The national parks deservedly get plenty of love from outdoor enthusiasts, but national monuments? Totally underrated. There’s twice as many national monuments as national parks, and each one is full of wonder. Some of the best western ones have smaller crowds, huge, vast landscapes, and plenty of opportunities to find solitude in the wild. So what are you waiting for? Start researching your next trip to a national monument and fall in love with the West all over again!
Devils Tower National Monument (Wyoming)
Pres. Teddy Roosevelt picked a great place for the first national monument! Head to northeastern Wyoming and take a short hike around this grand geologic formation, which geologists recon may have formed from an old volcano. If you’re feeling brave, you can even get a climbing permit (or take a guide) and climb up to the top.
The local history of the monument is just as interesting as the view. According to the Lakota and Kiowa, a group of girls were playing outside one day when several giant bears spotted them and began to chase the girls. The girls frantically tried to outrun the bears, but realized it was futile. They leaped on top of a rock and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them from the bears. Suddenly, the rock rose toward the sky in a flash so that the bears could not reach the girls — they could only scrape deep claw marks into the rock as they tried to climb it.
Craters of the Moon National Monument (Idaho)
Ok, how cool does this place sound: Craters of the Moon is a vast ocean of old lava flows and islands of cinder cones that span as far as the eye can see for nearly half a million acres. This is one weird landscape, formed from eight different lava eruption period over the last 15,000 years. There’s some pretty complex geology going on here, folks, and that makes for some rad hiking.
Since this national monument looks truly otherworldly, NASA actually sent four astronauts to Craters of the Moon in 1969 to prepare for their journey to the moon. Astronauts are mainly trained as pilots - but once they’re on the moon, they’ve got to take geology samples as well. Craters of the Moon served as the perfect training ground to teach astronauts to observe their surroundings and prepare them for a trip to the stars.
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (Oregon)
Head to east-central Oregon for a chance to see some of the best-preserved fossils of plants and animals that used to roam the US. While there’s no overnight camping in the monument, there are plenty of great trails to explore by day, especially if you like badlands formations.
There are three different park units in the monument: Sheep Rock, Painted Hills, and Clarno. If you’re here for the fossils (who isn’t?!), you’ll want to head to Sheep Rock to the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center to learn all about the fossilized plants and animals that make up the rich history of this monument.
Grand Staircase—Escalante National Monument (Utah)
Grand doesn’t even begin to describe this landscape. This is a remote area. It was the last place to be mapped in the Lower 48 of the US. And that’s great news for outdoor enthusiasts: this is some of the most wild, beautiful, life-changing desert you can experience. And you should experience it.
This national monument was originally designated as 1.8 million acres in size back in 1996, but the Trump administration reduced its size by 47%. (Whether or not this is legal will likely be decided by this summer.) The cliffs and terraces of Grand staircase, the sprawling plains of Kaiparowits Plateau, and the mystery of Escalante River Canyons make this vast monument a unique, one-of-a-kind place.
Muir Woods National Monument (California)
Named for one of the best-known wilderness advocates, Muir Woods National Monument preserves over 240 acres of old growth coast redwood forests. Just 12 miles north of San Francisco, these giant trees are often shrouded in mist from the Pacific Ocean, providing a mysterious atmosphere for visitors.
The tallest coast redwood in the monument has grown to over 250 feet tall. While many of the trees are 500 to 800 years old, the oldest is at least 1,200 years old. While there’s no lodging or camping in the monument (there are campsites in nearby Mount Tamalpais State Park), there’s some incredible hiking. The main trail is a 2-mile loop from the Visitors Center through Founders Grove, which provides some of the best views in the monument.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument (Arizona)
This national monument is close to the Four Corners region and is a favorite for desert dwellers. Tall red cliffs, towering canyon walls, and ancient ruins provide a step back in time in a majestic landscape. Be sure to get up for the sunrise and stay for the sunset, because the changing light scatters abundant colors over the red rocks.
Take a free canyon hike with a Park Ranger, explore the canyon with a Navajo guide, and take in the views from the scenic overlooks near sheer cliffs. There’s over 130 square miles of wild and rugged desert here, and you’re bound to fall in love with it!
Giant Sequoia National Monument (California)
This 328,000-acre national monument preserves about half of the sequoia groves currently in existence, including one of the ten largest Giant Sequoias on earth at 269 feet high and 112 feet around at its base. In total, this monument has 30 lesser-known giant sequoia groves in the southern Sierras.
Experience how magical these giant trees are by wandering beneath them, then head to Boole Tree Loop to see what it’s like without them. This trail leads through a maze of giant stumps that were cut down by timer companies long ago. Luckily, there are still plenty of giant sequoias to enjoy, so bring your tent and get ready to camp in this beautiful spot!
Cedar Breaks National Monument (Utah)
Long loved by climbers, this national monument is like a smaller version of Bryce Canyon National Park. Red rocks, green trees, and a breathtaking, half-mile-deep natural amphitheater provide breathtaking views. Head to Spectra Point, Sunset View, Point Supreme, and the Alpine Pond Trail for phenomenal views of southern Utah.
Since Cedar Breaks lies at a high altitude at 10,000 feet above sea level (it’s the crown of the grand staircase), it also gets plenty of snow in winter. Millions of years of geologic uplift and erosion have raised and worn the colorful shale, limestone, and sandstone that once lay at the bottom of an ancient lake. Come for the amphitheater, stay for the badlands and great hiking trails.
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument (New Mexico)
A hiker’s dream! Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in north-central New Mexico is for foot travel only, offering phenomenal hiking, wildlife viewing, and memorable geologic formations. The cone-shaped tent rock formations that give the monument its name were created from volcanic eruptions from over 6 million years ago, with tough boulder caps on their tip protecting the towering hoodoo beneath. Some are only a few feet tall, while others stretch up to 90 feet tall!
Hikers should definitely head to the 3.1-mile Tent Rocks Slot Canyon and Cave Loop Trail for an awesome experience: narrow slot canyons, tall hoodoos, and striated rock formations. This area is a religious site of the Cochiti Pueblo.
Basin and Range National Monument (Nevada)
A vast, rugged landscape two hours north of Las Vegas make this 704,000-acre monument a must-see. You’ll need a 4x4 to see a lot of it, because this is an empty, tough place. Sometimes the best areas to explore are the places that don’t have a lot of formal information available to easily research; this might be one of those places. There’s petroglyphs, solitude, high desert, and practically zero services available. If you like hiking or driving on unpaved roads, this is the place to go to get away from it all.