5 Great Scenic National Monuments

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With a few strokes of his pen in early July, President Barack Obama created three new national monuments, in California, Texas and Nevada. Ask most Americans to name a national monument and chances are they’ll mention the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial. Those are monuments, yes, but the monuments created by President Obama are large wilderness areas or historic sites that are now protected under federal law. There are now 117 national monuments in the U.S., including these scenic natural sites that are a must-see destination if you’re in the neighborhood.

 

5. Grand Staircase-Escalante

The rugged and unpaved Cottonwood Canyon Road in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a popular route through the park. © DouglasDolde.com

The rugged and unpaved Cottonwood Canyon Road in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a great way to see the park. © DouglasDolde.com

Welcome to the largest national monument in the U.S., covering almost 1.9 million acres in southern Utah. Many Utah residents were livid when President Bill Clinton granted this land monument status in 1996, claiming the federal government had overstepped its bounds in claiming such a vast tract. Yet the monument survived several court challenges, and 20 years later is here to stay. You’ll find most of the activities you’d expect to find here, including hiking, camping and fishing. But if you’re just passing through the area on the way to Utah’s better-known attractions, such as Zion or Bryce Canyon national parks, you can experience the wonders of Grand Staircase-Escalante with a drive along the 47-mile-long Cottonwood Canyon Road. Although rugged, steep and unpaved, the road is passable by two-wheel drive vehicles, except after heavy rains.

 

4. Browns Canyon

The Arkansas River in Browns Canyon National Monument is by some accounts the most popular whitewater destination in the United States. Credit: Bureau of Land Management

The Arkansas River in Browns Canyon National Monument may be the most popular whitewater destination in the United States. Credit: Bureau of Land Management

One of six new national monuments created by President Obama in 2015, Browns Canyon NM protects a section of the upper Arkansas River valley in southern Colorado. While the primary purpose of America’s national monuments is for preservation of historic and natural sites, many also offer world-class recreational opportunities. According to Wilderness.org, Browns Canyon is the most popular whitewater rafting destination in the U.S., and one of the best spots for trout fishing. Other activities include hiking, birding and horseback riding. By the way, the president has now used executive orders to create 19 new national monuments during his time in office.

 

3. Devils Tower

Devils Tower presents many different facets at different times of day. © Nagel Photography

Devils Tower presents many different facets at different times of day. © Nagel Photography

President Teddy Roosevelt designated this the first U.S. national monument, in 1906. Yet few Americans had ever heard of it until a young filmmaker named Steven Spielberg featured the enormous geological extrusion at the heart of this monument in the 1977 classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Attendance soared more than 100 percent within the next few years. Standing 1,267 feet above the surrounding landscape, Devils Tower is definitely worth a day trip if you’re in the region to see Mount Rushmore, or the Badlands of South Dakota. Despite the foreboding name, this is a sacred site for Native Americans.

 

2. Canyon de Chelly

The iconic view of Canyon de Chelly National Monument overlooks Spider Rock. © Ken Lund

The iconic view of Canyon de Chelly overlooks Spider Rock. © Ken Lund

All of the national monuments in this story are located in the Western U.S. That’s not the result of any geographic bias on our part. The majority of these monuments are, in fact, in the American West and Alaska, where vast tracts of land are still undeveloped and can more easily be preserved. All but a couple of such monuments in the Eastern U.S. are devoted to preserving historic sites and homesteads of historic figures, from George Washington to George Washington Carver.

Which brings us back to Canyon de Chelly NM, in northeastern Arizona. The Navajo Nation owns the land within the monument, which is one of the most-visted national monuments, drawing more than 800,000 visitors a year. If you’re just passing through the area, you can catch great views like the one above from paved roads along the north or south rims of the canyon. The scenic drives are free, as is one public trail on the South rim. But if you want to visit the canyon floor, you’ll need to contact a private tour guide, which can be contacted online or through a park office.

 

1. Muir Woods

Muir Woods is a must-see destination for nature lovers. © Chris Alcoran

Muir Woods is a must-see destination for nature lovers. © Chris Alcoran

This monument protects more than 250 acres of old growth coastal redwoods. Naturalist John Muir may have said it best back in 1908 when the U.S. government declared Muir Woods a national monument: “This is the best tree-lovers monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world.” That might be true more than 100 years later, although Muir Woods has in some ways become a victim of its own natural beauty; overcrowding has become a critical issue in recent years, as parking is frequently a nightmare during the spring and summer. Still, this national monument just a few minutes north of San Francisco belongs on everyone’s bucket list of natural wonders to see in the U.S.

Written by

The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.