Unique Places

Desert Dwellings to Fjords: The Best US National Monuments to Visit

National Parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Zion rightfully get a great deal of attention. For those who are seeking breathtaking beauty that is slightly off the beaten path, consider visiting any of the 128 National Monuments that are located throughout the United States. National Monuments offer all of the splendor of the finest National Parks, with fewer crowds. From isolated stretches of desert to sweeping fjords, the nation’s diverse collection of National Monuments showcase the sheer loveliness of the United States.

BEAR EARS NATIONAL MONUMENT

Utah

bears ears national monument

Image via Pinterest

Located in southeastern Utah, the pinnacle of Bears Ears is a remote rock formation that looks like two giant rocky bears ears protruding from the ground. The area surrounding Bears Ears is considered sacred by numerous Native American tribes, including the Navajo. Bears Ears features a stunning rock climbing corridor known as Indian Creek, and an enclave of red rock cliff dwellings known as Shash Jaa which were once inhabited by various Native American tribes, including the ancient Fremont people. In 2017, there was an effort to shrink Bears Ears so that the surrounding area could be developed. A collection of Native American tribes including the Hopi and the Pueblo of Zuni fought hard to keep the Bears Ears National Monument fully intact. As of 2021, it appears tribal efforts to preserve Bears Ears will be successful. Bears Ears offers a captivating collection of petroglyphs and archeological sites that offer valuable insight into the Native American people who shaped the west.

DEVILS TOWER NATIONAL MONUMENT

Wyoming

Established in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt, Devils Tower is the first National Monument, and one of the most iconic. A large rock that stands alone on the horizon is a dramatic sight. A botched translation of a Native American word led to the designation Devils Tower. Surrounding Native American tribes had several alternate names for the rock formation, including “Bear’s House,” or “Bear’s Lodge.” The Kiowa and Lakota tribes believed that a group of mischievous girls chased several large bears up the side of Devils Tower. The bear’s claws supposedly left the deep grooves which are visible on the face of Devils Tower today. The bears prayed to the Great Spirit to protect them from harm. The Great Spirit caused the rock to rise towards to the sky. The bears remained safe, and the pesky little girls were transformed into the stars of the Pleiades cluster.

MISTY FJORDS NATIONAL MONUMENT

Alaska

Misty Fjords National Monument area near Ketchikan, Alaska

Photo by gags9999/Flickr

Most people associate fjords with Nordic countries like Norway. A fjord is a deep sea inlet surrounded by dramatic high cliffs. Though most fjords are located in places where Vikings have historically thrived, Misty Fjords National Monument is a rare example of lovely fjords within the United States. Surrounded by verdant forests populated by dense groves of spruce trees, Misty Fjords National Monument is home to grizzly and black bears. Whales and salmon swim freely in the fjords. Towering mountains carved by glaciers loom in the distance. A perpetual sheet of mist adds an otherworldly beauty to this remote Alaskan National Monument which is best reached by sea plane.

OREGON CAVES NATIONAL MONUMENT & PRESERVE

Oregon

Orca Millers Chapel

Orca Millers Chapel
Image via openoregon.pressbooks.pub

The Oregon Caves are breathtakingly beautiful, but also geologically unique. The Oregon Caves feature a rare marble cave. Marble is conductive to hosting rows of sparkling calcite crystals, which have wowed visitors since the first hunter-gatherer tribes arrived in the region thousands of years ago. The Oregon Caves offer candlelight tours, and ranger-guided explorations of the depths of the caves. The area surrounding the Oregon Caves features abundant Douglas fir forests teeming with black-tailed deer, and even the occasional bear or cougar. The Oregon Caves offer ample opportunities for hiking and camping.

PREHISTORIC TRACKWAYS NATIONAL MONUMENT

New Mexico

Sign showing possible reptile who made footprints and copies of footprints at Prehistoric Trackways National Monument

Image via Wikipedia

The Prehistoric Trackways National Monument in Las Cruces, New Mexico is home to a treasure trove of Paleozoic Era footprints and fossils. Land animals, insects, and even a few sea creatures left their mark. Large deposits of petrified wood and fossilized plants tell the story of a landscape that was very different from the arid desert where Las Cruces is situated today. Scientists from around the world have flocked to Prehistoric Trackways National Monument to literally walk in the footsteps of the primitive lifeforms who once freely roamed the Earth. You don’t have to be a seasoned scientist to speculate about the origins of bird-like footprints of various sizes which are immortalized in rock. Visitors with an observant eye can spend hours scanning the desert for signs of ancient life and retrace the steps of long-extinct animals.

PACIFIC REMOTE ISLANDS MARINE NATIONAL MONUMENT

US Outlying Islands

Palau

Photo via Pinterest

As the name implies, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument proves that the sea is just as remote and vast as the most isolated stretches of the desert. Located on the outskirts of Hawaii, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument is home to plants, birds, coral, and other marine life that is not found anywhere else on Earth. Whales, sea turtles, and seals frolic in the protected waters. The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument includes an expansive collection of islands and atolls that is believed to be one of the largest protected areas in the world that is maintained by a single country.

MOUNT ST. HELENS VOLCANIC NATIONAL MONUMENT

Washington State

Mounts St. Helens Volcanic National Monument offers an inspiring portrait of a landscape in perpetual transition in the wake of a 1980 volcanic eruption that killed 57 people. The previously charred terrain dotted with dead trees and evidence of copious lava flows is beginning to sprout wildflowers. Visitors can view the Ape Cave Lava Tube, which is one of the longest lava tubes in North America. The Johnston Ridge Observatory—named in honor of a volcanologist who perished in the 1980 eruption—features seismic equipment that helps scientists monitor regional volcanic activity.

MUIR WOODS NATIONAL MONUMENT

California

Muir Woods is undeniably one of the most popular National Monuments. Any nature lover will enthusiastically tell you that California’s old-growth redwoods are one of the great wonders of this world. The majesty of Muir Woods is something that you must experience in person in order to truly appreciate. The oldest redwood trees are believed to be 1,200 years old. Muir Wood’s tallest tree is 285 feet tall. If big city life is getting you down, and you yearn to be dwarfed by nature—Muir Woods National Monument will instantly shrink you. Even if you find yourself surrounded by a large crowd of people, the magic and mystery of a gigantic grove of trees that is regularly shrouded in mist will revitalize you as few other places will.

TIMPANOGOS CAVE NATIONAL MONUMENT

Utah

Timpanogos Cave

Image source

Timpanogos Cave National Monument is one of the most stunning cave systems in North America. The 3 caves that are open to the public—Hansen Cave, Timpanogos Cave, and Middle Cave—feature colorful rock formations. Timpanogos Cave is home to cave bacon, which is a rare rock formation that looks like strips of uncooked bacon plastered against the cave walls. The hike to the mouth of Timpanogos Cave is slightly steep, but the caves are highly accessible and easy to tour. Even the most claustrophobic among us can enjoy an afternoon surrounded by sparkling, winding rock formations inside of a truly bewitching cave.

CANYONS OF THE ANCIENTS NATIONAL MONUMENT

Colorado

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

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Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is home to over 6,000 archeological sites. Surrounded by picturesque mountains, structures once built by the Ancestral Puebloan people—a group sometimes referred to as the Anasazi—emerge along the horizon. The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument features remnants of ceremonial sweat lodges, multi-room dwellings, and well-preserved petroglyphs. The Canyons of the Ancients Museum gives visitors a bit of background about the Ancestral Puebloan people who once flourished in the region. The Lowry Pueblo features a great kiva, which is a large circular room used for spiritual ceremonies. The Lowry Pueblo’s great kiva is one of the largest kivas in the region,

THE STATUE OF LIBERTY NATIONAL MONUMENT

New York, New York & Jersey City, New Jersey

Statue of Liberty

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Ellis Island served as the entry point for countless immigrants attempting to seek their fortunes in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Visitors of the The Statute of Liberty National Monument can view the site of the former Ellis Island immigration station, as well as the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital where countless immigrants were quarantined prior to gaining entry into the United States. Liberty Island is home to the legendary Statue of Liberty—a copper sculpture now faded solidly green—which was given to the United States by France to celebrate United States Independence in 1886. The Statue of Liberty may appear tiny on postcards and TV screens, but Lady Liberty is truly colossal when you stand at her feet. Since 2019, Liberty Island has been home to a Statue of Liberty Museum which chronicles the construction and history of a statue which is viewed by many to be a symbol of liberty and opportunity, The museum features Lady Liberty’s original torch, which was replaced in 1985.

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