Travel

Former National Parks and Monuments You Can Still (And Should) Visit

No fancy title? No problem.

Papago Park. Say that five times fast | Matt Mawson/Moment/Getty Images
Papago Park. Say that five times fast | Matt Mawson/Moment/Getty Images

The National Parks Service currently operates a whopping 423 units, but, confusingly, only 63 of those sites have gone through the rigorous process to become a national park. It could have been a lot more. 

Whether due to low visitation, lack of funding, or inaccessibility, some national park units are abandoned by the NPS, often before they have a chance to really strut their stuff. Some are transferred to the state park systems. Others, as in the strange case of Fossil Cycad National Monument, are stripped of their worth by human scavengers and relegated to cows for grazing. One—the dilapidated fort and former Civil War prison Castle Pinckney—even floats in the Charleston harbor, longing for the day it can see visitors again. 

But others are still vital landscapes. Just because they don’t have the fancy designation of national park doesn’t mean they’re not worth your time. In fact, they may even be worthier. 331 million people visit national parks every year. These guys are considerably less crowded, and sometimes virtually empty. In their cases, especially now, the demotion from national park or monument is a benefit for those who prefer to explore without Disneyland-esque crowds.

The Hole in the Rock reveals what's in your heart. J/k it's Phoenix | Peter Unger/Stone/Getty Images

Papago Saguaro National Monument

Arizona 
Years in the NPS: 1914-1930
Phoenix-adjacent Papago Saguaro had a lot going for it when it was designated as a national monument in 1914: stunning sandstone buttes as high as 1,700 feet, archeological sites scrawled with petroglyphs, and an extremely fun-to-say name. The saguaro cacti-dotted desert territory is also home to the iconic “Hole in the Rock,” which was used by prehistoric Native Americans to monitor the solar cycle and today looks out over the Phoenix skyline. 

Then humans folly reared its head: petroglyphs were swiped and saguaros were removed for the vandals’ personal landscaping projects. Funding was woefully inadequate, which led to egregious neglect. By 1930, Arizona was fed up and asked for the land back, and Papago Saguaro became the first national monument to be “abolished” by Congressional act. It’s now part of Papago Park, a state-run recreation complex that’s home to a desert botanical garden and the Phoenix Zoo.

Looks like a nice place for bike rides and fudge | Michael Deemer/Shutterstock

Mackinac National Park 

Michigan
Years in the NPS: 1875-1895
Situated on an island where Lakes Huron and Michigan converge to separate the state’s upper and lower peninsulas, Mackinac was America’s second national park, right after Yellowstone. Bordered by Fort Mackinac, visitors came to take in geologic wonders like the majestic water-adjacent Arch Rock and the 75-foot high limestone stack known as Sugar Loaf. Originally, the War Department ran the park, with federal troops acting as park rangers. But after the fort was decommissioned, the park was transferred to the State of Michigan, which designated it as the first state park. 

Today, Mackinac Island is one of Michigan’s most popular tourist destinations, complete with inns, bars, restaurants, and the crown-jewel Grand Hotel. A visit is lovely, especially if you arrive early in the day by boat or ferry: no motorized vehicles are allowed, replaced instead with bikes and horse-drawn carriages, so if you beat the crowds (good luck), it could be your own private getaway. And for the sweet-tooth, Mackinac is particularly known for its fudge, with no less than 14 shops downtown.

The namesake hill | Photo courtesy of North Dakota Tourism

Sullys Hill National Park

North Dakota
Years in the NPS: 1904-1931
Sullys Hill was one of five national parks added to the system by Theodore Roosevelt, but it’s a bit of a mystery why, unless it was just his inexplicably intense love for North Dakota. Sure, the 780 acres were dense with wildlife—wood ducks, geese, mallards and more—but the property was tiny, remote, and seldom visited. In 1931 it was passed on to the National Wildlife Refuge System and designated as a big-game preserve and breeding ground for wildlife with the reintroduction of bison, elk, and white-tailed deer.

The name was always a point of contention: Alfred Sully was an Army general in the 1800s who made his name by massacring hundreds of indigenous Americans. In 2019 the park—now at 1,674 acres—was renamed through an act of Congress to its traditional Dakota name of White Horse Hill, a draw for 70,000 wildlife enthusiasts annually. 

These spire formations are called "hoodoos." That's fun | Alla Gill/Shutterstock

Wheeler National Monument 

Colorado 
Years in the NPS: 1933-1950
President Roosevelt proclaimed southern Colorado’s otherworldly outcroppings a national monument in 1908, and it quickly became a tourist attraction: though it was just 40 feet shy of 12,000 feet in the La Garita Wilderness, it was no big deal for a horse and buggy to take two days to get there. Then came the speedy automobiles—and with them, roads—but the high altitude and eroded volcanic tuff proved too precarious an area to construct proper access, and motorists chose instead to visit places they could actually motor. 

When the NPS was reorganized in 1933, Wheeler was enveloped, but there was no plan or money to develop the monument and was thus neglected. In 1950 Congress abolished the Wheeler National Monument and returned the property to the U.S. Forest Service, which now manages it as Wheeler Geologic Area, part of the Rio Grande National Forest, a draw for the 4x4 set and those who don’t mind grueling 14-mile round-trip hikes.

Limestone? Or alien planet? | Ronnie Chua/Shutterstock

Lewis and Clark Cavern National Monument

Montana
Years in the NPS: 1908-1937
The famed explorers never actually set foot in this wonderland of limestone stalactites and stalagmites: it’s so named because it overlooks the trail that the Corps of Discovery followed along the Jefferson River. In 1908, Taft declared it the 15th national monument, but at 1,300 feet above the river it was a beast to get to—about a 45 minute climb to an unlit cave, with no rangers to serve as guides.

The cave was made safer throughout the 1930s but by then it was too late: the lack of adequate funding made it difficult to properly staff and maintain, and visitors slowed down to a trickle. In 1935 Montana governor Frank Cooney requested that the federal government turn the cave over to Montana for development as their first state park, today encompassing 3,000 acres. Guided tours of the caverns are offered, and though there’s no 45-minute climb, visitors will still need to hop up about 600 steps.

Shoshone Cavern National Monument

Wyoming
Years in the NPS: 1909-1954
With a remote entrance at an elevation of 6,300 feet—about 2,200 feet above the road— Shoshone Cavern was accidentally discovered by a hunting guide Ned Frost and his dog, thanks to an elusive bobcat who ducked into its darkness. After its existence became known the exploration team included no less than Buffalo Bill (Cody, not that other one), and the cavern became Wyoming’s second monument. 

During its time in the NPS it received few visitors, thanks in great part to the steep climb to the entrance and was eventually deemed too expensive to develop. The site was then bequeathed to the city of Cody in 1951 to manage, deleted from the National Parks System in 1954, and later renamed Spirit Mountain Caverns. Today it’s designated by a rusted brown sign and a metal gate across the opening. Experienced spelunkers can still enter with a key, obtained through the Bureau of Land Management for $20.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She's writing a movie about former national parks just for Nicolas Cage.
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