Famous rocks have been part of the American experience since 1620, when the Pilgrims first established a colony at Plymouth Rock. Since then, notable rocks have served as route markers for America’s westward expansion, been used as movie props, provided giant canvases upon which to carve political and military leaders, and given us some interesting places to visit. Here are the 12 most famous rocks or rock formations in the United States.
12. Haystack Rock
Haystack Rock is the most famous of several large “sea stacks” caused by the erosion of ancient lava flows along the Oregon coast. Located near Cannon Beach, the 235-foot formation can be reached by foot during low tide. The best public access point is three-quarters of a mile south of the rock at Tolovana Beach State Park.
Shiprock, the core of a 30-million-year-old volcano, towers more than 1,500 feet over the surrounding terrain in northwest New Mexico. Long a sacred place for Navajo Indians, today the site draws hikers, photographers and climbers, although the climbing is a sore spot with local Navajo.
10. Beacon Rock
Located in Washington State along the Columbia River a few miles west of the Bonneville Dam, Beacon Rock was an imposing sight for explorers Lewis and Clark, who originally named the 848-foot-tall monolith “Beaten Rock.” The rock, which is the core of an ancient volcano, is regarded as the second-largest, freestanding monolith in the world, after the Rock of Gibraltar. Incredibly, it was once slated for destruction to provide rock for a Columbia River jetty before common sense prevailed. In the early 20th century, the owner — who purchased the rock for $1 — painstakingly carved a switchback trail into the side of the rock, allowing hikers access to the top. Today, the three-quarter-mile trail is maintained as part of Beacon Rock State Park.
9. Devils Tower
Although geologists classify it as an “igneous intrusion,” Devils Tower in northeast Wyoming is better known to many as one of the most famous movie props of all time, from its appearance in Steven Spielberg’s science fiction classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Native Americans have long regarded the tower as sacred ground. Today, the 1,267-foot formation stands as the centerpiece of Devils Tower National Monument.
8. Natural Bridge, Virginia
Carved through the millennia by a simple creek, Natural Bridge in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley is one of the most famous natural sites from early American history. A young George Washington reportedly once surveyed the feature, and Thomas Jefferson owned the property for a time. Standing 215 feet high, with a span of 90 feet, the formation is open to the public. There is also a notable natural bridge in Kentucky, as well as many natural bridges in several national parks and monuments in the Western United States. Natural Bridge makes this list mainly because its early supporters were extremely persistent in promoting Natural Bridge, once hailed as “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”
7. Stone Mountain
Confederate States of America icons Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, along with their horses, are chiseled into the face of Stone Mountain, located just east of Atlanta, Georgia. Work on the carving began in 1916, but was abandoned in 1925. The sculptor who unexpectedly walked away from the Stone Mountain Carving, Gutzon Borglon, didn’t stay out of sight long — he began work on his signature achievement, Mount Rushmore, two years later. The Stone Mountain Carving was abandoned for nearly 40 years before resuming from 1963 until its completion in 1972. The carving, which is the largest bas-relief sculpture in the world, is 400 feet above the ground and measures 90 wide by 190 feet tall. In case you’re wondering, the heads of the four presidents on Mount Rushmore measure about 60 feet tall.
6. The Wave
One of the most surreal landscapes in the United States, the Wave is a rock formation located on the Arizona/Utah border in the Coyote Buttes area of Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. Erosion through millions of years created the swirls and ridges in the sandstone that give the area such an otherworldly appearance. Of all the rocks on this list, this is the most difficult to visit, requiring a tough 6-mile, round-trip hike. Now for the really hard part: Access to the Wave is limited to 20 visitors per day, and applications must be made months in advance.
5. El Capitan
Towering some 3,000 feet above Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park, the granite face of El Capitan is a photographers’ and rock climbers’ dream come true. Known worldwide by rock climbers, the rock formation features numerous climbing routes, all of them extremely challenging. If all that sounds too taxing, grab your camera and pretend you’re Ansel Adams, whose breathtaking photographs of El Capitan and Yosemite helped popularize the park.
4. Half Dome
Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome may or may not be as picturesque as its fellow Yosemite formation El Capitan; that’s a popular debate that can never be settled. But Half Dome is certainly easier to climb than its Yosemite Valley neighbor. Each year, thousands of hikers take the 8-mile hike from the valley to the summit, climbing the final 400 feet on a steep ascent with cables as handholds. The hike has become so popular in recent years that the National Park Service instituted a permit program in 2011.
3. Delicate Arch
Arches National Park in Utah is revered for its stunning scenery, but amid all that natural wonder, the world-famous Delicate Arch stands out above the rest. The 52-foot-high sandstone formation is the state symbol of Utah, appearing on state license plates and “Welcome to Utah” signs. If you’re going to Arches N.P. to see Delicate Arch, be prepared for a somewhat strenuous 3-mile round-trip hike. And if you’re going to catch a sunset during the park’s spring or summer season, be prepared for a packed parking lot at the trailhead.
2. Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts
The least physically imposing of the rocks on this list, this rock more than makes up for that with its historic status. Even kindergarteners are well versed in the story of how the Pilgrims landed in America at Plymouth Rock in 1620. It’s a great story, except for a couple of facts: First, the Pilgrims didn’t initially land at Plymouth Rock, but rather further east on Cape Cod. And there’s no proof that they came anywhere near the rock, which wasn’t recognized as the landing site until more than a century later. Still, Plymouth Rock remains an important part of American heritage. The rock is a popular attraction in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
1. Mount Rushmore
Arguably the most famous monument in the United States, Mount Rushmore was carved out of a granite mountainside in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Each year, almost 3 million people visit the monument to stare at the faces of U.S. presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Original plans called for the sculpture to feature the four presidents all the way to the waist, but construction ceased in 1941 after 14 years when funding ran out.