National parks get all the love. But national monuments? Not so much. These government-protected historical and geologic sites are where you can learn about indigenous cultures and early-American pioneers, visit archeological sites, and check out prehistoric rock art. You can also explore vast stretches of untouched wilderness, with miles of trails, backcountry camping, and cave tours deep into the unknown.
Pompeys Pillar National Monument
In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out on a now famous expedition to explore lands west of the Mississippi River that were part of the Louisiana Purchase. In Montana, along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, the 4,900-mile stretch that extends from Pennsylvania to Oregon, you’ll find physical evidence of their journey in the form of Clark’s signature carved on a sandstone rock outcropping that towers 200 feet above the Yellowstone River. Pompeys Pillar National Monument, 30 miles from Billings, also has hundreds of carvings and drawings from Native Americans. Stay at the 160-room Northern Hotel (from $139) in town or camp at the Yellowstone River RV Park, a 30-minute drive from the site.
Jewel Cave National Monument
Custer, South Dakota
Jewel Cave National Monument, an hour from Rapid City, South Dakota, in the Black Hills, is the third-longest cave system in the world. Last December, explorers mapped the cave’s 200th mile. Open from mid-April through mid-October, visitors can take a mellow ranger-led tour into the cave or sign up for a three-hour wild-caving expedition to crawl through narrow slots and ascend walls with ropes. There are several hiking trails in the 1,279-acre park above ground, including the 5.5-mile Hell Canyon loop, which features stunning views of the valley. Stay in one of 32 cabins nestled in a pine and spruce forest surrounding the 35-room Sylvan Lake Lodge (from $165), just 20 miles away.
Devils Postpile National Monument
Mammoth Lakes, California
Devils Postpile National Monument looks like a wall of giant matchsticks. With 60-foot-tall basalt columns that were formed by cooling lava some 100,000 years ago, the 800-acre monument in the eastern Sierra Nevada has eight miles of hiking trails, plus access to the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails. Don’t miss hiking to 101-foot Rainbow Falls and trout fishing in the San Joaquin River. The monument usually opens to vehicles from mid-June through mid-October, but you can also grab a shuttle bus from the base of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area for easier parking. Simple cabins, rooms, and bunks are available in the summer at Reds Meadow Resort (from $60), or opt for one of six campgrounds nearby.
Scotts Bluff National Monument
Hop a shuttle or hike a 1.6-mile trail to the top of Scotts Bluff National Monument, a collection of five sandstone and limestone rock formations towering 800 feet over the North Platte River, which cuts through the center of town. The site, which is the start of the Oregon Trail Pathway, was a rest stop for Native Americans, fur traders, and pioneers migrating west to California and Oregon—an estimated 350,000 people traveled past Scotts Bluff between 1841 and 1869. The 3,003-acre park has four miles of hiking trails and is home to the Oregon Trail Museum, which details emigrant history and the geology of the area. Sleep in a restored 100-year-old barn or a covered sheepherder’s wagon at Barn Anew Bed and Breakfast (from $140), a few miles down the road.
Basin and Range National Monument
Vast wilderness two hours from the Las Vegas Strip? Yep, it’s called Basin and Range National Monument. President Obama declared it a national monument in 2015, and in April 2018, it narrowly avoided getting shrunk by the Trump Administration as a possible fossil-fuel site. Drive the Great Basin Highway from Vegas far into the Red Rock Canyon desert and you’ll reach this 704,000-acre monument, which has rock climbing, mountain biking, and hiking, plus prehistoric rock art and dozens of threatened wildlife species. There’s plenty of dispersed camping and basic rooms at the Shady Motel (from $67) in Caliente, a three-hour drive from the site.
Canyon of the Ancients
Many visitors to southwestern Colorado’s Four Corners area go to Mesa Verde National Park, but just down the road sits the lesser known Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, which has the most recovered archaeological sites per density in the country. This 176,000-acre monument is home to thousands of sites, with evidence of ancient villages, cliff dwellings, shrines, and petroglyphs from Ancestral Puebloans and other Native cultures dating back 10,000 years. Bike or hike the 6.5-mile Sand Canyon Trail, and stop for wine tasting at the Sutcliffe or Guy Drew vineyards on the way into the site. There are no designated campgrounds, but dispersed camping is permitted, or book a cabin at Canyons of the Ancients Guest Ranch (from $190), just minutes away.
Cedar Breaks National Monument
Cedar City, Utah
In southwestern Utah, Cedar Breaks National Monument has the look of Bryce Canyon National Park—the endless red-rock spires—but none of the crowds. Come for the stunning vistas of the monument’s half-mile-deep and three-mile-wide geologic amphitheater of limestone towers and arches. In the winter, there’s snowshoeing and alpine and cross-country skiing at Brian Head Resort, an hour west, with condos and a slopeside hotel. In the summer, there’s a 25-site campground and several miles of hiking trails, including the four-mile round-trip Spectra Point and Ramparts Overlook Trail, which traverses the canyon’s rim. Year-round, rangers lead star parties, with telescopic viewings of the night sky.