Harboring the American past from the present, these national monuments are historical havens for travelers. Cooly preserved and spread throughout the nation, each monument shines a light on what has come before, creating a window into the meticulous engineering of the U.S.
Statue of Liberty
In the middle of New York City’s harbor sits the Statue of Liberty — a magnificent copper gift from France and giant symbol of freedom. To get there — which millions of visitors do annually—you must take a ferry through Statue Cruise, a company authorized through the National Park Service and whose schedule is subject to change depending on the time of year. The site has become a symbol of America’s welcoming shores, was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984, and has seen its famous design replicated and reproduced all over the world.
A popular spot for Hollywood film scouts, Muir Woods offers much more than a setting for potential blockbusters to its visitors. Featuring exceptionally picturesque views, a cool climate, and well-maintained trails for both hiking and biking, Muir Woods highlights the immense beauty of California’s famous redwoods, showcasing one tree in particular at a height of 258 feet (79 meters). Only a 12-mile drive north from San Francisco, this wooded area is perfect for west coast travelers looking for a place to spend the day without having to travel too far inland, and there are guided tours that leave right from the city center.
This national monument was originally made famous on April 12, 1861, when Confederate militia opened fire in the Charleston Harbor, signalling the start of the American Civil War. Today, the monument stands as a beautiful monument where visitors can learn more about America’s history through demonstrations and informative guides about the Civil War era, while looking out over the vast Atlantic Ocean.
Chiselled into Mount Rushmore are four of the most recognizable faces in American history: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Between 1927 and 1941, roughly 400 artists (led by sculptor Gutzon Borglum) created this piece of natural art that has become synonymous with the nation itself.
With nearly three million visitors per year, the site rivals the Statue of Liberty at the top of the nation’s most iconic monuments.
This is the monument made for history-lovers, and one that fittingly calls Washington, D.C. home. The National Mall overflows with memorials and monuments in every direction — the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument being two of the most notable.
Other famous sites in the area are the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The Liberty Bell
Hanging in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall is the 2,000 pound Liberty Bell. Over the last two centuries, the famous bell has become an internationally recognized symbol of American freedom.
Today, rumors and legends regarding when the bell cracked and when it rang for the first time still surround the storied American object, making a visit even more intriguing.
Devil’s Tower carries the title of the United States’ first national monument, inaugurated in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. Located in Crook County, Wyoming, this geological spectacle is characterized by its distinct “cracked” exterior and lofty peak that rises well above the surrounding trees — making it one of the most popular rocking climbing spots in the country.
As its name suggests, White Sands National Monument stands out on this list due to its distinct pearly landscape. Only an hour from the Mexican border, it is the largest gypsum dunefield in the world, with sand dunes rising and falling across a radius of 275 square miles. Within the park, visitors are able to hike, picnic, sled — yes, you read that correctly — and camp overnight.
Canyon de Chelly
Since its official inauguration in 1931, Canyon de Chelly’s operation and ownership has been the only one of its kind: entirely conducted by the Navajo Nation instead of the National Park Service. Carved into the landscape of northeastern Arizona, the canyon stretches across roughly 84,000 acres, and still acts as a home for roughly 40 families of the Navajo Nation. Home to the notorious Spider Rock, visitors can see the stunning geologic scenes that make this region of the United States such an alluring destination along both the southern and northern rims.
World War II Valor in the Pacific
Established in 2008, World War II Valor in the Pacific is on the younger end of national monuments, but honors one the country’s most pivotal moments: the 1942 attacks on Pearl Harbour. This monument features another great display of America’s rich history and a chance to learn while traveling to one of the country’s furthest cities, Honolulu, Hawaii. While there, don’t miss Battleship Row and the USS Arizona Memorial.
Sequoia National Monument
Under the shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is the world’s largest tree (and arguably largest living organism): the giant sequoia. The monument is located in the northwestern portion of the Sequoia National Forest, which is packed with plenty of outdoor adventures. Once there, and after you’ve recovered from the initial awe of seeing the towering trees (a feeling which might not fade completely), be sure to check out some of the endless hiking trails that meander throughout the surrounding area.
Famously known as the location of the San Andreas Fault, Carrizo Plain National Monument is situated roughly 100 miles north of Los Angeles. The area features an impressive remoteness that includes the largest grassland in the state, and sprawling hillsides covered in colorful wildflowers, combining to create a beautiful retreat from the busy cities of California. Due to its distinct seclusion, Carrizo Plain is inhabited by a large number of wildlife, including 13 different endangered species such as the kit fox and giant kangaroo rat.
In the dusty corner of southeastern Utah sits a pristine example of natural architecture: Natural Bridges National Monument. Recognized as a national monument in 1908, this site enables curious explorers to engage closely with the landscapes that make Utah internationally recognizable. Within the park is a drivable, scenic loop and a handful of short hikes that start from the road, encouraging the observation of the bridges in closer detail.
A visit to the Montezuma Castle is about as close as you can get to time-travel. Luckily, it isn’t hard to reach, located just off Interstate 17 in central Arizona. Built during the pre-Columbian period and jutting out from a 90-foot limestone cliff face, the impressive structure is arguably one of the most well-preserved ancient dwellings in the country. And with an entrance fee of only five dollars, it’s definitely worth adding to your itinerary.
Surrounded by the Dixie National Forest, Cedar Breaks National Monument is nestled into the southwestern corner of Utah. Known best for its vast, intricate amphitheater of eroded rock, there are two two-mile long trails (the Alpine Pond Trail and the Spectra Point Trail) in the park that offer great views of the amphitheater. Despite its southern coordinates, the monument also features snowshoeing and cross-country skiing when heavy snowfall forces road closure in the winter.
Located within the 17 million acre Tongass National Forest in Alaska, Misty Fiords National Monument is one of only 10 fiords in the U.S. Because of its uncommon landscape, people flock to the area year-round to witness the humbling magnitude of ocean and mountains colliding. After arriving, visitors are able to travel throughout the inlets and islands by seaplane or boat, discovering glaciers, waterfalls, and unspoiled wilderness. Need we say more?
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks
As one of 14 national monuments in the state of New Mexico, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks illustrates just how diverse this state’s landscape can be. Not only are the cone-shaped rock-formations stunning, Kasha-Katuwe also is known for its unique wildlife. See both while walking along the recreational trail that scales altitudes between 5,570 and 6,760 feet above sea level (1,698 and 2,060 meters).
Craters of the Moon
Nearly the size of the entire state of Rhode Island, Craters of the Moon is a massive national monument that boasts a long list of outdoor activities, including stargazing, hiking, and camping (front and backcountry!). The volcanic landscape — barren and otherworldly in appearance — possesses various volcanic landmarks such as cinder and spatter cones, and lava tubes. Despite these harsh conditions, a surprising number of wildlife species and vegetation thrive in the area, creating a beautiful example of natural adaptation for visitors to explore.
Just south of the Utah-Arizona border is Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. With no paved roads or visitor’s center, the monument is one of the most rustic, though the walls of swirling sandstone draw away from its lack of visitor information. Hawks, eagles, falcons, and even California condors can be spotted flying high above the steep, twisted escarpments, which are part of the Colorado Plateau in northern Arizona. For a true backcountry experience, the neighboring Paria Canyon offers three to five-day camping trips.
The Sonoran Desert
Surrounded by rugged mountains, covered with sandy plains, and crawling with tortoises — the Sonoran Desert is otherworldly and gorgeous.
A relatively new monument (officially designated in 2001), the land, for the most part, is untouched and undeveloped, giving visitors a calming experience as they explore the cacti-covered landscape.
Header image by Caleb Jones.