Sometimes confused with national parks, national monuments are areas of land in the United States that protect certain sites for historical, cultural, or scientific interest. This can include statues, ruins, military forts, and nature preserves. Generally, they are protected for one significant resource and do not contain the same diversity that most national parks do. However, this definition is fuzzy and there are many national monuments in the U.S. that span across huge swaths of remote land and offer glimpses at some of the most fascinating natural formations in the country.
There are currently 130 designated national monuments in the United States, but not all of them are as interesting and unique as others. In this list, we have compiled the top 10 monuments worthy of their own designated trip. Many of them are isolated from nearby cities and towns, so we have also provided nearby lodging opportunities where you can stay while you explore.
1. Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Washington
Famous for its 1980 eruption, Mount St. Helens offers the opportunity to see just how destructive a volcanic eruption can be, and how the environment bounces back. The monument consists of 110,000 acres along Washington’s Cascade Range and is home to the Ape Caves, a 2.5-mile lava tube that visitors can hike through. During the summer a daily limit of 110 climbers are allowed to summit to the crater’s edge, however, each year the Mount St. Helens Institute allows 80 people to take a guided hike into the crater. It can be very competitive to get a crater hike, and some people spend years applying to the lottery before they secure a spot.
2 hours to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
2. Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona
Located in the Chiricahua Mountains, this monument was established to protect its many hoodoos and balancing rocks. The formations are the remnants of a volcanic eruption that occurred 27 million years ago. While there has been an effort to redesignate the Chiricahua National Monument as a national park, the federal government has not yet come to a decision. The monument consists of 12,000 acres where visitors can enjoy 17 miles of hiking trails via the free shuttle. The main road is only 8 miles long, but it winds past some of the monument’s most impressive geologic structures.
3.5 hours to Chiricahua National Monument
3. Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming
The first national monument ever established, Devil’s Tower is a beacon of weirdness. It caught Hollywood’s attention in Spielberg’s 1977 film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and ever since, the monument has been associated with aliens and UFOs. In 2017, there was even a 3-day “Devil’s Tower UFO Rendezvous”. While you may be hard-pressed to spot aliens, the tower itself is a sight to see. There is a 1.8-mile hiking trail that takes you right up to the base of the tower, and along the way, you will most likely spot Native American prayer cloths attached to the trees. The site is a deeply spiritual place for over 20 tribes and is sometimes called “Bear Lodge.”
2.5 hours to Devils Tower National Monument
4. Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah
One of the largest national monuments at a whopping 1.8 million acres, Grand Staircase Escalante is a national wonder. The land consists of some of the world’s longest slot canyons, including Buckskin Gulch at 16 miles long, and is mostly accessed via all-terrain gravel roads. It is very remote, however, it contains some of the most popular geographic formations in the country, such as the infamous Calf Creek Falls, Zebra Canyon, and Devils Garden. The monument gained national notice in 2017 as part of a presidential plan to reduce its size from 1.8 million acres to 1 million acres. However, in 2021 it was restored to its original boundaries.
1.5 hours to Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
5. Colorado National Monument, Colorado
On the border of Colorado and Utah, this monument was first established in 1911 by President Howard Taft and was made famous in the 1980s due to an international bike race, the Coors Classic. The portion of the race that travels through the Colorado National Monument is known as the “Tour of the Moon” due to the strange yet beautiful landscape full of canyons, plateaus, and gnarly rock formations. The monument is a popular hiking location and contains trails for all levels, ranging from 0.25 miles in length to over 14 miles. One of its more popular trails, Serpents Trail, is 3.4 miles and follows the original road that winds to the top of the monument.
45 minutes to Colorado National Monument
6. Muir Woods National Monument, California
The Muir Woods were named in honor of John Muir, a California environmentalist famous for his exploration of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. While this monument is situated along the coast, it still holds the infamous redwoods that Muir held so close to his heart. The trees in this area can range from 400 to 800 years old and stretch up to 250 feet. Luckily for visitors, there are ample hiking trails where they can waltz amongst these giants. However, there are no camping or lodging facilities located in the monument’s 554 acres, and it is only used for day activities.
1 hour to Muir Woods National Monument
7. Cascade-Siskyou National Monument, Oregon
Protecting 114,000 acres of wilderness along the Oregon and California border, this is one of the newer monuments that was first established in 2000 and later expanded in 2017. It is the only national monument established to protect an area’s biodiversity, and it is often said that when traversing through this monument you will find yourself moving from ecosystem to ecosystem. The land is home to forests, woodlands, grasslands, wet meadows, and even an interior desert. It contains over 300 species of fauna and offers a chance to see where the convergence of two mountain ranges has created a unique biological crossroads.
2.5 hours to Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument
8. Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona
Canyon de Chelly holds the preserved ruins of many indigenous tribes, including the Anasazi and Navajo. It covers nearly 84,000 acres and traverses three major canyons: de Chelly, del Muerto, and Monument. It is one of the most visited national monuments in the United States and is located within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation, making it the only National Park Service that belongs entirely to a Native American Nation. Visitors can hike to the canyon floor only if they are accompanied by a park ranger or an authorized Navajo guide, however, most stay on the rim drive and take in the views from above.
2.5 hours to Canyon de Chelly National Monument
9. Carrizo Plain National Monument, California
If you love wildflowers, then the Carrizo Plain is a nonnegotiable must-see. It contains 247,000 acres of grassland plains that explode with color every spring. The monument also consists of an alkaline lake and the San Andreas Fault which extends along its eastern edge. It was established as a monument in 2001 to protect its diverse flora and is now California’s largest remaining single native grassland. It is also home to 13 endangered species and contains the highest concentration of endangered species in California. Some of these species include the San Joaquin kit fox, mountain plover, giant kangaroo rat, and blunt-nosed leopard lizard.
1.5 hours to Carrizo Plain National Monument
10. Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico
Designated as a national monument in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson with the intention of preserving Ancestral Puebloan ruins, Bandelier is a step back to 10,000 years ago. While most of the Pueblo structures date back to between 1150 AD and 1600 AD, there has been numerous evidence found that suggests the land was used for centuries as part of a regional trade network. Included in the monument is Frijoles Canyon, which contains numerous ancient homes, kivas, rock paintings, and petroglyphs, and the Tyuonyi pueblo, which once stood three stories tall. While 70% of the monument is designated wilderness that does not allow vehicles, there are several designated trails that visitors may walk while viewing the plethora of archaeological sites.
30 minutes to Bandelier National Monument
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