bed and breakfast establishments. Hundreds of quaint and quirky lodgings exist across the country, and some let you bring your kids, dogs, and even your horses!
Do you plan on biking, kayaking, or hiking around national monuments? Each website offers information on the recreation opportunities available in that particular location. Research hiking and biking trails to determine their length and difficulty, and remember to pack water, snacks, sunscreen, hats, and sturdy shoes. Nature guidebooks, fold-out maps, and binoculars will help you identify the flora and fauna you encounter along your way. Some monuments offer self-guided cell phone tours, as well.
Got kids in tow? Many national monuments maintain interactive museum exhibits indoors and out, as well as Junior Ranger programs. The program, designed for kids ages 5 to 13 (but open to all) offers activity books for young people to complete during their visit. In exchange, participants receive a badge and a certificate.
Regardless of whether or not you travel with young people, it’s always a smart idea to start your national monument exploration with a stop at the visitor center. Many have interpretive displays, short educational films, historical reenactment presentations, books, maps, and postcards, as well as employees eager to answer questions and provide insights into the location you’ve chosen.
Here are some of the most exciting national monuments in the U.S.
This monument, designated in 2013 by former President Barack Obama, lies in Washington State’s Puget Sound. The 1,000-acre destination includes forests, beaches, snow-capped mountains, and hundreds of islands. Visitors can hike, kayak, watch for whales, camp on Blind Island, explore the wetlands at Watmough Bay, and visit three light stations. Find lodgings in Friday Harbor and on Lopez Island, or pitch a tent at nearby Moran State Park.
You won’t find any crowds at this 464,118-acre preserve. From Anchorage, take a flight to King Salmon and catch a floatplane to the monument. Visit a six-mile, 2,500-foot-deep caldera formed 3,500 years ago during a volcanic eruption, and stay in a primitive camping site. Hike or backpack and marvel at bear, caribou, moose, wolf, eagles, sea otters, and sea lions. Tour King Salmon Visitor Center next to the airport to learn about the area’s natural and cultural resources.
This 100-acre site in California’s Tehachapi Mountains offers indoor and outdoor tours of the home, office, and gravesite of civil rights activist César Chávez as well as the headquarters for the United Farm Workers. Wander alongside Tehachapi Creek or through oak-studded grasslands and look for desert cottontail rabbits and sagebrush lizards. Kids can complete a Junior Ranger book in person or online. Find lodgings in Tehachapi and take a side trip to the Railroad Museum, or set up camp at one of these nearby sites.
Marvel at this lava flow on Idaho land once inhabited by Shoshone and Bannock tribes and later explored by Apollo 14 astronauts studying volcanic geology. Stop by the visitor center for maps and exhibits and then explore the monument’s seven-mile Loop Road, a half-hour drive with access to numerous trails. Take a wheelchair-accessible journey through cinder beds, climb up the side of a cinder cone, or visit lava tubes on the Caves Trail. You can pitch your tent or park your RV at Lava Flow Campground.
Start your adventure at this 850-acre monument in Utah with a visit to the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry. Excavators have unearthed more than 12,000 bones belonging to approximately 74 individual dinosaurs here. Walk to rock art sites and dinosaur excavations, and photograph the enormous boulders dotting the landscape. You can even bring leashed pets to this fascinating monument. Find lodgings in Price or camp in the Price Canyon Recreation Area. Take a side trip along the Dinosaur Diamond National Scenic Byway.
Along a half-mile trail at this New Mexico monument, explore a 900-year-old ancestral Pueblo Great House with 400-plus masonry rooms with timber roofs. Visit a reconstructed Great Kiva, an archaeology site, and a visitor center containing 900-year old artifacts. Tour the Heritage Garden, or take the Old Spanish National Historic Trail that leads to the Animas River. Camp or find a hotel room in nearby Aztec, Farmington, or Bloomfield.
Located in Iowa, this monument provides visitors with an opportunity to observe more than 200 animal-shaped mounds created by Native Americans in the Upper Mississippi River Valley from 1400 to 750 B.P. Study mounds in the shapes of panthers, bison, bear, and turtles, watch a demonstration of ancient spear-throwing, and hike the two-mile Fire Point Trail. Then visit the nearby Osborne Nature Center and the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre. You can book lodging in nearby Marquette or camp at Pikes Peak State Park.
This natural stone tower — and the first-ever national monument — emerges 5,112 feet above sea level from the prairie in Wyoming’s Black Hills. The visitor center, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, offers insight into the tower’s importance to Native American tribes and early conservationists. Pitch a tent at Belle Fourche River Campground or find lodging in nearby Hulett. Crack-climb the tower, hike one of the monument’s five trails, and attend a ranger-led Night Sky Program.
Take a bus tour along Nebraska’s “Fossil Freeway” and learn about the Miocene-age mammals found here. Hike the 1.6-mile Daemonelix Trail (with fossils still in their original placement) or the 2.7-mile wheelchair-accessible Fossil Hills Trail (with a restored homestead cabin near where James Cook discovered fossilized bones in the mid-1800s). View the dark night sky from this monument 23 miles from the closest village.
This Ohio monument honors Colonel Charles Young, an American soldier born to enslaved parents. Young graduated from West Point and had a long military career, as well as a position as the first Black national park superintendent. Take a guided tour of Young’s former residence and learn about the Buffalo Soldiers — Black soldiers who served in the U.S. military during the Civil War. Stay in nearby Wilberforce and take a cellphone tour of historical sites, or camp at Narrows Reserve.
This monument in New York City offers organized and self-guided walking tours of the land once used seasonally by the Lenape tribe and later by U.S. soldiers to defend the harbor. Take a ferry from Manhattan or Brooklyn and check out the harbor defensive systems Castle Williams, Fort Jay, and South Battery. Learn about the history of these structures as Civil War prisons and as World War II Army headquarters. Take a bike ride on seven miles of car-free paths, and picnic among 141 species of trees including the living fossil tree Ginkgo biloba.
This Alabama monument includes the bus station where segregationists attacked Black and white Freedom Riders in 1961. You’ll also see a historic mural and educational panels. Visit the site six miles outside of the town of Anniston where the Freedom Riders’ bus burned after segregationists set it on fire. Then take a self-guided driving tour of the Anniston Civil Rights and Heritage Trail to learn about key settings during the Civil Rights Movement. You can camp at Anniston Museums and Gardens or reserve a cabin at Cheaha State Park.
Whichever national monument (or monuments) you decide to visit, a little pre-trip research will ensure your visit goes smoothly. Once you decide on lodging and recreation plans, consider watching a documentary about U.S. national monuments or about specific monuments such as this National Geographic film set in Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Monument or this one about Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.
While we’ve covered quite a few of them, remember that national monuments exist in 31 states. Don’t forget the Virgin Island Coral Reef National Monument, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, and the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument. Why not visit them all?