What’s the difference national parks and monuments? National parks are protected for their recreational, educational, and scenic qualities. National monuments are preserved because they are historically, scientifically, or culturally important. The Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore are both national monuments, as is Stonewall in New York City and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad in Maryland. From fossil beds and military forts to dense forests and coral reefs, this is why you see so much diversity in the types of places that earn national monument status. Mark your map—these are seven monuments you don’t want to miss on your next road trip in the United States.
Devils Tower National Monument in Devils Tower, Wyoming Congress is responsible for designating national parks, but presidents appoint national monuments. This hulking rock formation in the northeast corner of Wyoming was the country’s first, established by Theodore Roosevelt in September of 1906. Northern Plains Indians consider this site sacred, as do the hundreds of rock climbers who attempt to shimmy up its vertical cracks each year.
White Sands National Monument in Alamogordo, New Mexico This alien-like desertscape is one of the most exotic sights in America: 275 square miles of silky-soft sand, as white as freshly fallen snow. Despite the name, it’s not sand you’re seeing at White Sands National Monument—it’s gypsum. And it’s fantastic for scrambling across undulating ridges, photographing the shadows at sunrise and sunset, and sandboarding like a maniac (the visitor center sells waxed plastic sleds for just this purpose).
Blind turns, wild switchbacks, and narrow bridges with sheer drop-offs: You haven’t lived until you’ve terrorized yourself with the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive inside the Colorado National Monument. The road can be petrifying, but the scenery—color-shifting sandstone walls, gaping red rock canyons, boulders balanced like a beach ball on a seal’s nose—is such a knockout, you’ll forget about the trials of navigating it. Bonus points for spotting a herd of bighorn sheep bounding sideways up the rocks.
This dramatic slot canyon, located 40 miles from Santa Fe, makes for an excellent afternoon hike. The trail to the top climbs 1,100 feet and requires scrambling in some sections. The summit reveals 360-degree views of the conical tent rocks and towering hoodoos, by-products of volcanic eruptions that occurred up to 7 million years ago. For those afraid of heights, the views are just as spectacular on the ground looking up and wedging your body through the canyon’s narrowest splits. This 2,294,343-acre national monument/wilderness area in the Alaskan Panhandle is part of Tongass National Forest and overseen by the U.S. Forest Service. It was first designated by former President Jimmy Carter in 1978, sparking a land-use battle between the federal government and the state of Alaska. At stake: glacial valleys, saltwater canals, soaring granite walls, a density of hemlock and spruce trees, and abundant wildlife. Most visitors see this remote monument from the deck of a cruise ship, but the truly adventurous would spend a few days exploring by kayak.
Twenty American Indian tribes consider the 200 or so prehistoric burial mounds dotting the Upper Mississippi River Valley as highly sacred. Thirty-one of them are shaped like birds or bears. There are countless legends and theories about how the mounds were created and what they mean, but archaeologists hypothesize that the mounds were built for religious ceremonies, as clan symbols, or as a conduit to communicating with the ancestral spirit world. Nobody knows for sure. Make up your own mind while tackling the Effigy Mounds’ 14 miles of hiking trails or joining a ranger-led tour. This is one of the newest additions to the national monument family, established in May 2014 by former President Barack Obama (and jeopardized by President Trump’s executive order). The designation covers the Organ Mountains, the Dona Ana Mountains, the Sierra de las Uvas Mountains Complex, and the Greater Potrillo Mountains. The jagged ranges rise like razor teeth over Las Cruces, making them viewable from almost anywhere in the city. Sunset is an especially good time to look, when the rocky faces take on unreal pink, purple, and blue blazes. >>Next: 10 Amazing Ancient Forests Around the World
Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. Her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, New York Magazine, Time, Esquire, Dwell, the Wall Street Journal, and Midwest Living. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.