National parks get all the love (well, at least most of them). And national wildlife refuges draw the birders and the field guide crowd.
National monuments? Well, most people have trouble defining what they are exactly. Do they protect historical sites? Geological wonders? Biodiversity hotspots?
National monuments also happen to be great — and often overlooked — spots for naturalists. Whether you have a thing for fossils, rare plants, coral reefs or cave creatures, there’s a monument with your name on it.
With so many options, we’re betting there are a few fabulous national monuments you’ve never heard of. Check out our cool green picks and share your favorite monuments with us in the comments.
What you’ll see: Strange rock spires
When to go: Spring, Fall
With towering rock spires, narrow canyons, and impossibly balanced boulders — Chiricahua is a geology-lover’s playground. Volcanic activity created the strange rock formations 27 million years ago, but there’s more to this monument than just hoodoos.
Chiricahua is one of several mountain ranges that rise up from the desert grassland floor like islands in a sea of grass, hence the name Madrean Archipelago. Also called sky islands, these high-elevation mountains on the southern Arizona-New Mexico boarder are biodiversity hotspots because they sit at the convergence of four ecological regions: the Sonoran Desert, Chihuahuan Desert, the Rocky Mountains, and Sierra Madre Mountains.
As you explore the 17 miles of hiking trails through juniper-oak woodlands and designated wilderness, keep an eye out for specialty southwestern species like javelina, coati, banded rock rattlesnake, and the elusive elegant trogon, a gaudy-colored Mexican bird that traverses the border in a few select locations.
What you’ll see: Remote Alaskan backcountry within a volcanic caldera
When to go: Summer, after some serious backcountry training
Off the beaten path is putting it lightly — Aniakchak National Monument is one of the least visited and most remote places in the entire National Parks system. Situated on the Alaskan peninsula, the only way in is by boat or bush plane, and there are no trails, no facilities, and no cell service.
What Aniakchak lacks in facilities it makes up in wildlife. Brown bears, wolves, foxes, wolverine, caribou, and moose roam the backcountry, while the park’s waters provide nursery habitat for sockeye salmon.
At the heart of Aniakchak is a 6-mile-wide, 2,500-foot-deep volcanic caldera formed during a massive eruption 3,500 years ago. The most recent activity occurred in 1931, when an eruption spewed ash more than 40 miles away. Rafting, backpacking, and fishing are the activities of choice for the intrepid few who undertake a trip to Aniakchak. If you want to join them, plan extensively and be prepared for anything — including hungry bears.
What you’ll see: Volcanic badlands and lava-tube caves
When to go: Fall, Spring
Named for the barren and forbidding volcanic landscape — malpais is Spanish for “badland” — this national monument owes its unique geology to lava flows, the most recent of which occurred only 3,000 years ago. Sandstone bluffs, basalt flows, lava-tube cave systems, cinder cones, and spatter cones are scattered throughout the monument’s more than 350,000 acres. Cavers can explore four of the monument’s six lava-tube caves for free, with a permit, while hikers can pick up the Continental Divide Scenic Trail, which runs through the monument.
Though rugged, El Malpais is anything but lifeless. Visitors can see classic western wildlife like elk and mule deer, plus 13 different species of bats. But the park’s most unique creatures aren’t obvious — fairy shrimp and other tiny critters thrive in small bedrock depressions, called tinaja, that fill with water during the summer’s monsoonal rains and winter’s snows. Called microhabitats, these pockets of water support drought-tolerant species that lie dormant between rains.
What you’ll see: 14-foot-wide petrified redwood stumps
When to go: Summer
Millions of years ago, a forest of giant sequoias grew just west of Colorado Springs, much like the towering stands of living redwoods still found in California. The forest here is long gone, but it’s not difficult to imagine, thanks to 30 petrified sequoia stumps scattered throughout the national monument, some reach widths of 14 feet.
But there’s more here than petrified wood. Paleontologists have found fossils from 1,700 different species in the monument’s shale rocks, making this site one of the richest and most diverse fossil deposits in the entire world. Most of the fossils are impressions of insects and plants dating from the late Eocene, about 34 million years ago.
Not all wildlife in this monument is fossilized — visitors can spot classic Rocky Mountain wildlife in the monument’s river-side meadows and forests, including elk, tiger salamanders, golden eagles, and mountain lions.
What you’ll see: Tallgrass prairie, grassland birds, and an archeological site
When to go: Summer
Located in southwest Minnesota, this monument was intended to protect the red pipestone quarries used by American Indians. The stone is carved into traditional pipes, and hand quarrying still occurs on the monument.
The monument is also home to several acres of virgin tallgrass prairie and restored prairie. Many of the more than 500 plant species found in the monument are rare, including the Western prairie fringed orchid. As you walk amid the prairie wildflowers, keep an eye out for secretive grassland birds like western meadowlarks, dickcissels, bobolinks, and grasshopper and clay-colored sparrows.
In addition to the quarries, the monument also encompasses a 10-to 15-foot-tall cliff formed by Sioux quartzite. The Nature Conservancy has identified the prairie plant community in and around the rock outcrop — called Sioux quartzite prairie — as a globally significant and endangered plant community.
What you’ll see: Elkhorn coral reef
When to go: Year round
This small-but-spectacular island monument formed when tectonic activity pushed submerged rock layers to the surface. Visitors can still see the rock layers on the island’s southern side. Getting to Buck Island takes a bit of planning, because the monument is only accessible by boat. Most visitors depart from the nearby island of St. Croix, where several companies offer trips to the monument and reef.
The best of Buck Island is beneath the waves, so bring your snorkel or scuba gear to explore the elkhorn coral barrier reef. Be on the lookout for marine wildlife, as Buck Island is an important breeding ground for many species, including hawksbill, green, and leatherback sea turtles, and endangered brown pelicans and threatened least terns.
What you’ll see: Rare organ pipe cactus, Sonoran desert wildlife
When to go: Fall, Winter, Spring
Massive, multi-trunked cacti dot the horizon at this desert monument. Organ pipe cactus are common in Mexico but very rare north of the border — you’ll only find them in a few locations, including south-facing hill slopes in the national monument.
The park service closed parts of the monument in 2003 due to concerns for visitor safety due to ongoing border issues, but new security measures resulted in the monument reopening to the public in the fall of 2014. An expanded staff of park rangers at the visitor’s center can guide you to the best places to explore within your comfort zone.
Almost 95 percent of the monument is wilderness, so we recommend strapping on your hiking boots and hitting the trail to explore the backcountry. But if you’re short on time, the scenic Ajo Mountain Drive (21 miles) or the Puerto Blanco Drive (5 miles) will give you the full panorama of Sonoran desert scenery.
What you’ll see: 800-foot-deep river gorge
When to go: Summer for rafting and fishing, Winter for wildlife
At just two years old, Rio Grande Del Norte is the newest monument on our list. Situated on the New Mexico-Colorado boarder, just north of Taos, the monument encompasses more than 240,000 acres of sagebrush plains scattered with volcanic cones and the 800-foot deep Río Grande gorge.
The land forms an important wildlife corridor between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east and the San Juan Mountains to the west. Peak-baggers should explore Ute Mountain — a 10,000-foot-tall volcanic mountain that’s the tallest peak entirely within the national monument.
After taking in the sweeping views from the canyon rim, we recommend you hike down the canyon for some excellent whitewater rafting and trout fishing on the Río Grande Wild and Scenic River.
What you’ll see: A rare marble cave and old-growth forest
When to go: April through October
Tucked beneath the Siskiyou Mountains, Oregon Caves is one of the few marble cave systems in the world. When the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate was sucked beneath the North American continental plate, a section of limestone was heated and recrystallized into marble. Rainwater slowly dissolved the marble, creating the caves.
Entrance to the caves is limited to guided tours, so be sure to check the schedule before you go. The truly adventurous (and non-claustrophobic) will want to reserve a spot on the off-trail cave tour, where you can learn caving techniques while squeezing and shimmying through hidden passageways.
After wandering among stalactites and stalagmites, explore the monument’s four hiking trails through the surrounding old-growth forest. The Siskiyou-Klamath region contains some of the country’s highest diversity of vascular plants and animals, including species of fungi and lichen that are specially adapted to the forest.
What you’ll see: Limestone cave and archeological site
When to go: Year round
Russell Cave National Monument is one of the oldest rock shelters used regularly as a home in the Eastern U.S. Spanning more than 10,000 years of habitation, its archaeological finds — like bone fishhooks, pottery, and human remains — are one of the most complete records of prehistoric cultures in the Southeast.
About 350 million years ago the cave’s limestone rocks formed an ancient seabed, and scientists have found fossil brachipods, corals, and crinoids in the monument’s rocks. While you’re there, keep an eye out for modern-day cave critters like the tricolored bat and black rat snake.
Want more? Use the park service’s Find A Park feature to search for monuments near you, and share your favorite national monuments and travel stories with us in the comments.