National Monuments are America’s Hidden Gems

With smaller crowds and limited development, national monuments are ideal destinations for the adventurous RV traveler

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.

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

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.

Mount St. Helens National Monument, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Less Development

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.

Related Article: National Monuments Feature Places for Reflection and Hope

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Sonoran Desert National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Smaller Crowds

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
El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fewer Rules

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.

Related Article: National Monuments Are Mind-Blowing National Park Alternatives

Giant Sequoia National Monument, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Newspaper Rock in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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

Moki Dugway, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Valley of the Gods, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other national monuments to consider for your bucket list include:

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Related Article: Mind Blowing National Monuments in the Southwest

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Worth Pondering…

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.

—August Fruge

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

The Valley of Gods is a Miniature Monument Valley and definitely worth checking out— and totally free

The Valley of the Gods is publicly-managed Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in a setting surrounded by two national parks (Arches and Canyonlands), three national monuments (Natural Bridges, Hovenweep, and Bears Ears), three state parks (Goosenecks, Dead Horse Point, and Edge of the Cedars), Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It’s a land of immense beauty that epitomizes both the American West and movie landscapes.

From the top of Cedar Mesa, Moki Dugway descends into the Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The beautiful Cedar Mesa sandstone monoliths, pinnacles, and other geological features of this enchanting area are known as a Miniature Monument Valley. These sandstone sentinels were eroded by wind and water over eons of time.

The 17-mile Valley of the Gods Road, also known as BLM Road 226, stretches between US-163 north of Mexican Hat, Utah, near the Arizona-Utah border, and Utah Route 261 just below the white-knuckle Moki Dugway. In the morning, enter from US-163 in the east. This way, the sunlight highlights the buttes. And, in the afternoon start from the west entrance off SR-261.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s just a simple non-descript green highway sign on US-163 in southeastern Utah near Mexican Hat: “Valley of the Gods.” Tighten your grip on the steering wheel as you drop down to ford the creek as the towering Seven Sailors Butte fills the earth to the sky. This is the eastern beginning to the twisting, climbing, and turning but readily accessible drive looping through a valley of 9dramatic red rock buttes, rolling desert landscape, and a smattering of brush and wildflowers.

Following the Seven Sailors greeting, Setting Hen and Rooster buttes loom large. This starts the stretch where the most scenic campsites are located. The road weaves its way north and west past buttes named Franklin and Battleship and then after making a steep turn at Castle Rock, two whimsical buttes are in view: Rudolph and Santa and Lady in a Bathtub. A simple drive-by brings you past more than 12 named buttes and spires and easily another dozen without names on various maps.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The massive red rock formations are a geology fan’s dream. Hoodoos, spires, buttes, buttresses, forming and collapsing arches, and towers are all visible along the drive. It’s a potpourri of Southwestern geology. To truly enjoy the experience, stop often at the many wide spots on the road. Get out and walk around and take some photos. Keep an eye peeled for roadrunners and coyotes—this is their home turf.

Valley of the Gods Road is graded gravel and clay. This two-lane road is passable in a conventional passenger car when road conditions are dry. A local inquiry should be made during and after periods of inclement weather.

Never enter a flooded wash if it’s not possible to discern depth and flow speed. When storm conditions are present over the Valley and north of Valley of Gods, watch for flash flooding. Lime Creek is the drainage for a large area including portions of Cedar Mesa. It can flood even if the Valley of the Gods is in the sunshine and blue skies. It takes only six inches of water and a 5 mph flow to float a passenger car—even a four-wheel-drive pickup truck—off the road and down the stream. Use common sense and caution.

This 17-mile loop through Valley of the Gods has sharp turns and crosses several washes. Taking the drive in a leisurely fashion, we stopped for photos, taking two to three hours to complete the loop.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many places to stop along the scenic drive and numerous locations suitable for FREE camping as the valley lies on BLM land and is completely undeveloped. Since hardly anyone seems to pass by, the area provides a much more relaxing and isolated experience than the famous valley (Monument Valley) 30 miles southwest, and without any of the restrictions on hiking or camping. The spacing between campsites and the low traffic volume through Valley of the Gods provides ample opportunity for privacy while camping.

Camping is available in the dozens of off-road graded areas BLM has prepared adjoining Valley of the Gods Road. Starting just before Setting Hen Butte and past Battleship Rock, the campsites are slightly hidden from the road and provide some privacy and distance from dust. Practice “leave no trace” camping techniques. There are no potable water and no restrooms or pit toilets. Be prepared for primitive camping and bring plenty of water.

Overnight stays allow a chance to explore the buttes and rocks at leisure, cross-country hike, and see a near-perfect dark sky reveal of the Milky Way. DarkSiteFinder’s map rates Valley of the Gods with its darkest sky measure.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are no formal hiking trails. Hike with a map and compass. With a portable GPS, remember extra batteries and set the tracking feature. The ground surface tends to have loose small rocks, especially below and around the buttes which can be slick. Trekking poles are recommended along with a basic “watch-your-step” sense. Keep an eye open for rattlesnakes and other reptiles on large rocks or near crevices. Do not stick bare hands under a rock without checking for spiders, insects, or snakes. There are many things that sting and bite in the desert.

Small canyons cut into the cliffs that form the northern boundary of the valley and can be reached after a couple of miles of cross-country hiking. The entire region is excellent for photography, especially at sunrise and sunset when the rocks take on a particularly deep red hue.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Do not count on mobile phone signals anywhere throughout this portion of southeast Utah. There is mobile service from time to time but not that can be relied upon to be available when needed.

Worth Pondering…

Time, geologic time, looks out at us from the rocks as from no other objects in the landscape.

—John Burroughs

Absolutely Best National Parks to Escape the Insanely Crazy Crowds

They rarely make Instagram but vast national monuments offer spectacular beauty and wilderness adventure

Well into the pandemic, many people are seeking solitude in nature. What could be lovelier, after months of isolation at home, than setting out along a rugged conifer-shaded trail, breathing in the fresh alpine air, and listening to a chorus of songbirds? 

There’s just one catch: if everybody’s getting outside, it’s hard to find a spot all to yourself. That’s true even at many of the 419 destinations in the U.S. National Park System which continues to grapple with how to manage growing crowds.

Mount St. Helens National Monument, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even before this year many of the country’s most famous parks such as Zion and the Grand Canyon restricted access to busy areas by requiring visitors to use free shuttle buses. On summer weekends finding a parking space at the top trailheads in Shenandoah or the Great Smoky Mountains is nearly impossible. Once you actually reach an overlook with a breathtaking view—think Great Smoky Mountain’s Clingmans Dome or Joshua Tree’s Jumbo Rocks—securing a patch of solitude to contemplate the panorama can require jockeying nimbly amid clamoring crowds and jousting selfie sticks.

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This year, national park attendance was down due to the pandemic. Many parks drastically reduced access. But, the problem of trying to visit them remains the same as before: too much demand.

But the wilderness areas that the federal government added to its portfolio over the years mostly as national monuments tend to be farther off the beaten path and less hyped than the natural wonders immortalized in Ansel Adams prints. 

Santa Rosa an San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The landscapes of these newer monuments are not the same kinds of shiny treasures that were designated during the early years of the national park system. The park system now recognizes that land is worth protecting for a wide range of reasons from geology and biodiversity to culture and history.

Bears Ears National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One reason for this trend is that U.S. presidents can designate national monuments while creating and funding a national park requires an act of Congress. Presidents since Theodore Roosevelt have used the 1906 Antiquities Act to confer national monument status on areas of “historic or scientific interest” including wilderness lands such as Sonoran Desert in Arizona and Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains in California. Since 1996, when President Bill Clinton revived the use of the law to protect large tracts of land, presidents have designated nearly 40 federal wilderness areas as national monuments.

Valley of the Gods, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Within them, opportunities for awesome hiking, climbing, camping, boating, and wildlife-viewing abound. In southeastern Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, the ancient indigenous cliff dwellings of River House Ruin and soaring red rock spires of the Valley of the Gods glow luminously in the dawn and dusk sunlight. In California, the undulating wildflower meadows of Carrizo Plain and Berryessa Snow Mountain national monuments erupt with brilliant profusions of poppies, Indian paintbrush, and goldfields, especially after a fresh rain.

Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors to the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks near Las Cruces, New Mexico might spy bighorn sheep and golden eagles. Northern Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument includes some of New England’s least developed backcountry, an unspoiled place to kayak and hike.

El Morro National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the new national monuments have given visitors millions of uncrowded natural acres to explore, they’ve presented some logistical challenges. The Antiquities Act contains no provisions for funding and managing national monuments. Many belong to the Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation Lands program rather than the better-funded National Park Service. So they tend to lack national parks’ websites, state-of-the-art visitor centers, rustic-chic lodges and restaurants, and well-maintained roads and trails. They employ few full-time staffers, and their modest visitor centers are often open only seasonally or on weekends.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To fill the gap, dozens of nonprofit “friends-of” organizations have emerged. These newer federal lands receive less funding and rely heavily on Friends groups to get things done such as interpretive work, publishing visitor information, and educating the public. The nonprofits have organized trail cleanup days, seasonal events, and fund raisers.

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To plan a visit to a national monument, it’s best to consult both the park’s website and the “friends-of” website. Arriving prepared with proper gear, sufficient food and water, and paper maps (since cell service may be nonexistent) are the keys to safely enjoying your visit.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There will always be a thirst for touring the nation’s iconic parks—for hiking in the canyons of Zion or scampering among the natural arches and pinnacles of Arches National Park. But travelers who’ve hiked New Mexico’s otherworldly Malpais National Monument or driven National Scenic Byway 12 through southeastern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument without having to navigate throngs of people may never again think the same way about visiting America’s iconic national parks.

Worth Pondering…

Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

— John Muir

Get Your Kicks (And Burros) On Route 66

The Mother Road. Route 66. Main Street of America. Will Rogers Highway. The quintessential American Road Trip!

The mention of Route 66 to most baby-boomers conjures up images of George Maharis and Martin Milner cruising along in their early Corvette roadster in the television series of the same name.

While reminiscing, you have the popular rhythm and blues standard (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66 echoing through your mind. Composed in 1946 by songwriter Bobby Troup, this hit song was followed by the Route 66 TV drama in the early ’60s.

Historic Route 66 from Kingman to Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

But a trip to Oatman, a small, quaint community situated in Western Arizona will quite possibly reveal a whole new dimension to that 60-year-old song.

Historic Route 66 from Kingman to Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Tucked away on a very old section of Route 66, Oatman is about 25 miles from Kingman and Bullhead, Arizona, and Needles, California. This allows for a quick day trip from any of these locations.

Historic Route 66 from Kingman to Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Upon entering the historic old downtown, visitors are greeted by wild burros that roam up and down the main street hoping to get a healthy snack. These seemingly tame creatures actually live in a free-range area of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land adjacent to the tiny town. The burros are descendants of animals used by miners and abandoned when the ore played out.

Historic Route 66 from Kingman to Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

No matter how tame they seem, the burros are wild animals. Use caution and common sense when feeding them. Do not feed junk food to the burros. Local merchants sell bagged carrots for $1, a small price to pay to meet a new friend!

It’s best to leave Rover at home. Many burros consider the family pooch nothing more than a coyote with connections.

Historic Route 66 from Kingman to Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Most of the shops and restaurants that line the main street are housed in the buildings that were constructed soon after gold was discovered in the area in 1902. As with most mining towns of the Old West, Oatman is a shadow of its former self. Once catering to a vibrant population boasting nearly 20,000 people, there are a little over 100 folks that live here today.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Oatman has about 40 gift, antique, and craft shops, two Old Time Photo Shops, Judy’s Bar, assorted ghosts, and several places to eat and listen to live music.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The town first became known as Vivian, after the Vivian Mining Company, which produced over $3 million in gold ore during the early 1900s. In 1909, the name was changed to Oatman, to honor Olive Oatman, a young child who had been abducted by Apache Indians during the 1850s. She was subsequently rescued near the present town site. 

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Several economic cycles relating to the mining industry have occurred in the area over the years, but after the rerouting of Route 66 in 1952, the town’s success quickly faded. Since then, it has become a popular tourist town. Because of the numerous old buildings and the towering mountains, the area has had its share of appearances in various movies, including How The West Was Won and Foxfire. The old Oatman Hotel (formerly Drulin Hotel, circa 1902) is still in operation today and is reported to be where Clark Gable and Carol Lombard spent their wedding night.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Beyond the burros, shops, and restaurants, Oatman also features costumed dancers and daily gunfights to help preserve the feeling of the Old West. There are various special events, too.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

When traveling with your RV, it is strongly recommended that you use your tow vehicle or toad to make your way to and around Oatman. This is especially true if driving from Kingman on old Route 66, coming over Sitgreaves Pass. This section, although graced with breathtaking scenery, is extremely twisty and steep. Vehicle length is limited to 40 feet. Few or no turnarounds for larger vehicles are available in the downtown area of Oatman. 

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Numerous RV parks are available in Bullhead City, Kingman, and Needles. Additionally, Lake Havasu is only 55 miles away. When in the Kingman area, we use Blake Ranch RV Park as our home base.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Oatman is a day trip full of surprises—of ghost towns and ghost roads, and wild burros. And one of the most scenic drives in the state.

Now that’s something to bray about.

Worth Pondering…

So many ghosts upon the road,
My eyes I swear are playing tricks;
And a voice I hear, it’s Tom Joad,
Near Oatman on Route 66.

—Dave MacLennan