The designation of “national monument” evokes statues and memorial buildings that do not sound too interesting for adventurous RV travelers.
However, in the United States, the term has a different meaning. What you will find among national monuments are vast lands rivaling the national parks in beauty, diversity, and cultural heritage. You will not find crowds, tight regulations, or over-photographed views. Get ready for an adventure off the beaten path.
What Are National Monuments?
Like national parks, national monuments are federally protected areas. They vary in size from less than an acre to surface areas comparable to many U.S. states. They preserve natural or historic features. The main administrative difference is that only Congress can designate a national park whereas presidents can proclaim a national monument on their own thanks to a 1906 law called the Antiquities Act.
Sixteen presidents have used the Act to preserve some of America’s most treasured public lands and waters. Half of today’s national parks including the Grand Canyon and White Sands were first protected as national monuments.
The national parks are created for the “benefit and enjoyment of the people.” They are generally equipped with an infrastructure of roads, visitor centers, lodges, campgrounds, and interpretive trails. While this makes a visit more convenient, it also brings mass tourism.
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For example, Arches National Park is frequently full and closed to new entries by 9 a.m. People instead head to nearby Canyonlands National Park, but even there, securing a spot at sunrise for the iconic Mesa Arch requires arriving well in advance. By contrast, when visiting nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, you’ll likely have the place to yourself.
The national monuments are created for conservation. Since 1996, the landscape-sized national monuments have been operated by the Bureau of Lands Management (BLM) or the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) instead of the National Park Service (NPS). Their development is minimal. Often, facilities are limited to primitive campgrounds and trailheads. Roads can be unpaved and a 4WD vehicle may be recommended, if not necessary.
Visiting the national monuments managed by the BLM and USFS can test your preparation and self-sufficiency. Most areas are remote and have no cellphone coverage. You must bring in everything you need including food, water, and enough gear to survive a night or two should you have an emergency.
The more adventurous setting of the national monuments results in much lighter visitation even though you can often find similar subjects and environments as in the nearby national parks. For example:
- The Sonoran Desert portions included in Ironwood Forest National Monument and Sonoran Desert National Monument are as beautiful and representative as those in Saguaro National Park, if not more pristine
- California’s densest population of cholla cactus thrives in Bigelow Cholla Garden Wilderness of Mojave Trails National Monument rather than in the better-known Cholla Cactus Garden of Joshua Tree National Park
- At Cadiz Dunes Wilderness in Mojave Trails you will many animal tracks but no human footprints aside from your own
- Vermilion Cliffs National Monument’s Paria Canyon is more than twice as long and every bit as impressive as Zion National Park’s Virgin River Narrows
The heavy visitation of national parks led to strict rules. In Grand Canyon National Park, like in any other national park, no camping is allowed outside developed campgrounds. In nearby Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, you can drive right to the edge of the chasm and pitch your tent both at Twin Point on the Upper Rim and Whitmore Overlook on the Lower Rim.
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Giant Sequoia National Monument protects more sequoia groves—almost half of the total number—than Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks combined. Because it has the largest diameter (36 feet) of any living giant sequoia, the Boole Tree was once considered the largest tree in the world, although it is “only” the sixth largest by volume. Unsightly railings protect the biggest trees in the national parks, but there are no fences around the Boole Tree.
Even if the national monuments were only lesser-traveled alternatives to bustling national parks, they would be worthwhile destinations. However, some of the most remarkable nature subjects in North America are in national monuments rather than national parks. Here are a few locations ideally visited in autumn or spring.
Coyote Buttes, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
“The Wave” in Arizona is known worldwide. Even if the name Vermilion Cliffs National Monument is unfamiliar, you have undoubtedly seen images of the extraordinary rock formation located in Coyote Buttes North. For decades, only 20 permits were issued daily. If you have been trying to win the lottery, take hope in the increase this year to 64 permits. A geologic wonderland of spectacularly colored rock strata, the area protects much more than the Wave.
Valley of the Gods, Bears Ears National Monument
Bears Ears National Monument in Utah spans wondrous red rock country. Hidden in its labyrinth of canyons and mesas are more cliff dwellings and tribal artifacts than any other area in the American West. The road descending the Cedar Mesa plateau, called Moki Dugway, is impressive for its precipitous surroundings and 180-degree switchbacks cut into the cliff. The vista from there is immense.
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A sandy plain dotted with sandstone buttes and spires near Mexican Hat, the Valley of the Gods’ landscape reminds visitors of Monument Valley. While the rock formations are smaller, Valley of the Gods is free from commercialization, tour groups, streams of cars, and heavy regulations. Instead, you’ll find quiet, solitude, freedom to explore, and plenty of spots to camp for free. The 17-mile unpaved road is passable by a 2WD car driven carefully.
The Future of Public Lands
Since 1906, America’s boldest efforts in conservation have been through the establishment of national monuments via presidential proclamation. Grand Staircase-Escalante was the first of the national monuments managed by the BLM, marking the evolution of the nation’s largest land caretaker toward conservation. Bear Ears was the first native-driven and co-managed national monument.
Other national monuments to consider for your bucket list include:
- Natural Bridges (Utah)
- Cedar Breaks (Utah)
- Canyon de Chelly (Arizona)
- Organ Pipe Cactus (Arizona)
- El Malpais (New Mexico)
- El Morro (New Mexico)
- Mount St. Helens (Washington)
Solitude, Inspiration, and Photography
Many spots in national parks have become icons of America’s natural and cultural heritage to the point that they have become over-photographed, making it difficult to find original compositions.
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The national monuments offer new landscapes and natural wonders awaiting exploration. Their often starker and more subtle landscapes invite exploration to get to know and love. Because the natural features are less prominent, it is easier to pay attention to the small details that make up the ecosystem. The absence of postcard views frees the mind that often hinder personal discovery. As the national parks become ever more popular, the national monuments’ vast open spaces offer us places of solitude and inspiration.
When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving wasters, the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.