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America’s Most Underrated National Monuments

These under-the-radar national monuments are totally stunning, and they’re right in your backyard.


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White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument. Photo by glennia/Flickr

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.

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Devils Tower National Monument. Photo courtesy of NPS.

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.

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White Sands National Monument. Photo by daveynin/Flickr.

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).

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Rim Rock Drive inside the Colorado National Monument. Photo by daveynin/Flickr.

Colorado National Monument in Fruita, Colorado

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.


Effigy Mounds National Monument. Photo by Travis/Flickr.

Effigy Mounds National Monument in Harpers Ferry, Iowa

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.

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This post originally appeared on Afar and was published April 26, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.

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