8 Native American Heritage Sites to Visit This Fall

Dive into the incredible sacred stories behind your favorite parks and sites

How many Native American tribes do you think are there were in all 50 states?

574. Yes, there are that many federally recognized tribes in the United States today with the number increasing as years goes on.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, in Canada, there are over 630 First Nation communities (a title used by Canada to describe the various societies of the indigenous peoples) speaking more than 50 languages, divided into six cultural divisions in eight geographical locations.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That being said, the lands all around us in both the United States and Canada are the traditional homelands to indigenous peoples. Some of them have been designated as Native American heritage sites which I’ve been privileged throughout the years to visit and hear stories about—from the brave Crazy Horse warrior to sacred refuges in the Grand Canyon, and even the original Native American tales of giant monsters in Monument Valley.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With Native American Heritage Month in November, fall is a fantastic time to visit and hear the first stories behind many of America’s greatest parks and monuments. A few favorites are listed here by their original Indigenous names.

Related: Circle of Ancients: Ancestral Puebloans

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A kind reminder when visiting tribal lands: It’s always good practice to ask before entering someone’s space and especially before taking their photo. Please respect privacy, remember that all tribes are different, and note our tradition of listening when elders speak (which is sometimes not in English).

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

Ancestral Pueblo, Colorado

After living atop the mesas for 600 years, the Ancestral Pueblo people moved their homes to the mesa walls and became cliff dwellers. They kept their crops and fields atop the mesa but lowered their harvest down to food storage rooms.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There they dwelled for another hundred years before beginning their migration further south. Descendants of these people teach their children that their ancestors only inhabited such areas for a time before journeying on as their deity bid.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, Mesa Verde National Park protects the rich cultural heritage of 26 tribes and offers visitors a mind-perplexing glimpse into the lives of those who once lived here. Here, you will also find guided and self-guided tours, hiking trails, camping, an evening program, stargazing, bird watching, and seasonal events.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tse Bii’ Ndzisgaii / Monument Valley

Diné Nation, Arizona/Utah

One of the most majestic and most photographed points on earth this great valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower at heights of 400 to 1,000 feet framed by scenic clouds casting shadows that graciously roam the desert floor. The angle of the sun accents these graceful formations providing scenery that is simply spellbinding.

Related: Valley of the Gods Is a Mini-Monument Valley…and Totally Free

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The landscape overwhelms, not just by its beauty but also by its size. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and windblown sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley. All of this harmoniously combines to make Monument Valley a truly wondrous experience.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most known for its appearance in films such as Forrest Gump (when Forrest decides he’s tired and stops running in the center of the road) and the old John Wayne cowboy flicks, the breath-taking Tse Bii’ Ndzisgaii remains much as it did back in the 1930s. The site holds the story of monsters who once plagued the people before the Hero Twins and female deities worked together to turn the monsters to stone. It is those monsters who remain as monuments of this gorgeous desert valley.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tseyi’ / Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Diné Nation, Arizona

Related to the Athabaskan people of Northern Canada and Alaska, the Navajo settled the Southwest between the four sacred mountains. For nearly 5,000 years, people have lived in these canyons—longer than anyone has lived uninterrupted anywhere on the Colorado Plateau. In the place called Tsegi, their homes and images tell us their stories.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Navajo, or Dine’ as they call themselves, continue to make their homes, raise livestock, and farm the lands in the canyons just as the “Ancient Ones” had. The farms, livestock, and hogans of the Dine’ are visible from the canyon rims. “A place like no other”, the National Park Service and Navajo Nation work together to manage the land’s resources.

Related: Travel Experience like None Other: Monument Valley and Northeastern Arizona

Cottonwood Campground, Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cottonwood Campground is located near the entrance of Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Chinle. Administered by Tseyi’ Dine’ Heritage Area, it offers camping for anyone desiring to pitch a tent or park your RV to enjoy a quiet night or two under the stars. A picnic table and barbeque grill is available at each campsite.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take in the breathtaking views and relish in the paths of the ancient ones who once flourished in the canyons by booking a guided tour from one of the local tour operators; they will take you in by horse, vehicle, or on foot. Or, you could take a self-guided tour of the South and North Rim Drives and view the canyon from the overlooks.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Ancestral Pueblo, Arizona

Montezuma Castle National Monument is dedicated to preserving Native American culture. This 20 room high-rise apartment, nestled into a towering limestone cliff, tells a story of ingenuity, survival, and ultimately, prosperity in an unforgiving desert landscape. Although people were living in the area much earlier, the Sinagua began building permanent living structures—the dwellings you see at the monument—around 1050.

Beaver Creek at Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many possible reasons the Sinagua chose to build their homes on the cliffs. At Montezuma Castle, the cliff faces south, so the dwellings are warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The high location also protected them from damage caused by the annual flooding of Beaver Creek. The dwellings may also have been built high up for protection or to help the Sinagua view approaching travelers. More than likely, the cliff dwellings served all these functions and more, much like our houses today

Montezuma Well © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although the Sinagua left about 600 years ago, the Verde Valley has been continually occupied by other groups of people. Some Hopi clans believe that the Sinagua were their ancestors. Some Yavapai-Apache say that not all Sinagua left but instead integrated with the Yavapai and Apache. Today, the monument is affiliated with many tribes including the Four Southern Tribes of Arizona: Yavapai, Apache, Hopi, and Zuni.

Casa Grande Ruins National Nonument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Ancestral Ruins, Arizona

Explore the mystery and complexity of an extended network of communities and irrigation canals. An Ancestral Sonoran Desert People’s farming community and “Great House” are preserved at Casa Grande Ruins. Archeologists have discovered evidence that the ancestral Sonoran Desert people who built the Casa Grande also developed wide-scale irrigation farming and extensive trade connections which lasted over a thousand years until about 1450.

Casa Grande Ruins National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether the Casa Grande was a gathering place for the Desert People or simply a waypoint marker in an extensive system of canals and trading partners is but part of the mystique of the Ruins.

Related: 10 Under-The-Radar National Monuments to Visit

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Archeologists call a site where there are earthen buildings, red on buff pottery, and extensive canals, “Hohokam”, but this is not the name of a tribe or a people. Years of misunderstanding have confused the ancestors of the O’Odham, Hopi, and Zuni people with the name Hohokam which is not a word in any of their languages nor the name of a separate people.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument

Ancestral Pueblo, Arizona

Around the year 650, 1400 years ago, people began settling in the Verde Valley. Among the oldest structures found in the valley are the pithouses, partially buried dwellings that were the most common form of housing across the southwest between about 4,000 years ago and 600 years ago.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Construction of multi-room pueblos began by the year 1000. The pueblo at Tuzigoot is architecturally similar to pueblos that can be seen around the region, like, Aztec Ruins National Monument, and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, and many sites along the Mogollon Rim in Arizona including Montezuma Castle.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This village was built high on a limestone ridge over a hundred feet above the floodplains of the Verde River. It has clear lines of sight in every direction and can easily be seen from many of the other hills and pueblos in the area. Tuzigoot was a prime spot to build with excellent views, easy access to reliable, year-round water, and floodplains where cultivation of water-intensive crops like cotton was relatively easy.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument

Ancestral Ruins, Utah/Colorado

Human habitation at Hovenweep dates to over 10,000 years ago when nomadic Paleoindians visited the Cajon Mesa to gather food and hunt game. These people used the area for centuries, following the seasonal weather patterns. By about 900, people started to settle at Hovenweep year-round, planting and harvesting crops in the rich soil of the mesa top. By the late 1200s, the Hovenweep area was home to over 2,500 people.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The towers of Hovenweep were built by ancestral Puebloans, a sedentary farming culture that occupied the Four Corners area from about 500 to 1300. Similarities in architecture, masonry, and pottery styles indicate that the inhabitants of Hovenweep were closely associated with groups living at Mesa Verde and other nearby sites.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most of the structures at Hovenweep were built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. There is quite a variety of shapes and sizes including square and circular towers, D-shaped dwellings, and many kivas (Puebloan ceremonial structures, usually circular). The masonry at Hovenweep is as skillful as it is beautiful. Even the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde rarely exhibit such careful construction and attention to detail. Some structures built on irregular boulders remain standing after more than 700 years.

Today’s Pueblo, Zuni and Hopi people are descendants of this culture.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Ancestral Pueblo, New Mexico

Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey. Today you can follow their ancient passageways to a distant time. Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see original timbers holding up the roof.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins, built and used over a 200-year period, is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River valley. Concentrated on and below a terrace overlooking the Animas River, the people at Aztec built several multi-story buildings called “great houses” and many smaller structures. Associated with each great house was a “great kiva”—a large circular chamber used for ceremonies.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby are three unusual “tri-wall” structures—above ground kivas encircled by three concentric walls. In addition, they modified the landscape with dozens of linear swales called “roads,” earthen berms, and platforms.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An interesting 700 yard trail leads visitors through the West Ruin, an excavated great house that had at least 400 interconnected rooms built around an open plaza. Its massive sandstone walls tower over 30 feet. Many rooms contain the original pine, spruce, and aspen beams hauled from distant mountains.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In about 1300 the Ancestral Pueblo people left the region, migrating southeast to join existing communities along the Rio Grande, south to the Zuni area, or west to join the Hopi villages in Arizona.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes

These National Parks are ALWAYS FREE

Click through for a look at national parks you can enter for free—everyday

Why wait for a National Park Fee Free Day when you can visit these 10 natural beauties for free all year round? The U. S. is filled with free parks just waiting to be explored. Finding a list can be tough so we pulled together a few of our favorites to get you and your family out the door exploring America’s best idea.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona: Canyon de Chelly National Monument

For nearly 5,000 years, people have lived in these canyons—longer than anyone has lived uninterrupted anywhere on the Colorado Plateau. In the place called Tsegi, their homes and images tell us their stories. Today, Navajo families make their homes, raise livestock, and farm the lands in the canyons.

Montezuma Well National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona: Montezuma Well National Monument

Visit the spot where life began, according to Yavapai legend, at Montezuma Well National Monument. Although access to the nearby Montezuma Castle National Monument costs $10, the Montezuma Well is free to access. There, you’ll see Native American ruins alongside the well and follow a nature trail as it winds below trees beside Beaver Creek—all part of what makes it one of Arizona’s hidden gems.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colorado and Utah: Hovenweep National Monument

Discover six prehistoric villages that once housed more than 2,500 people between A.D. 500 and 1300, and you can still see multistory towers clinging to the edge of rocky cliffs. The park is a designated International Dark Sky Park, making it one of the best places to go stargazing.

Boston National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Massachusetts: Boston National Historic Park

There are no fees at the federally or municipally owned historic sites within Boston National Historical Park. This includes Faneuil Hall, Bunker Hill Monument, Bunker Hill Museum, USS Constitution, and Dorchester Heights Monument.

New Mexico: Aztec Ruins National Monument

Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey. Today you can follow their ancient passageways to a distant time. Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see original timbers holding up the roof.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico: El Malpais National Monument

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. While some may see a desolate environment, people have been adapting to and living in this extraordinary terrain for generations. Come discover the land of fire and ice!

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico: El Morro National Monument

Discover an oasis in the desert at El Morro National Monument. The natural watering hole is tucked at the base of colorful sandstone cliffs. Walk the Inscription Trail to see thousands of petroglyphs and inscriptions that bear witness to the visitors who sought refreshment there throughout the centuries.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico: Petroglyph National Monument

Petroglyph National Monument protects one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America featuring designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago. These images are a valuable record of cultural expression and hold profound spiritual significance for contemporary Native Americans and for the descendants of the early Spanish settlers.

Saratoga National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New York: Saratoga National Historic Park

Here in the autumn of 1777 American forces met, defeated, and forced a major British army to surrender. This crucial American victory renewed patriots’ hopes for independence, secured essential foreign recognition and support, and forever changed the face of the world.

North Carolina and Virginia: Blue Ridge Parkway

A Blue Ridge Parkway experience is unlike any other: a slow-paced and relaxing drive revealing stunning long-range vistas and close-up views of the rugged mountains and pastoral landscapes of the Appalachian Highlands. The Parkway meanders for 469 miles protecting a diversity of plants and animals.

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im

The Ultimate Guide to Aztec Ruins National Monument

Step back in time and discover a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House community

Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey. Today you can follow their ancient passageways to a distant time. Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see original timbers holding up the roof. Search for the fingerprints of ancient workers in the mortar. Listen for an echo of ritual drums in the reconstructed Great Kiva.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River Valley. In use for over 200 years, the site contains several multi-story buildings called “great houses,” each with a “great kiva”—a circular ceremonial chamber—as well as many smaller structures. Excavation of the West Ruin in the 1900s uncovered thousands of well-preserved artifacts that provide a glimpse into the life of Ancestral Pueblo people connecting people of the past with people and traditions of today. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many Southwestern American Indians today maintain deep spiritual ties with this ancestral site.  Visitors today can learn about these remarkable people and their descendants and connect with the monument’s timeless landscape and stories. A short trail winds through this massive site offering an intimate experience. Along the way, visitors will discover original roofs, plaster walls, a reed mat left by the inhabitants, intriguing T-shaped doorways, and north-facing corner doors. The trail culminates with the reconstructed great kiva, a building that inherently inspires contemplation, wonder, and an ancient sense of sacredness. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A summer visit to the ruins is sure to be a hot one with temperatures ranging from 80 degrees to 100 degrees—and on some days reaching over 100. Fall brings pleasant days and crisp nights, while winter temperatures range between 20 degrees and 50 degrees with cold nights reaching 0. The most unpredictable season is spring with windy, cold, wet, or warm and dry weather.  

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitor Center

See Earl’s house! The visitor center started as the home of pioneering archeologist Earl Morris. Here you receive an orientation to the archeological site and pick up a trail guide. See beautiful 900-year old artifacts in the museum. Watch the 15-minute video, Aztec Ruins: Footprints of the Past to hear diverse perspectives from Pueblo people, Navajo tribal members, and archeologists. The Visitor Center is open whenever the park is open except during after-hours outdoors programs (example: moon tours and solstice observations).

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tours

Explore the Aztec Ruins with a self-guided visitor trail. The half-mile trail winds through an ancestral Pueblo Great House, a reconstructed great kiva, and through original rooms with intact timber roofs. Help preserve the ruins—and stay safe—by remaining on the trail. Ranger-guided East Ruin Tours and Full Moon Walks are offered monthly from June through August and are weather-dependent. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once you’ve visited the ruins, meander to the Animas River via a segment of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail or peruse museum exhibits and 900-year old artifacts. The Heritage Garden and Native Plants Walk are both located inside the historic picnic area. Park staff and volunteers grow traditional crops like corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and gourds. If you’re planning a summer visit, take a tour and see the wild plants that sustained folks in the Southwest for thousands of years. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife in the Park

Surprisingly, the park supports a wide variety of mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. The riparian and pinon-juniper woodland areas, patches of abandoned farmlands, orchards, and desert scrubs all provide a habitat for 28 documented mammal species, at least 70 bird species, three amphibians, and 10 reptiles. 

As surrounding residential developments expand, the ruins have become an increasingly important haven for species of concern despite the park’s relatively small size. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec West Self-Guided Trail

Explore the ancestral Pueblo “Great House” that was the social, economic, and political center of the region after Chaco. A self-guided half-mile walk winds through original rooms. Along the way discover skillful stone masonry, remarkably well-preserved wood roofing, and original mortar in some walls. The interpretive trail guide combines modern archeological findings with traditional Native American perspectives. Enter the ceremonial Great Kiva. This awesome semi-subterranean structure over 40 feet in diameter is the oldest and largest reconstructed building of its kind.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heritage Garden and Native Plants Walk

The Heritage Garden and the Native Plants Walk are both inside the shady and historic picnic area. Traditional crops like corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and gourds are grown by park staff and volunteers. Tours are offered in the summer. The Native Plants Walk is located on the west side of the picnic area near the parking lot. Take a quick stroll and see the wild plants that people in the Southwest have relied on for thousands of years.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Old Spanish National Historic Trail to Downtown Aztec

The Old Spanish Trail was the first recorded trade caravan from Santa Fe west to Los Angeles. The first journey was led by Antonio Armijo in 1829 and it was so difficult the traders never took that exact same route again. Since it is difficult to find the trail on the ground today no one can say with certainty how close the caravan actually came to Aztec Ruins. Today you can follow the nationally designated trail from the picnic area over the bridge across the Animas River (0.5 miles) and into historic downtown Aztec (1.5 miles) for shopping and dining.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 318 acres

Date Established: January 24, 1923

Location: Northwestern New Mexico, 14 miles northeast of Farmington

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Elevation: 5,600 feet

Park Entrance Fee: As of May 1, 2018, this is a fee-free park

Park Operating Hours: Daily 9:00 am-5:00 pm Mountain Time; closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Years Day.

Parking: RV and bus parking available

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather Conditions: Summer high temperatures range from 80-100 degrees; Fall usually pleasant with mild days and crisp nights; Winter daytime temperatures range from 20-50 degrees with cold nights that can reach 0 degrees, snow is periodic but accumulations are typically only 1-2 inches; Spring is can be windy, cold, and wet, or still, warm, and dry.

Recreational visits in 2020: 30,223

Worth Pondering…

What’s old collapses, times change, and new life blossoms in the ruins.

— Friedrich Schiller 

National Parks Have a Problem. They Are Too Popular.

If you’re planning to visit a national park on your summer RV trip, you’re not alone. Millions of Americans are flocking to the national parks this summer.

Imagine traveling across the country to visit one of the most stunning national parks only to find it was at capacity and the park was closed to additional visitors.

Arches is one of a number of headliner national parks seeing overcrowding as summer gets into full swing in a year when leisure travel volume is expected to rebound to pre-pandemic levels or even exceed them. The influx of visitors is forcing the park to temporarily shut its gates almost daily. And disappointed visitors aren’t the only consequence of overcrowding. The natural environment is impacted and the local community is affected, too.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since October 2020, visitor numbers at Arches National Park have consistently climbed as much as 70 percent in some months compared with previous years according to the National Park Service (NPS). On multiple days last week, the park started turning visitors away before 8 a.m. In previous years, Arches would sometimes turn people away on weekends. Now it’s happening almost daily. Arches had over 25,000 more visitors in May of this year compared to May 2019. Visitors who can’t get into Arches often go to nearby Canyonlands National Park or opt for recreation opportunities on public land outside of the national parks which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2021 will be our busiest year on record according to a park spokesperson. The big spikes in visitation are mostly at the most popular 12 to 15 destination national parks. This year, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks reported their highest first-quarter visitation numbers since they started collecting such data roughly 30 years ago, a state report says. Yellowstone recorded almost 108,000 visits and Grand Teton saw over 194,000. Those represent increases of 20.7 percent and 22.8 percent from 2020, respectively. 

Yellowstone National Park saw more than 483,100 people in May, the most visitors ever recorded at the park during that month. Yellowstone also saw a 50 percent increase in Memorial Day weekend visitation compared with 2019 and Yellowstone and Grand Teton had their busiest Aprils ever. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has seen record visitation each month throughout the year. Zion had over 80,000 more visitors in May than in 2020. For the first four months of 2021, Mount Rainier National Park recorded over 130,000 visitors, one of the busiest beginnings to the year that they’ve had in the last 25 years.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As of now, six national parks require advance reservations of some kind: California’s Yosemite National Park, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, Hawaii’s Haleakalā National Park, Maine’s Acadia National Park, Montana’s Glacier National Park, and Utah’s Zion National Park. Will advance reservations spread to other popular parks? That begs the question, “Do we really want recreation.gov handling this crowding too?”

The NPS encourages visitors to explore lesser-known parks throughout the park system which includes 423 NSP sites: national seashores, national monuments, national recreation areas, national historic sites, and a host of other designations. Other options include state parks, regional and county parks, and city parks.

Instead of sticking to the top attractions this summer get off the beaten path and look for the hidden gems. Explore these NPS sites that include seven national monuments, four national historic sites and parks, three national parks, and one national seashore located in nine states from coast to coast.

Which national park will you visit this summer?

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

Recreational visits in 2020: 19,856

Walk in ancient footsteps at Hovenweep. Soak in the silence. Marvel at a night sky overflowing with stars. Hear a lone coyote’s howl.

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historic Park, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 23,726

The oldest Jesuit mission in Arizona has been preserved in Tumacácori National Historic Park, a picturesque reminder that Southern Arizona was, at one time, the far northern frontier of New Spain. The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, 29 miles north of Nogales beside the Santa Cruz River.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

Recreational visits in 2020: 30,223

Follow the ancient passageways to a distant time. Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Once you’ve visited the ruins, meander to the Animas River via a segment of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail or peruse museum exhibits and 900-year old artifacts.

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, Pennsylvania

Recreational visits in 2020: 34,288

Known as an “iron plantation,” Hopewell Furnace illustrates how mining and producing iron ore spurred the United States to economic prosperity. Visitors to this Pennsylvania site can see demonstrations and hike the surrounding area which was originally farmland.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Moro National Monument, New Mexico

Recreational visits in 2020: 36,328

Rising 200 feet above the valley floor, this massive sandstone bluff was a welcome landmark for weary travelers. A reliable year-round source of drinking water at its base made El Morro a popular campsite in this otherwise rather arid and desolate country. At the base of the bluff called Inscription Rock are seven centuries of inscriptions covering human interaction with this spot.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

Recreational visits in 2020: 37,295

Cumberland Island National Seashore includes one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands in the world. The park is home to a herd of feral, free-ranging horses. Most visitors come to Cumberland for the natural glories, serenity, and fascinating history. Built by the Carnegies, the ruins of the opulent 59-room, Queen Anne-style Dungeness are a must-see for visitors.

Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site, New York

Recreational visits in 2020: 49,091

See the place where Franklin D. Roosevelt was born and buried in Hyde Park. The home is also the location of the first presidential library.

Chiricahua National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Park, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 44,794

A “Wonderland of Rocks” is waiting for you to explore at Chiricahua National Monument. The 8-mile paved scenic drive and 17-miles of day-use hiking trails provide opportunities to discover the beauty, natural sounds, and inhabitants of this 12,025-acre site.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Recreational visits in 2020: 52,542

Three majestic natural bridges invite you to ponder the power of water in a landscape usually defined by its absence. View them from an overlook, or hit the trails and experience their grandeur from below. The bridges are named Kachina, Owachomo, and Sipapu in honor of the ancestral Puebloans who once made this place their home.

LBJ National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park, Texas

Recreational visits in 2020: 75.322

On the banks of the Pedernales River in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, the LBJ Ranch tells the story of America’s 36th President beginning with his ancestors until his final resting place on his beloved LBJ Ranch.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 76,752

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly has sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

Recreational visits in 2020: 78,358

Built atop a small 120-foot ridge is a large pueblo. With 77 ground-floor rooms, this pueblo held about 50 people. After about 100 years the population doubled and then doubled again later. By the time they finished building the pueblo, it had 110 rooms including second and third-story structures, and housed 250 people. 

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Recreational visits in 2020: 119,306

If you really want to experience nature, Congaree National Park in South Carolina is a perfect place to go. It’s home to one of the tallest deciduous forest canopies on earth which offer great bird watching and wilderness tours. For those feeling more adventurous, there is also kayaking, hiking, canoeing, fishing, and even camping.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

Recreational visits in 2020: 139,336

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais National Monument offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

Recreational visits in 2020: 165,740

Formed by volcanoes 23 million years ago, Pinnacles National Park is located in central California near the Salinas Valley.

Worth Pondering…

Not to have known—as most men have not—either mountain or the desert, is not to have known one’s self.

—Joseph Wood Krutch

7 Incredible Ancient Ruins to Explore in National Parks

Here are my top 7 picks for the best places in America to see ancient ruins

Originally established to conserve and preserve some of the most beautiful and unusual wilderness places in America, the National Park System (NPS) grew to include archaeological and historic sites. The first park to preserve “the works of men,” as President Theodore Roosevelt put it, was Mesa Verde, established in 1906. Others followed, preserving and showcasing ancient ruins and archaeological sites throughout the country. Most are in the Southwest—and for good reason.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

People of the Southwest built their homes and cities in stone, carving them in soft sandstone crevices or building structures up to four stories high from clay and mud bricks. In the bone-dry environment of the desert, these ancient structures baked in the sun but stayed preserved. Visible for miles in the wide-open spaces, they were easy to find, and as settlers moved into the area they started visiting them—without regard to their preservation. Vandalism threatened to destroy structures that stood centuries in the desert sun. To protect and preserve the past the NPS incorporated them to help preserve them.

The following are a few of our favorite national parks preserving ancient ruins in the Southwest.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Hundreds of cliff dwellings pepper the walls of the canyons and more stand-alone structures sit on the rims of Mesa Verde in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. The best-preserved ancient ruins in the country, some of them date from as far back as 600 A.D. They not only started the preservation of ancient monuments in the U.S. but are also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The mesa-top sites are easy to access and visit on your own. Older than the cliff dwellings, these are the sites where the Ancestral Puebloans lived before moving down into the canyon. You’ll find them at the Far View Sites Complex, the Cedar Tree Tower, and the Square Tower House and Sun Temple.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The cliff dwellings are even more spectacular though you need to join a ranger-led tour to visit most of them. Cliff Palace is the most spectacular; others include Balcony House, Spruce Tree House, and Long House. Stop at the Visitor Center to learn more about each tour and sign up for the ones you want to join.

You can spend at least two days in the park, especially if you want to take multiple tours. Overnight lodging includes camping at the Morefield Campground and rooms at the Farview Lodge.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

Montezuma Castle, near Camp Verde, has nothing to do with Montezuma, nor is it a castle. We owe the name to early pioneers who thought this five story pueblo was of Aztec origin. In fact, the superb masons who constructed this cliff dwelling were likely ancestors of the present day Hopi and Zuni. Spanish explorers called them Sinagua (“without water”) because they were dry farmers, coaxing their crops of corn, beans, and squash from the arid desert soil.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sinagua built the five-story, 20-room structure about 1150 but abandoned it in the early 1400s, almost a century before Montezuma was born. Montezuma Castle is built into a deep alcove with masonry rooms added in phases. A thick, substantial roof of sycamore beams, reeds, grasses, and clay often served as the floor of the next room built on top.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

If you wonder why an ancient archaeological site in the Southwest is named Aztec, you are not alone. The name is a misnomer; people who built this ancient city had nothing to do with the Aztecs. They were the Ancestral Puebloans, members of the same people group that built Chaco and Mesa Verde. The ancient city is in fact considered an outlier of Chaco and if you visit Aztec Ruins, you’ll see the same features on a smaller scale. However, from a visitor’s perspective, Aztec Ruins National Monument in the town of Aztec is much more accessible. All you have to do is drive to the end of a neighborhood street in town. Clearly marked signs point you in the right direction.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Built and inhabited between 1100 and 1300, Aztec Ruins features a “great house” you can walk through and several other structures and kivas. The highlight of the site is the only reconstructed ceremonial kiva in the Southwest. Walking inside this kiva gives you an idea of what the originals would have looked like. Once inside, listen to a recording, adding to the ambiance. Even the Visitor Center is a museum here, set in the original house archaeologist Earl Morris who reconstructed the kiva lived in while he worked at the site.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Casa Grande National Monument, Arizona

Casa Grande ruins sits in the middle of a surrounding flat desert in Coolidge just a short drive south of Phoenix. Part of a larger archaeological site featuring a few smaller structures and a ball court, this “big house” is part of Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. The largest known structure built by the Hohokam, the four-story-high “house” is protected from the intense Arizona sun by a metal roof.

Built by the ancestors of the present-day O’odham people the site was an ancient farming community and according to the oral history of their descendants, a ceremonial center. Walk through the indoor museum to learn about the ancient people of the desert who lived here, and their ingenuity in making a life in the Sonoran Desert. Then walk through the site and experience the desert yourself.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

If you want to visit ancient ruins in the middle of nowhere without driving on dirt roads Hovenweep National Monument fits the bill. The word Hovenweep means deserted valley and that is exactly what you find as you drive to the site on the Colorado-Utah border in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. The site is actually in both states but you wouldn’t be able to tell which one you are in.

Hovenweep features a few tall structures along a small canyon. The largest, called Hovenweep Castle, sits on the rim comprising a few structures. The two-mile round-trip trail leading to the ruins takes you along the rim of the canyon. Besides the castle, it passes several other structures and offers views of the Square Tower inside the canyon. The paved trail from the Visitor Center to the start of this trail is fully accessible and leads to Little Ruins Canyon Overlook. From here, you can see most of the structures.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

Tuzigoot National Monument preserves a site on top of a hill overlooking the Verde River, cliffs and ridges in the valley, and the Tavasci Marsh, a natural riparian area surrounding an old curve of the Verde River.

The ancient village on the hill, the Citadel, inhabited between 1100 and 1400, comprised 110 rooms by the time its builders and those who lived there abandoned the site. A paved, fully accessible trail leads to and around it, giving you a good idea of what it would have looked like. Though the views from the ruins alone are worth the walk, one room is reconstructed, and if you are there at the right time, you can enter it and see what it would have looked like when inhabited.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”) has sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo, who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor. People have lived in the canyon for more than 5,000 years, archaeologists believe, making it the longest continuously inhabited area on the Colorado Plateau. Ancient ruins are tucked along its cliffs, as are centuries-old pictographs.

Don’t miss the White House Ruins. This is a superb hike. Long ago, hundreds of people lived in the structure built into the cliffs. Now the walls are a reminder of how life once thrived in the canyon.For your efforts you’ll get an up-close look at White House ruins, mentioned in the Navajo Night Chant as “white house in between”.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things To Keep In Mind When Visiting These Archaeological Sites

The ancient people of the Southwest who built the structures mentioned above, made their home in an inhospitable environment and built civilizations here. For a long time, the view was that they mysteriously “disappeared,” leaving these elaborate structures behind.

In fact, they were all ancestors of the present-day Native tribes of the Southwest. When visiting any of the ruins, please be respectful of this. For some of us, these people’s stories may be an interesting piece of history, but for the descendants of people who built them, they are part of their cultural inheritance. By learning about their history and protecting and respecting these sites, we learn about the Native people of the area, and are richer for the experience.

Worth Pondering…

We didn’t inherit the earth; we are borrowing it from our children.

—Native American Proverb

National Monuments Feature Places for Reflection and Hope

From the legacy of ancient peoples to Colonial times

“National monument” is a rather confusing designation. We most likely know what we’re getting into with a national memorial or a national battlefield but the monuments are rarely the statues or shrines their titles suggest. Most, in fact, are sprawling natural wonders that give national parks a run for their money. In fact, many do become national parks.

Still, several of the 128 national monuments actually deliver on their promise to commemorate and preserve history. Some are the sites that recognize Native American history and preserve ancient pueblos. They encompass celebration, cautionary tales, and hope. These are the national monuments where we can stop to reflect on the past as we look forward into the future with hope. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico

Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey. Aztec Ruins National Monument provides visitors an opportunity to explore ancient ruins built by the ancient Ancestral Puebloans in the 1100s. Aztec Ruins features ceremonial, public, and storage structures as well as the “Great Kiva”, the oldest and largest reconstructed Kiva in North America. The Great Kiva is a 40-foot diameter semi-subterranean structure which was the central religious site of the complex. Take a self-guided tour and explore the 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see original timbers holding up the roof.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Arizona

Step into the mysteries of history. At the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, you’ll find the Ancient Sonoran Desert People’s farming community including the preserved “Great House,” or “Casa Grande.” An estimation of dating puts the origins of this structure around 1350 and the abandonment thereof about a century later in 1450. It wasn’t until 1694 that written historic accounts were journaled by Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino. Other explorers, philanthropists, anthropologists, and politicians banded together over the years to research, restore, and preserve the Great House. It was America’s first archaeological reserve in 1892 and declared a National Monument in 1918. Today, visitors can explore the extensive and fascinating compound with the help of guided tours and an interpretive center that offers answers to questions and leaves you to ponder a few more questions yet to be solved.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Frederica National Monument, Georgia

Three years after founding Georgia in 1733, Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe established Fort Frederica to defend the fledgling colony against Spanish attack from Florida. The site, sixty miles south of Savannah, would become the military headquarters for the new colony. Fort Frederica combined a military installation (the fort) with a settlement (the town of Frederica). Georgia’s fate was decided in 1742 when Spanish and British forces clashed on St. Simons Island. Fort Frederica’s troops defeated the Spanish ensuring Georgia’s future as a British colony. By 1743, nearly 1,000 people lived at Frederica. The peace treaty that Great Britain and Spain signed in 1748 sounded its death knell. No longer needed to guard against Spanish attack, the garrison was withdrawn and disbanded. Today, the archeological remnants of Frederica are protected by the National Park Service.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado

Explore a variety of structures including multistory towers perched on canyon rims and balanced on boulders. Human habitation at Hovenweep dates to over 10,000 years ago when nomadic Paleoindians visited the Cajon Mesa to gather food and hunt game. By about A.D. 900, people started to settle at Hovenweep, planting and harvesting crops along the top of the mesa. By the late 1200s, the Hovenweep area was home to over 2,500 people. Most of the structures at Hovenweep were built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. There is quite a variety of shapes and sizes, including square and circular towers, D-shaped dwellings, and many kivas. The masonry at Hovenweep is as skillful as it is beautiful. Some structures built on irregular boulders remain standing after more than 700 years. Though the reason is unclear, ancestral Puebloans throughout the area migrated south to the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico and the Little Colorado River Basin in Arizona. Today’s Pueblo, Zuni, and Hopi people are descendants of this culture.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

Discover this historic five-story Native American dwelling carved out of an ancient limestone cliff with twenty rooms. Begun during the twelfth century, it took about three centuries to complete. Montezuma Castle National Monument, considered one of Arizona’s best-preserved cliff dwellings, was built by a group connected to the Hohokam people of Southern Arizona. Explore the museum and wander the trails through a picturesque sycamore grove at the base of towering limestone cliffs. Afterwards you are able to have lunch in the picnic area along the shore of Beaver Creek.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona

Explore the legacy of ancient peoples in a desert hilltop pueblo. Discover endless views of varying desert habitats and learn about the Sinaguan people at the museum. Starting in A.D. 1000, the Sinagua built the 110-room Tuzigoot pueblo including second and third story structures. The tribe was largely agricultural and had trade routes that spanned hundreds of miles. These ancient peoples left the area around 1400. The museum features exhibits depicting the lifestyle of the Sinaguan Indians as well as an impressive collection of artifacts collected from the pueblo and nearby sites. A self-guided, 1/3-mile loop trail traces through the pueblo. The hilltop view offers expansive scenery of the Verde River and Tavasci Marsh.

Worth Pondering…

I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.

—Martin Luther King, Jr.

Circle of Ancients: Ancestral Puebloans

Ancestral Puebloans and their world

The sites of the Ancestral Puebloans are many and include Chaco Culture National Historic Park, Hovenweep National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and Aztec Ruins National Monument. All combine to form The Circle of Ancients—a theme some have spent a lifetime exploring.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 1,400 years ago, long before Europeans explored North America, a group of people living in the Four Corners region chose Mesa Verde for their home. For more than 700 years they and their descendants lived and flourished here, eventually building elaborate stone communities in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. Then, in the late A.D. 1200s, in the span of a generation or two, they left their homes and moved away. Mesa Verde National Park preserves a spectacular reminder of this ancient culture. Archeologists have called these people Anasazi, from a Navajo word sometimes translated as “the ancient ones” or “ancient enemies.” We now call them Ancestral Puebloans, reflecting their modern descendants.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first Ancestral Puebloans settled in Mesa Verde (Spanish for “green table”) about A.D. 550. They are known as Basketmakers for their skill at the craft. Formerly nomadic, they were beginning to lead a more settled way of life. Farming replaced hunting and gathering as their main livelihood. They lived in pithouses clustered into small villages usually built on mesa tops.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About A.D. 750 they began building houses above ground with upright walls made of poles and mud often with a pithouse or two in front. (Pithouses would later evolve into kivas.) From here on, these people are known as Puebloans, a Spanish word meaning “village dwellers.”

By A.D. 1000 the people of Mesa Verde had advanced from pole-and-adobe construction to skillful stone masonry.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Between A.D. 1100 and A.D. 1300, the population may have reached several thousand. It was mostly concentrated in compact villages of many rooms, often with the kivas built inside the enclosing walls. These stone walls are regarded as the finest ever built in Mesa Verde.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About A.D. 1200, another major population shift saw people begin to move back into the cliff alcoves that sheltered their ancestors centuries before giving rise to the cliff dwellings for which Mesa Verde is most famous. Using nature to advantage, Ancestral Puebloans built their dwellings beneath the overhanging cliffs.

Most of the cliff dwellings were built from the late A.D. 1190s to late A.D. 1270s. They range in size from one-room structures to villages of more than 150 rooms such as Cliff Palace and Long House. Ancestral Puebloans lived in the cliff dwellings for less than 100 years. By about A.D. 1300, Mesa Verde was deserted. When the cliff dwellers of Mesa Verde left, they traveled south into New Mexico and Arizona, settling among their kin who were already there.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In about 1110, a wandering band of Anasazi, a skilled farming people looking for a new home selected a high ridge along the west bank of the Animas River, opposite the present town of Aztec, New Mexico. They constructed a large dwelling of sculptured and fitted stones. Built over a four-year period, it was an E-shaped structure of about 400 rooms and 24 kivas that reached three stories high in places. About 85 years later, the residents of Aztec abandoned the region, and Aztec lay deserted.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 1225, a group of Mesa Verde people left their high mesa and deep canyons in southern Colorado to move into the abandoned Aztec complex. Despite their considerable efforts in refurbishing Aztec, the Mesa Verdeans didn’t stay long. By about 1275, they also began to drift away and by 1300, the stone dwellings on the Animas had been abandoned.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Around A.D. 900 a group of Anasazi Indians left Mesa Verde and settled 100 miles west at what is now called Hovenweep National Monument, which straddles the Utah-Colorado state line. A Ute word meaning “deserted valley”, Hovenweep is the site of six separate pueblo settlements and probably more considering that most of the 784 acres at Hovenweep have yet to be excavated. The pueblos tell of a sophisticated knowledge of a sun-Earth relationship.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By 1300 the site was deserted and the Anasazis had probably gone to other sites in northwestern New Mexico or northeastern Arizona.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While Chaco’s heyday had come and gone by the end of the 12th century, many other communities continued to thrive until the late 13th century, such as those found in the canyon walls of Navajo National Monument, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and Mesa Verde National Park.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes