You’ll be familiar with the USA’s national parks but National Monuments are often lesser-known and lesser-appreciated. They’re protected land areas with special natural or historical significance, designated under the Antiquities Act, and from centuries-old buildings to ancient ruins, they’re often pretty incredible. Here we take a look at 50 of the USA’s most important National Monuments. Note that some have reduced amenities due to COVID-19 – always check for updates on individual attractions and see state advisories before traveling.
Montezuma Castle, Arizona
Montezuma Castle has been a National Monument since 1906, though its history stretches back much, much further. This site preserves an impressive ancient cliff dwelling built by the indigenous Sinagua people almost 1,000 years ago – a 20-room, multi-story “castle” carved into a limestone cliff face. It’s often compared to a modern apartment block and it stands in central Arizona, surrounded by sycamores, whose wood was used to build support beams for the structure.
Muir Woods, California
The Golden State has towering trees and primeval forests aplenty, and the Muir Woods National Monument is a fine example. The forest, protected since 1908, is a cluster of colossal old-growth coast redwoods which provide a habitat for black-tailed deer, the elusive northern spotted owl, and many bats and butterflies. Some six miles (10km) of trails snake beneath the canopy.
Castillo de San Marcos, Florida
A brooding fortress in America’s oldest city, Castillo de San Marcos was built by the Spanish from 1672, in order to defend St Augustine and Florida from British invasion. It replaced an earlier series of wooden forts here, and provided a vital line of defence during the infamous 1702 Siege of St. Augustine, which saw English forces again attempt to take Florida from colonial Spain. Today the masonry fort, the oldest in the continental USA, is miraculously preserved with its hulking bastions, gun deck and stunning view. Note that the Castillo is temporarily closed.
Natural Bridges, Utah
It’s not hard to guess what this National Monument is famous for. Three natural sandstone bridges call this spectacular expanse of southeastern Utah home. Kachina, Sipapu and Owachomo (pictured) have each been carved out over millennia by water and wind. It’s thought that this area was settled as early as 7000 BC, and in 2007 it became the world’s first international dark sky park too.
Statue of Liberty, New York
Lady Liberty needs little introduction. The 19th-century offering from France has become an international emblem of the United States and was designated a National Monument (originally as part of Fort Wood) in 1924. She was designed by lauded French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi and is famous for her raised torch, a symbol of enlightenment, and the broken shackles around her feet, intended to represent freedom. Towering at 305 feet (93m), she’s the grande dame of the Big Apple’s many attractions. Access to the crown, pedestal and museum is on hold for now.
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks, New Mexico
“Tent Rocks” is a fitting description for this natural National Monument on the Pajarito Plateau, which comprises a vast area of cone-shaped rock formations that look just like giant tipis. The hoodoos were formed by volcanic eruptions some six or seven million years ago, and today a National Recreational Trail spools out through the otherworldly structures. It’s also home to birdlife like the turkey vulture and red-tailed hawk too.
Governors Island, New York
Several of the Big Apple’s isles have great historical significance, from Ellis Island’s immigration story to Liberty Island, crowned by its famous statue. Perhaps lesser-known is Governors Island and its important military heritage. The island served as a key post for the US Army from 1794 right up until 1966. Today historic defensive structures including Fort Jay and Castle Williams, both more than 200 years-old, are reminders of this legacy.
Chimney Rock, Colorado
Southwestern Colorado’s Chimney Rock is a vast site with a history stretching back more than a millennium. The high-elevation area protects the remains of some 200 ancient homes and buildings built by early indigenous people, with four impressive excavated sites. These include the Great Kiva, a circular site used for ceremonies, and a sprawling Great House with many rooms. Its location in the San Juan forest and mountains make it all the more spectacular.
Birmingham Civil Rights, Alabama
Established in 2017 by President Barack Obama, this National Monument is truly in its infancy, with limited sights and services available at present – but its poignant history earns it a spot on this list. In the 1960s, the city of Birmingham was known as a hub for Civil Rights activism and also as a place of fierce racial tensions and police brutality. Currently the key site here is the A.G. Gaston Motel, which was a meeting place for civil rights activists and the subject of several attacks by white supremacists. The related Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is currently closed.
Misty Fjords National Monument, Alaska
Glacial lakes, snow-crowned mountains and thick green forest – this National Monument in the far southern reaches of Alaska has everything you think of when you picture The Last Frontier. It’s folded into the Tongass National Forest and it’s named for its dramatic, vertiginous fjords, hung with mist and carpeted with trees. Throw in waterfalls and wildlife such as black and brown bears, killer whales and the Pacific salmon and you’ve got one of the world’s greatest wildernesses.
Vermilion Cliffs, Arizona
Arizona isn’t short on spectacular rockscapes but, even with such stellar competition, the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument is a standout. Spread over 280,000 mind-bending acres, the monument is known for its incredible striped, sedimentary rock formations. The most famous of them all is The Wave, a particularly striking sweep of salmon and pink rock in the Coyote Buttes North area. The site is also home to endangered California condors.
Camp Nelson, Kentucky
The newest of the country’s National Monuments, Camp Nelson protects a key Civil War site. It was established in 1863 as a hospital and supply depot for the Union Army, but it’s most famous as an enormous training center for African American soldiers, many of whom were enslaved people who risked their lives to escape to Nelson. The site also served as a refugee camp for their wives and children. Now the National Monument includes a reconstructed Union Army Barracks, a museum and five miles (8km) of hiking trails – park buildings are temporarily closed.
Six prehistoric Puebloan villages are protected within the bounds of this National Monument, which spreads across the border of Colorado and Utah. It’s thought that humans settled Hovenweep more than 10,000 years ago and the impressive structures here date from between AD 1200 and AD 1300. The Square Tower Group is the largest tangle of ruins here: as its name suggests it contains a bulky, boxy tower and almost 30 kivas.
Stonewall, New York
The Stonewall Uprising was a pivotal movement for the LGBTQ+ community in the late 1960s. In the small hours of 28 June 1969, police raided Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The raid was met with violent opposition from punters and gathering supporting crowds, and became a symbol of LGBTQ+ resistance, triggering further demonstrations and parades across New York and beyond. The Stonewall Inn remains a working bar and has been protected as a National Monument since 2016.
Bandelier, New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument protects incredible mesa landscapes and a whole lot of human history. It’s thought that people made their home here some 11,000 years ago, though the most fascinating evidence of human settlement is the dwellings carved out by the Ancestral Puebloans from about AD 1150. The 1.4 mile (2km) Main Loop Trail sweeps past impressive dwellings like the Long House and the Alcove House (a little detour) and a large kiva.
Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, Washington DC
A designated National Monument since 2016, the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument – a more than 200-year-old federal-period house on Capitol Hill – served as the home for the National Woman’s Party for almost a century. The Party was founded by activist Alice Paul, who led the group as they battled for social, economic and political equality for women, including the right to vote. The small headquarters now serve as a museum (though they’re temporarily closed to the public).
This jaw-dropping site in southeastern Arizona is nicknamed the Wonderland of Rocks – and it’s exactly that. Spread over its 11,985 protected acres are hundreds of rhyolite rock pinnacles, collecting in great huddles and sitting alongside caves, peaks and a huge volcanic caldera. Some 17 miles (27km) of hiking trails beat through the rockscapes, wiggling past cacti, succulents and native cypress trees and sycamores. Check out America’s most stunning natural wonders here.
César E. Chávez, California
This National Monument is dedicated to its namesake: César E. Chávez, a Latino civil rights activist known for his support of farm workers. In fact, he co-founded the USA’s first permanent agricultural union in 1962. Now his legacy is remembered at a beautiful site in the Golden State which comprises a memorial garden filled with roses, plus a fountain and Chávez’s gravesite. There’s also a visitor center (temporarily closed) with exhibits and the community leader’s own office.
Bears Ears, Utah
Two giant buttes in the southeast of the Beehive State give this sprawling National Monument its name. The enormous flat-topped hills, or “Bears Ears”, rise out from the monument’s red land, which encompasses juniper forests and striking rock formations, plus indigenous petroglyphs and cliff dwellings. Sadly, this National Monument is under threat as President Trump reduced the protected area’s more than one million acres to just 200,000 in 2017. Take a look at more incredible monuments in danger of disappearing.
Carrizo Plain, California
It’s all about the landscape at this National Monument in central California – and what a landscape it is. The vast open space comprises grassland speckled with wildflowers and hemmed with mountains, plus Soda Lake, a dry alkaline lakebed whose striking flat plains look like the surface of the moon. The area remains important to indigenous peoples, and flora and fauna includes kaleidoscopic poppies and lupines, plus pronghorns and the giant kangaroo rat.
President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home, Washington DC
One for architecture lovers and history buffs, this National Monument protects a summer retreat for American presidents who wanted to escape the buzz of Downtown DC. It’s located a few miles from the White House, on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home. The striking Gothic Revival “cottage” (all 34 rooms of it) was home to President Abraham Lincoln for a period between 1862 and 1864. Tours of the site are typically offered year-round – check for updates.
Sunset Crater, Arizona
The Sunset Crater Volcano is a vast cinder cone that erupted 1,000 years ago, changing the landscape forever. Although the eruption devastated the area, life blossomed again. Now hardy plants and animals thrive in this volcanic wilderness, protected as a National Monument. Today American pronghorn, elusive mountain lions and all manner of shrubs exist alongside the spatter cones and lava bombs. These are America’s most unspoiled places.
Grand Staircase-Escalante, Utah
Utah’s handful of National Monuments do some wondrous things with rock and Grand Staircase-Escalante is no exception. Protected by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), this remote site is all rust-colored cliffs and canyons, and is carved up into three units: Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits and Escalante Canyon, each as stunning as the next. The latter is best-known for its slot canyons (pictured), whose playful games with light make them a photographer’s dream.
Tipped as the “Heart of the World”, this large-scale National Monument is the American southwest in microcosm. It spreads over more than 20,000 acres of semi-desert land on the Colorado Plateau, broken up by great red-rock mesas, canyons and cliffs, and providing a home for desert bighorn sheep, coyotes and cute Hopi chipmunks. The 23-mile (37km) Rim Rock Drive is exactly what it sounds like: a white-knuckle route offering sweeping views across the landscape.
Fort Pulaski, Georgia
One of America’s most striking masonry forts, Pulaski gets points for its dreamy location (on marshy Cockspur Island) and its fascinating history. It played a key role during the Civil War in 1862, when Confederate forces retreated into the fortress as Union troops overcame them with rifled cannons – state-of-the-art weaponry that would ultimately render brick forts like Pulaski obsolete. The visitor center tells this story in detail, while miles of trails offer opportunities for biking and hiking. All buildings, including the fort, are temporarily closed, though the grounds are open.
The Pullman National Monument protects a sweep of 19th-century buildings in the South Side of Chicago. It’s held up as the first planned industrial community in the States and was centered around the Pullman Company, a leading railroad car manufacturer. The company town included impressive industrial buildings, including the soaring Factory Complex, and also became famous for the Pullman Strike of 1894, which involved thousands of workers. These historic buildings are now preserved and the Shared Visitor Information Center (now open Friday to Sunday) puts them into context.
African Burial Ground National Monument, New York
This poignant National Monument in the Big Apple was discovered by accident. The land was being surveyed ahead of the construction of an office tower when human skeletal remains were found some 30 feet (9m) below the ground. The site was excavated, revealing a vast burial ground for free and enslaved African Americans that contained around 15,000 intact skeletal remains. Thought to date from the 17th century, it’s the earliest of its kind ever to be rediscovered. Today the site includes a moving memorial and an informative interpretive center, though it’s currently closed.
Dinosaurs once roved the rugged landscape of this aptly-named National Monument and today their remains are wonderfully preserved here. The park straddles the Colorado-Utah border and its highlight is Quarry Exhibit Hall, which showcases around 1,500 dinosaur bones, some dating back around 150 million years – timed tickets are currently required for the hall. Outside, desert hikes range from the 1.2-mile (1.9km) Fossil Discovery Trail to the remote 8-mile (13km) Island Park Trail with its sandstone canyons and park panoramas.
Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers, Ohio
Charles Young was an African-American soldier known for his great military achievements in the face of discrimination from his army peers and leaders. Born to enslaved parents, Young became only the third African-American to earn his diploma at the United States Military Academy, going on to lead troops in the Philippine-American War and become the first African-American superintendent of a national park. The monument comprises Charles Young’s home, known as Youngsholm, now filled with exhibits – it’s currently open for weekend, appointment-only tours.
Effigy Mounds, Iowa
As its name suggests, this site is protected for its series of historic “mounds”, thought to have been constructed by indigenous “Effigy Moundbuilders” during the late Woodland Period (AD 300-1000). Still not much is known about these mysterious architects, but experts believe the mounds may have been for burial purposes, or to mark celestial events or even territories. Many indigenous peoples are associated with this National Monument today and it contains 191 known prehistoric mounds, some taking the shape of animals like birds and bears.
Devils Postpile, California
This National Monument is one of the finest geological wonders in California – and that’s no small feat in a state home to the great granite bulks of Yosemite National Park. Formed many thousands of years ago by cooling lava and bearing some resemblance to Wyoming’s Devils Tower, the Devils Postpile is a giant columnar basalt bluff. This monument also protects the 101-foot (31m) Rainbow Falls and wildlife-rich grasses and mountain peaks.
San Juan Islands, Washington
A glorious pocket of the Pacific Northwest is safeguarded by this National Monument. The San Juan Islands are a wonderfully wild string of isles in the Salish Sea, off the coast of northern Washington, characterized by forest-covered crags, wind-beaten lighthouses, sand and shingle beaches, and waters frequented by whales. The San Juan Islands National Monument, established in 2013, protects almost 1,000 acres of this spectacular land – pictured here is the historic Patos Island Lighthouse. Discover more of America’s beautiful lighthouses.
Pompeys Pillar, Montana
Folded into southwestern Montana, Pompeys Pillar is at once a striking natural wonder and an important historical landmark. The rocky crag soars some 200 feet (61m) above the Yellowstone River and is rich with petroglyphs carved by indigenous people. It also harbors rare physical evidence of the storied Lewis and Clark Expedition: William Clark carved his signature here back in 1806 and it’s still visible today.
Organ Pipe Cactus, Arizona
Unsurprisingly, the organ pipe cactus is the star of this National Monument in the Sonoran Desert. They’re extremely rare in the US but they exist in large quantities here, which is what makes this International Biosphere Reserve so very special. The monument’s namesake are characterized by thick, prickly arms that shoot towards the sky and they resemble (you guessed it) a pipe organ. Beyond the cacti, there are succulents, wildflowers and animals like bats, mountain lions and desert bighorns too.
Freedom Riders, Alabama
The Freedom Riders were a brave group who rose against state laws imposing segregation on public transport. Segregated buses had already been ruled unconstitutional by the Federal Government, but many states still held up discriminatory travel laws. Demonstrators rode on interstate buses and were met with fierce resistance from white supremacists, who inflicted multiple attacks including firebombing a bus. The Freedom Riders’ actions forced the Federal Government to intercede, overturning abhorrent state rules. The protestors’ legacy is remembered with murals and panels at locations including the Greyhound Bus Station.
Katahdin Woods and Waters, Maine
The clue’s in the name here: this National Monument has woods and it has water. Lots of it, in fact. Established in 2016, this young site protects 87,500 acres of Maine’s most stunning wilderness, from wildlife-rich forests to fish-filled rivers and streams, and stretches right up to the border with Baxter State Park. Views of the soaring Mount Katahdin are a monument highlight, while the lack of electric lights make it a top stargazing spot. Now take a look at the most beautiful state park in every state.
Gold Butte, Nevada
Petroglyph-covered peaks are the crowning jewel of Gold Butte National Monument in southeastern Nevada. In fact, it’s thought there are a whopping 2,000 rock-art sites across the Monument’s 300,000 acres in the Mojave Desert, depicting animals, humans, celestial symbols and more, and offering a glimpse into the lives of the ancestral Nuwuvi peoples who called the land home. Beyond the petroglyphs there’s fascinating wildlife like the desert tortoise, plus stunning sandstone formations as far as the eye can see.
Fort Monroe, Virginia
Another hulking military structure, Fort Monroe watches over the shores of southeastern Virginia, and has done since 1834. Though Virginia was controlled by the Confederacy during the Civil War, Monroe itself was a Union stronghold and numerous enslaved peoples escaped to the fort during the conflict – as such it became known as Freedom’s Fortress. Today the Casemate Museum chronicles the structure’s history, while nature trails criss-cross its lush surrounds.
Waco Mammoth, Texas
A slice of Ice Age history exists in this National Monument in the Lonestar State. The enormous Columbian mammoth roamed across this landscape many thousands of years ago, and their fossils are preserved here. In fact, these remains represent the only recorded evidence of a nursery herd of these creatures in the States. The Dig Shelter (home to incredible bone beds) is temporarily closed, but the nature trails remain open.
Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, Hawaii
This unique National Monument protects a colossal swathe of the ocean, with the beautiful isles and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands folded in for good measure. It’s currently one of the largest marine conservation areas on the planet, protecting rainbow coral reefs and fish, and endangered species like the Hawaiian monk seal. The Monument is also culturally significant to indigenous Hawaiians with ancient ruins and relics existing on the islands of Nihoa and Mokumanamana.
Scotts Bluff, Nebraska
A mighty crag in the American Midwest, Scotts Bluff towers some 800 feet (244m) above the plains of western Nebraska, and holds great significance. Though little evidence remains, it’s thought that early indigenous tribes once camped in the wake of the bluff, while westward emigrants following the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails in the 19th century would have gazed up at its great expanse. The Oregon Trail Museum and Visitor Center (temporarily closed) breathes life into these historic journeys, while the 1.6-mile (2.6km) Summit Road winds right to the top of the peak.
Rainbow Bridge, Utah
Another jewel of southern Utah, this natural bridge is named for its shape – a perfect sandstone arch hailed as “a rainbow turned to stone”. It’s actually one of the largest known natural bridges on the planet, reaching a whopping height of 290 feet (88m) and stretching 275 feet (84m) over Bridge Canyon. Many indigenous tribes hold this breathtaking natural wonder sacred and the trails that reach the monument are located on Navajo Tribal Lands.
Cape Krusenstern, Alaska
Alaska’s epic wilderness comes to the fore at this remote National Monument in the far northwest of the state. The breathtaking site lies north of the Arctic Circle and swallows a great swathe of Alaska’s shore, including more than 114 beach ridges. These ridges provide a haven for migratory birds and sprout a carpet of wildflowers in the summer – they’re also home to indigenous Alaskan archaeological sites thought to date back more than 9,000 years.
Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, New Mexico
New Mexico is nicknamed the Land of Enchantment – and with National Monuments like this one, it’s easy to see why. Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks encompasses a great stretch of craggy pinnacles in southern New Mexico. The namesake Organ Mountains are the most striking of all – a gloriously rugged huddle of bluffs that rises some 9,000 feet (2,743m) above the Chihuahuan Desert floor. Great desert plains and lush pine woodlands complete the picture.
Spanish-born explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo is famed as the first European to set foot on the USA’s West Coast – and this National Monument pays tribute to its namesake. He arrived in what is modern-day San Diego Bay in 1542 and the Monument spreads out close to the area on Point Loma where experts believed he docked. The site includes the 19th-century Old Poma Lighthouse (temporarily closed), the two-mile (3km) Bayside Trail and a colossal sandstone statue of the man himself. It’s not without controversy though – Cabrillo’s legacy is also inextricably tied to the subsequent Spanish colonization.
Jewel Cave, South Dakota
This National Monument is a jewel indeed, proudly protecting what’s tipped as the “third-longest cave in the world”. The subterranean wonder wiggles out for some 200 miles (322km) – its 200th mile was mapped just two years ago. Large rock-scattered chambers sit alongside narrow crawl-ways and passages. Meadows and forests cover the acres above the ground, which are filled with wildflowers and bustling with birdlife. Access to the caves is currently suspended due to COVID-19 – check for updates.
Cedar Breaks, Utah
The Beehive States’ many wonders – think dark, starry skies, incredible rock formations and dizzying heights – come together in glorious fashion at this National Monument. Cedar Breaks is perched at more than 10,000 feet (3,048m), dropping into a natural amphitheater of salmon-pink hoodoos. The region is connected to the indigenous Southern Paiute tribe and is also a home for all manner of critters, like the spruce bark beetle native to the Markagunt Plateau. These are America’s most important landmarks.
Nature and human history combine in breathtaking ways at this National Monument in northern Arizona. Prehistoric pueblos are framed against striking red rock, telling of civilizations thought to have thrived around 900 years ago. The largest of the pueblos here is Wupatki itself: it contains more than 100 rooms and a kiva, and remains sacred to the indigenous Hopi peoples.
Lava Beds, California
A volcanic wonderland in the Golden State, this National Monument was formed by lava flows from the Medicine Lake Volcano. Its otherworldly plains took shape over some 500,000 years and now hundreds of caves are tucked away across the lava bed, many with trails wriggling through them. The park is also a haven for 15 different species of bat, as well as cute mule deer and American pikas. The Monument is temporarily closed due to wildfires.
Devils Tower, Wyoming
Standing watch over Wyoming’s sprawling northeastern prairies, Devils Tower is a remarkable sight. Sacred to many indigenous peoples, the geological wonder was formed from molten rock over millions of years and rises some 867 feet (264m) from its base to its flat summit – that makes it the largest example of columnar jointing in the world. It became America’s first National Monument way back in 1906. Now take a look at 99 beautiful things we love about America.
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