These Overlooked National Monuments Are Just as Cool as National Parks
America's way-overlooked natural treasures.
If national forests are the scrappy kid brothers to their pride-of-the-family national park siblings, America’s national monuments are the oft-forgotten stepchildren who rarely receive an invite to the family reunion. Sure, the Statue of Liberty is a national monument. But go ahead: name another. (Mount Rushmore is close, but is actually a national memorial.)
The confusingly named destinations—most are actually huge swaths of natural beauty, not statues waiting to be toppled—vastly outnumber the national parks: There are 128 total across 31 states. And with national park-quality beauty paired with a fraction of national park visitation, now is the time to get to know some of these lesser-visited family members you’ve been neglecting. These are just a few of our favorites.
We’re not exactly sure what this expansive 210,000-acre national monument hugging the Colorado/Utah border is lacking in terms of national park designation, but that just makes it more of a hidden gem. With 1,500 dinosaur fossils, kickass river rafting along the Green and Yampa Rivers, expansive viewpoints such as the those at Gates of Lodore, and amazing Zion-like hikes in areas like the four-mile Jones Hole Trail, this recently designated International Dark Sky Park checks pretty much every box for the average outdoor enthusiast. And with around 300,000 visitors a year (versus 4.5 million in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park), it sees fewer people annually than a typical Lollapalooza weekend. While you’re here, be sure to check out nearby Colorado National Monument.
Instead of packing the fam into the station wagon for another Griswolds-style trip to the Grand Canyon this summer, why not try this unsung and vastly more remote alternative? Despite sharing a border with America’s second most popular national park, the million-acre Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument is like a bonus Grand Canyon without any of the crowds. Nearly equal in size to Grand Canyon National Park yet lacking any paved roads or visitor service, Parashant offers rugged backcountry camping, epic stargazing, and bumpy-but-beautiful high-elevation 4WD drives like the Mount Trumbull Scenic Loop Drive. There’s no cell service, so pack a book. And lots of water.
This isn’t the place to put down the backpack if you are afraid of bears. Admiralty Island National Monument is a popular day trip from Juneau for those wishing to witness live brown bear feedings on salmon spawns or gawk at one of the world’s highest concentrations of bald eagles. In fact, there are more bears in this million-acre wilderness than in all lower 48 states combined. With no roads to this remote natural paradise, most visitors arrive by floatplane or ferry to explore its wildly varied landscape, ranging from snow-capped mountains to high alpine lakes, natural rainforests, and ice fields. Kayakers can also cross eight lakes on the 32-mile Cross Admiralty Canoe Route, with cabins available for rental.
One of the most iconic images of the American West (where many national monuments are located) can be bagged in a remote corner of northeast Wyoming at America’s first national monument, established by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906. Scientists still don’t quite understand the origin story of the bizarre 5,112-foot rock formation popping up seemingly in the middle of nowhere over the Belle Fourche River, which adds to its mystique. (According to lore, the distinctly parallel vertical grooves were carved into the rock by a gigantic bear.) Considered sacred by Native American culture and attracting adrenaline-addicted climbers thanks to the tower’s uniquely challenging parallel cracks that line its walls, this compact national monument also hosts a smattering of wildlife such as deer and prairie dogs in addition to five mostly flat and easy hiking trails.
While relatively few have actually done it, Southern Californians are rightly proud of their ability to surf and ski in the same day. And now you can get in on the region’s “sand to snow” action at this newish national monument created in 2016 to protect one of the most biologically diverse landscapes of any national monument. Rising from the dusty Coachella Valley desert floor to more than 11,000 feet high in the San Bernardino Mountains, the 154,000-acre Sand to Snow National Monument (bordering Joshua Tree National Park to its east) also includes 30 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail as well as hundreds of ancient Native American petroglyphs and 240 bird species.
At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking this is Bryce Canyon National Park. It looks almost identical to its more famous national park cousin, which is located about an hour to the east. Yet with less than a quarter of the annual visitation of Bryce, this small but mighty national monument makes a worthy alternative for those seeking color-packed canyon views stretching across three miles at an elevation of around 10,000 feet. Like Bryce, the best time to view Cedar Breaks’ stunning rock formations and hoodoos is at sunrise and sunset.
Unlike some of the more wild places on this list, Mt. St. Helens is one of the most accessible and popular of America’s wilderness-fronted national monuments. National park-like amenities like the Johnston Ridge Observatory tell the story of America’s most infamous active volcano, while guided cave walks are available in the monument’s expansive Ape Cave lava tube. Gorgeous wildflower-packed views of the volcano can be enjoyed in spots like Bear Meadows, while those seeking a closer view of the crater rim may drive to the Windy Ridge viewpoint or even summit the rim of the 8,365-foot volcano with a permit. But don’t worry: those seeking a more solitary experience will still find plenty of open room for social distancing within this 110,000-acre monument along 200 miles of trails.
Welcome to Nevada’s tribute to Mars, a crimson desert landscape where tremendous geometric rock oddities protrude from the sands, seemingly divorced from gravity and logic. Here, endangered tortoises roam the lands alongside bighorns and mountain lions, whose domain is sandwiched between Grand Canyon-Parashant and Lake Mead, making visiting it the national monument equivalent of bar hopping. Ancient rock art can be spotted throughout the 300,000-acre wilds, along with ancient rock shelters and ghost towns, showing how this climate has provided inhospitably but beautiful to civilizations both ancient and modern.
Nearby Devils Tower looms large over the Black Hills landscape, but Jewel Cave shows that there’s just as much to behold beneath the soil. With more than 200 mapped passageways, this monument in Western South Dakota is an absolute anomaly: a “breathing cave” that experiences its own changes in atmosphere. The cave’s covered in crystals, stalagmites, “cave popcorn,” and other oddities, making exploring its easily-accessed twists and turns endlessly mystifying. And given its prime location near Rushmore, Wind Cave, and Custer State Park, it's an essential stop on one of America's greatest road trips.
With its high-desert climate and rugged barrenness, Central Oregon stands in stark contrast to the state's reputation as a lush, deep-green Eden constantly battered by rain (don't worry, the hipsters are still here). It also stands as a testament to Mother Nature's seemingly excellent Photoshop skills. This is the home of the Painted Hills, which look like some deity took a bright-red brush to rolling, golden hills of the desert plains. This has been a favorite spot of archaeologists since the 1800s, and of hikers since the days of the Oregon Trail, when the sight of Sheep Rock emerging from the lush riverbed like some sort of skeletal monolith was likely utterly gobsmacking.
It took six or seven million years and a whole bunch of volcanic eruptions to create the 5,000 or so acres of bizarro hoodoos scattered around this diminutive-but-stunning monument. But don’t let its size fool you: Here you can pop around in slot canyons all day, or take a quick 1 to 3- mile loop around the park. Regardless of your perspective—from up high on a ridge or through a curve in a crevice—you’ll see that Mother Nature definitely has a creative sense of humor, crafting boulder caps that appear to be wearing very silly hats. If you can only see one monument in New Mexico—a state overflowing with them—this is the one that will give you a little taste of everything the outdoor paradise has to offer.
Considering it’s home to stuff like Area 51, Roswell, and Sky City, you shouldn’t be surprised that New Mexico nabbed two spots on this list. Go off, New Mexico. Literally “the badlands” in Spanish, El Malpais features one of the largest volcanic fields in the West, where you can traverse the rugged desert and spot 4,000-year-old lava flows. But the real goodies are found below the earth, where magma from an ancient volcanic eruption carved out miles of underground lava tubes and ice caves—both of which you’re more than welcome to explore on your own—at sites like Big Tubes and El Calderon.
Also founded in 2016, another of America’s newest national monuments is also one of its most spectacular. Tucked away in Maine’s fabled North Woods adjacent to Baxter State Park, this 87,563-acre rural landscape and peaceful wilderness boats a number of scenic views of Maine’s iconic Mount Katahdin as well as enough gentle waterfalls, river valleys, lava flows, and moose-inhabited forests to last you the duration of a Henry David Thoreau book. Peep panoramic forested vistas along the 17-mile Katahdin Loop Road and hike sections of the International Appalachian Trail before settling into a tent to stare up at the night sky in the first internationally-recognized dark sky sanctuary on the Eastern seaboard.