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Rethinking National Monuments: Why These Lesser-Known Gems are Worth a Visit

By Jeff Garmire


It was 2017, and I was driving back from Zion National Park. I had just completed the trans-Zion Traverse and was excited about experiencing more in Utah before going back to work. As I made my way north toward Arches National Park, I saw a small dot on the map labeled “Natural Bridges National Monument.” I wasn’t even sure what a national monument was, but I decided to make the detour to check it out.

I pulled into the visitor center and interrupted the park ranger’s lunch. It was a slow day. He set down his sandwich and went on to explain the small drivable loop with pull-offs, hikes of varying distances, and access to each of the three natural bridges. Anasazi cliff dwellings, pictographs, and white sandstone canyons complemented the main attraction of the national monument, and I was intrigued.

I spent the day at a small spot in the desert. There were only a handful of other people on the trails and less than 20 cars on the road. It was a whole different experience than battling the crowds to get to the top of Angels Landing. It made me rethink my goal of visiting all of the national parks. Maybe there is still something to be said for the national parks, but I was now surprised by the quality of national monuments. It pushed me to be less dismissive of them.

Compared to 63 national parks, there are 129 national monuments. But, what is the difference?

National parks are protected for general use and enjoyment of special scenic features or natural phenomena. They must be large enough to offer broad use and fit under the categories: inspirational, educational, or recreational. National monuments, on the other hand, are protected because of historic, prehistoric, or scientific interest objects. The size, quality, and landscape of national monuments can vary widely, but out in the west, I have found some of my favorite areas.

In 2020 I was aware of national monuments, but I still hadn’t visited many. Then I stumbled upon some photos of the Death Hollow Backpacking loop in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, and I had to do it. The route follows the Escalante River through deep canyons and traverses long stretches of slick rock. The pictures made it look like Mars. It was like nothing I had ever seen, even after targeting the national parks throughout Utah. I backpacked the 23-mile loop over two days and enjoyed it so much that I have gone back twice more. There were petroglyphs, long sections of walking through the water, beautiful alcoves to swim, and towering canyon walls.

The backpacking route was a hidden gem. I fished in the river, swam in the deep, slow water at midday, and immersed myself in this new unknown terrain. It was my first experience in Grand Staircase Escalante, and when it was over, I went back to the map to find more places to explore.

I have subsequently been to more national monuments and enjoyed fewer visitors, more rugged routes, and the joy of finding lesser-visited places. While driving back from Arizona, I stopped at Cedar Breaks National Monument. The views were incredible, with a vast amphitheater of eroded rock and unique formations similar to Bryce Canyon National Park. No one was there. The natural features were more unique than many national parks I have been to, yet the lesser designation kept the crowds away.

National monuments range from the Statue of Liberty and Mt. Rushmore to natural places like Devils Postpile and Giant Sequoia. But their connection to history and their uniqueness makes them attractive. The barriers to entry, such as crowds and size, are much less than a trip into a national park, and some of them are so large that you can immerse yourself for days at a time.

On a subsequent trip to Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, I drove the entire 50-mile length of the Hole-In-The-Rock Road, stopping at every notable feature along the way. I experienced my first true slot canyons with Zebra, Tunnel, Spooky, and Peek-a-Boo Canyons. I explored Coyote Gulch, Hurricane Wash, and the Batty Pass Caves. Further down the rough gravel road was Dance Hall Rock,the large sandstone amphitheater where Mormon pioneers spent months waiting for their route to be built in the late 1800s. The national monument I had only just discovered had it all. 

The intrigue of national monuments is their range. Devils Tower is a national monument, and so is George Washington’s birthplace. The scope of the 129 different locations across the country has many different protected areas. Some are giant and full of ancient history, while others are full of natural features. From the ancient dwellings and artifacts of Bears Ears to the massive trees of Giant Sequoia, I would recommend looking deeper and exploring further than simply the national parks. 

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