Hidden gems: America’s 20 least-visited National Monuments
Looking for some peace and quiet during your travels this summer? We give you America’s 20 least-visited National Monuments, taken from 2009 National Park Service data. From the thousands of petroglyphs at the El Morro monument in New Mexico to prehistoric caves at Tonto in Arizona, these hidden gems offer scenic views and a journey back in history. Before you visit, research each destination carefully. Some of these parks are remote and may be difficult to access.
-- Kelsey Ramos and Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times ()
The nearest gas station is 27 miles, and the weather for much of the year may be dangerous lightning and thunderstorms or blustery snowstorms. It’s no wonder so few visitors come to Chiricahua, a “sky island” mountain range in the grasslands, 171 miles from Tucson. Yet the site’s unusual rock formations (Duck on a Rock and Punch and Judy among them), hiking trails and four ecosystems full of plants and animals, including white-tail deer, black bears and coatimundis, are alluring calls of nature far from the city life. The closest community with motels and bed and breakfasts is Willcox, 37 miles from the park.
Well-preserved 700-year-old caves, which contain masonry dwellings from an early farming community, overlook Theodore Roosevelt Lake in central Arizona, about 108 miles east of Phoenix. Visitors to Tonto can hike a half a mile up to lower cliff dwellings or 1.5 miles to the upper cliff dwellings (open November to April). Active beehives near the dwellings may cause them to close without notice. Camping is available at Roosevelt Lake. The most comfortable time to visit is between late October and early May; March is busiest with visitors wanting to see the wildflower display.
Right on the border of Colorado near Des Moines (not to be confused with the Iowa capital), the extinct Capulin Volcano rises more than 1,000 feet above the surrounding plains. Visitors can climb the two-mile paved road to the top, which sits at 8,182 feet, and walk around its rim. The volcano is 261 miles from Albuquerque. Summers are mild, but thunderstorms are common in July and August. Winter blizzards may temporarily close the park.
Guided tours at Pipe Spring National Monument in Fredonia teach visitors about the Western pioneer memorial’s history: Mormon missionaries discovered in 1858 the valuable water source that made it possible to live in the desert region. A fortified ranch, named Winsor Castle after a Mormon bishop who lived there, was built over the spring in 1872, mainly as protection against the native Paiute and Navajo but also as an outpost for travelers and a refuge for polygamists hiding from law enforcement in the 1880s. Modern-day Paiutes still live in the area. Visitors to the spring, about 227 miles from Flagstaff, can visit the fruit-filled orchard and longhorn cattle in the corrals for a peek at early pioneer history. Summer weather is in the upper 90s; daytime highs in the winter are around 40 degrees.
Thousands of signatures, dates, messages and petroglyphs are carved into the bluffs of El Morro, evidence of ancestral Puebloans and, later, Spanish and American travelers who stopped by the shady pool of water tucked into the base of the bluffs. A two-mile loop takes visitors past the pool to the top of the bluff with Puebloan ruins, with views of the mountains and valleys below. The monument is about 117 miles from Albuquerque.
The only way to get to Buck Island Reef is by boat, which can take as long as 90 minutes. The island has only one footpath, and to get anywhere, you walk or swim. The 176-acre island and surrounding coral reefs, 1 1/2 miles north of St. Croix, are among the few fully marine areas protected by the National Park System. The diverse ecosystem includes brown pelicans, least terns and hawksbill, green and leatherback sea turtles.
There’s something eerily fascinating about ancient caves, including the Gila Cliff Dwellings in Silver City, about 235 miles from Albuquerque. The dwellings provide clues about Mongollon residents from more than 700 years ago and are part of the preserved Gila Wilderness, which prevents the building of roads or other man-made construction.
Visitors take a hands-on approach in learning about the everyday farm life of 19th century agricultural scientist George Washington Carver. They wash and dry the laundry by hand, paint art projects and assist in interactive science projects, such as how peanut paper is made and how bee pollination works. A trip down the Carver Nature Trail, which runs through the property, leads to the Carver’s birth-site cabin and past a pre-Civil War cemetery. The national monument is in Diamond, about 150 miles from Kansas City.
The self-guided tour of the ruins in Aztec, about 205 miles from Santa Fe, lead through the well-preserved ancient Puebloan “great house” West Ruin, which has the original wood roofing and mortar walls. The reconstructed semi-subterranean Great Kiva, once the central social and religious site for the Native Americans, is among the oldest and largest of its kind. Spring weather at the ruins is especially unpredictable and summers are hot; travel in the fall for best conditions.
The missions in the foothills housed 17th century Spanish Franciscans, who are thought to have planted the ancient orchards of apples, or manzanas, from which the Manzano Mountains to the north took their name. The site is about 100 miles from Albuquerque and visitors can tour the historic ruins of missions and pueblos, visit the museums, picnic and bird watch. The best time to travel is in the summer or fall.
This is one of America’s original ghost towns. At Hovenweep National Monument on the Utah/Colorado border, visitors can see the remains of six prehistoric villages built between 1200 and 1300. These farming towns were abandoned in the 13th century when a prolonged drought forced the residents to move south. Incredibly many of the homes, storage granaries and kivas (ceremonial structures) remain.
Thanks to a tip from an Idaho farmer in the 1930s, archaeologists discovered the largest collection of Hagerman horse fossils in what is now Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, about 90 minutes from Boise. (A Hagerman horse is a zebra-like creature native to North America that has been extinct for millions of years.) They also found fossil deposits of more than 220 species of plants and animals, some dating back 4 million years. Bonus: A part of the Historic Oregon Trail, the historic wagon route to the Pacific Northwest, runs through the southern part of the park.
For about 10,000 years, people found shelter in Russell Cave, leaving behind clues of how they lived. The limestone cave, 210 feet long, 107 feet wide and 26 feet high, not only provided a haven from the elements but also provided fresh water from its spring. In 1958, the National Geographic Society donated 310 acres around the cave, in northeastern Alabama near the Tennessee border, to the American people. Rangers offer a tour of the cave, which is wheelchair accessible. Visitors can also hike a 1.2-mile birding trail that goes through Montague Mountain.
The Booker T. Washington National Monument is at the birthplace of the educator, a celebrated African American leader who went on to found in 1881 what is today Tuskegee University in Alabama. The monument re-creates the middle-class tobacco farm where Washington was a slave until emancipation. It’s about 25 miles southeast of Roanoke and offers trails through forests and past reconstructions of 19th century farm houses. Visitors will also find a stable of farm animals and a garden at the monument where they can learn about the farming techniques of Washington’s time.
Located in the remote sagebrush desert of southwest Wyoming not far from the Utah border, Fossil Butte is home to one of the richest fossil deposits in the world. The fossils of plants, alligators, crocodiles, insects, turtles and abundant fish tell us that 52 million years ago this land was a lake and the climate was subtropical. Cool tip: If you visit Fossil Butte in the summer, you may be able to help archaeologists with their dig.
In a remote area of northwest Nebraska, miles from the nearest town, Agate Fossil National Monument is home to fossils that date back as much as 20 million years. Visitors to the monument can hike one of two trails that lead to the sites where fossils have been found — one leads through the Niobrara River wetlands, the other provides a view of the petrified spiral-shaped burrows of dry land beavers. The visitor center hosts displays of some of the most unusual fossils at the monument. The monument is also home to an impressive collection of Native American artifacts, including fancy beaded moccasins and decorated clubs given to the rancher James Cook by the Lakota Sioux and other tribes he befriended in the mid-19th century.
At Ft. Union National Monument, visitors will find the remains of what was once the largest military fort in the Southwest. Built in 1851, Fort Union stood sentinel over the Santa Fe Trail, which traders used as the route between Missouri and New Mexico. You can tour the adobe ruins of the fort, or hike trails through beautiful prairie scenery. Rangers suggest you schedule two hours for a visit to the national monument, which is 94 miles north of Santa Fe. Cool tip: It’s worth checking Ft. Union National Monument’s website for special events. The popular late summer candlelight tour through the fort, which includes reenactments of historical scenes, sounds especially fun.
In ancient times and even as recently as the mid-1800s people used flint from the Alibates Flint Quarry in the Texas panhandle to make tools for daily living. There are more than 700 quarries in the national monument, 35 miles north of Amarillo, Texas, where the flint was dug out by hand as many as 10,000 years ago. To see the quarries today, visitors must arrange for a mile-long ranger-guided tour offered by reservation only. Alibates Flint Quarries is also home to a host of Texas wildlife including wild turkeys, deer, antelope, roadrunners and coyotes. Rangers say it has some of the best sunrises and sunsets in the Texas panhandle.
The first thing to know about Cape Krusenstern is that it is not accessible by car. In the summer tourists get to this wild northwestern Alaskan national monument bordered by the Arctic Ocean and the Chukchi Sea by boat or airplane; in the winter they arrive by airplane or snowmobile. There are no roads, trails or campgrounds in the park. Even the visitor’s center is an airplane ride away in the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center in Kotzebue. But if none of that deters you, you’ll find limestone hills covered in wildflowers, miles of beaches and a treeless landscape that gives you the feeling you can see forever at this remote Alaskan outpost. There are lagoons to kayak and migratory birds to watch. Anthropologists come here to study the indigenous population, which has inhabited this land for thousands of years and continues to live in the national monument.
No roads will take you to Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve, on the Alaskan peninsula 450 miles southwest of Anchorage. To access this park you’ll need to hire an air taxi or a power boat. The park encompasses a 6-mile-wide, 2,000-foot-deep caldera formed by the collapse of a 7,000-foot mountain and offers visitors a taste of one of the wildest terrains in Alaska. Things to do in the park include hiking the caldera floor, sport fishing and rafting the Aniakchak River. This is beautiful, wild landscape but visitors should proceed with caution: Even in the summer the average temperature is only in the high 40s to 50s, and hypothermia is always a threat.