There are more than 100 national monuments scattered throughout the U.S. Chances are if you’ve ever visited one of these protected areas you’ve wondered to yourself, what’s the difference between a national park and a national monument anyway? You’re not alone. What sets the two designations apart is blurry for most.
A national park is protected for its scenic, inspirational, educational, and recreational values, while national monuments protect sites with a historical, cultural and/or scientific interest. Size also factors in. Parks are required to be at least 1,000 hectares or nearly 2,500 acres, according to Outside Online, while monuments are generally kept smaller to protect only the significant features of that area. And while some monuments are managed by the National Park Service, they can also be overseen by other federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service. The main distinction between national parks and national monuments, however, is how they’re designated. Parks are designated by an act of Congress, where as monuments are typically established by presidential proclamations through the use of the Antiquities Act. Both often include pristine wilderness areas and ample recreational opportunities, which is where outdoor lovers in the know can win big.
If you’re looking to explore a place that’s just as spectacular as a national park, but doesn’t get as much love (i.e. is probably less crowded), then look no further than some of these national monuments…
7 must-visit national monuments if you love the outdoors
1) Dinosaur National Monument, CO/UT
This national monument, which straddles the border of Colorado and northeastern Utah is home to 149 million-year-old dinosaur fossils, including 1,500 specimens that are on display in the Carnegie Dinosaur Quarry. While this is worth the visit on its own, what really makes this 210,000-acre monument stand out is it’s spectacular red rock scenery, world-class whitewater rafting on the Yampa and Green Rivers which flow through the heart of the park, as well as some of the darkest night skies in the country. In 2019, Dinosaur became an International Dark Sky Park.
2) Colorado National Monument, CO
Located near Grand Junction, CO, most visitors drive, or even cycle, right through Colorado National Monument on 23-mile Rim Rock Drive, which twists and turns its way through the dramatic wind and water-sculpted plateau. Beyond the monument’s only paved road, however, more than 40 miles of hiking trails and excellent rock climbing await those who are willing to slow down and explore this red rock maze of sandstone spires, towering monoliths and deep, sheer-walled canyons.
3) Bears Ears National Monument, UT
Originally protected in 2016 as 1.35 million acres and later reduced by more than 85% and divided into two disconnected park units, Bears Ears is a controversial monument to say the least. Still, nobody can deny the incredible cultural significance of this wild and rugged region, which holds thousands of historical artifacts and ancestral sites that are sacred to many Native American tribes including the Hopi, Zuni, Ute and Diné (Navajo). Beyond the fascinating rock art, cliff dwellings and other ruins, this distinctive region is blanketed in hidden oases, convoluted canyons, and off-the-beaten path trails beckoning adventurers to explore.
4) Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, AZ
If Arizona’s Vermilion Cliffs National Monument is better known than others, it’s thanks to its highly-Instagrammed feature known as “the Wave,” which is located in the park’s Coyote Buttes region and requires a hard-to-snag permit. But the colorful, 294,000-acre monument has many other geologic treasures to offer savvy and prepared backcountry hikers. This swirling sandstone playground, which is three times the size of Las Vegas, according to Visit Arizona, doesn’t have any facilities. There’s no visitor center, no paved paths, and no developed campsites. It’s just otherworldly rock formations, endless slot canyons and rugged wilderness.
5) Giant Sequoia National Monument, CA
Standing under a wondrous giant sequoia is a life experience worth checking off the list. And while most people will head to the more famous groves found in Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks, those looking for a more soul-stirring experience can wander next door to Giant Sequoia National Monument to escape the crowds. Just outside of Sequoia/Kings Canyon park boundaries, the U.S. Forest Service manages 33 additional giant sequoia groves where visitors have the opportunity to wander and camp among some of the biggest trees in the world.
6) San Juan Islands National Monument, WA
Made up of more than 450 islands, the San Juan Islands in Washington State’s Puget Sound are dotted with parks, wildlife refuges, historical and archaeological artifacts, as well as native lands for a number of tribes who continue to utilize the land and resources of the Salish Sea region. In 2013, 1,000 acres of land and shoreline within this unique archipelago were also protected as a national monument. Visitors can enjoy world-class sea kayaking, hiking and camping on sites across the islands, many of which can only be accessed by boat. In fact, several of the islands within the monument are also part of the country’s longest recreational water trail, the Cascadia Marine Trail.
7) Misty Fjords National Monument, AK
Looking for postcard perfect Alaska? Misty Fjords National Monument, with its 3,000-foot cliffs, protected coves, plunging waterfalls, and crystalline lakes set against a backdrop of snow-capped peaks, is it. This vast 2.3 million-acre glacier-carved wilderness is so remote, that you have to take a boat or plane to get there. Skip the scenic flights and cruises and explore the best of the “Mistys” on a sea kayaking adventure through the dramatic fjords. From Ketchikan, experienced paddlers can arrange kayak rentals, as well as transportation to the monument, or you can hire a guide or outfitter.
Photos: Rafting in Dinosaur National Monument – Josh Miller; Green River rafting – Josh Miller; Colorado National Monument – Victoria Stauffenberg/NPS; Bears Ears – Marc Toso Ancient Sky Photography/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International; Vermilion Cliffs National Monument – BLM/Fickr CC BY 2.0; Giant Sequoia National Monument – Alexey Komarov/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International; San Juan Islands – BLM Oregon & Washington/Flickr CC BY 2.0; Misty Fjords National Monument – Alan Wu/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0