We’ve compiled a list of the nation’s historical hot spots -- the most-visited monuments in 2009 -- from National Park Service data. As crowds flock to the nation’s national parks, consider these often less-crowded alternatives. These trips keep you firmly grounded in the U.S. With rolling white sand dunes, coastal redwood forests, war-scarred memorials, and, let’s not forget the iconic Statue of Liberty, travelers get a taste of our rich past.
-- Deborah Netburn and Kelsey Ramos
FOR THE RECORD: National monuments: In a May 2 Travel section article about national monuments, an item on the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana referred to the Army’s 7th Calvary. It should have said Cavalry. Also, some references to the Matanzas River and Ft. Matanzas in Florida, where the Spanish killed 250 French Huguenots in 1565, misspelled the name as Mantanzas. — ()
Fort Frederica was built by James Oglethorpe in 1736 to protect his new colony, Georgia, from the Spanish in Florida. When the Spanish surrendered in 1742, the fort and its settlement were largely abandoned, but today visitors can explore the remains of the fort and the lives of the people who lived there. (Visitor beware: The bugs here are nasty.)
Little Bighorn Battlefield is the site where Gen. George A. Custer and 263 members of the U.S. Army‘s 7th Cavalry died while fighting several thousand Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho warriors in the famous battle of 1876. Although the park was conceived as a memorial for the American soldiers, today both the 7th Cavalry and the Native American warriors who gave their lives in this conflict are honored.
In New York harbor just a few hundred yards from lower Manhattan, Governors Island served as a military base for 200 years and was home to the U.S. Army and Coast Guard. It was shuttered in 1996 and became a national monument in 2003. Today the island offers biking, tours of historic buildings and art exhibits and performances. The park is still under development.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is named for the long, thin cacti that dot this desert landscape. But within the park visitors will find more than two dozen species of cactus and animals like the mountain lion and kangaroo rat that have adapted to the harsh habitat. (Joshua Bo / National Park Service)
The first of all the national monuments, Devils Tower was created by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Its name comes from the 1,267-foot-tall rock formation that was a sacred site for many Native American tribes.Today the park attracts mountain climbers from around the world who try to scale the tower’s vertical walls as well as to enjoy the park’s woodlands, grasslands and pine forests.
Breathtaking. That’s the word for the Colorado National Monument. Here you’ll find sheer walled red rock canyons, big blue skies and panoramic views, as well as bighorn sheep and golden eagles. Rangers recommend the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive, which takes visitors to campgrounds, hiking trails and “remote canyons full of bird song and solitude.”
Located just 15 minutes east of Savannah, Ga., Fort Pulaski offers visitors everything from musket and canon-firing demonstrations to kayaking and bird-watching. The fort was completed in 1847, but was destroyed in the Civil War.
White Sands National Monument is the largest pure gypsum dune field in the world. The national monument offers visitors a drive through the fields, as well as an explanation of how all that sand got there. (Giovanna Dell’Orto / Associated Press)
Cedar Breaks National Monument is closed from October through late May because of heavy snowfall, but the rest of the year, it’s a stellar place to visit, and views of the spectacular 3-mile long, 2,000-foot-deep, naturally occurring “amphitheater” are available all year long. (Jerel Harris / Los Angeles Times)
At this monument tourists can gaze at Montezuma Castle -- a five-story cliff dwelling built by the Sinagua people who inhabited this valley until 600 years ago. This was one of the first places given national monument status in 1906. Today visitors may look in wonder only from below. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles)
Star-shaped Fort McHenry in Baltimore is best known its successful defense against the British navy in the 1814 Battle of Baltimore. The victory inspired Francis Scott Key to write a poem that would later become “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Visitors can take a self-guided tour of the fort or attend an evening ceremony with the U.S. Navy Drill Team, Navy Band and hands-on flag folding. Travel in the spring or fall to avoid humid summers and cold winters, but expect windy conditions year-round.
The Castillo was built to protect Spanish claims in the New World. Rangers and volunteers in period dress demonstrate with live cannon and musket firings and reenactments that illuminate the colonists’ life in the bastion.
Weather conditions at Castillo de San Marcos, about 40 miles from Jacksonville, Fla., are hot and humid with frequent thunderstorms. Check for hurricanes June through November.
When Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo climbed off his boat and onto land in 1542, it was the first time a European had set foot on what is now the West Coast of the United States.
At the national monument in San Diego, visitors can learn more about Cabrillo’s voyage through historical exhibits, take scenic hikes overlooking San Diego Bay and visit the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, one of the original eight on the West Coast.
From December through February, Pacific gray whales pass by on their annual migration.
The old-growth coastal redwood forest just outside Mill Valley is cool and shady year-round. The refreshing climate attracts visitors and an annual migration of Convergent Ladybugs seeking refuge from the hot Central Valley.
Visitors to the forest, which is named after conservationist John Muir, can participate in monthly beach cleanups or hike among the giant trees (the tallest recorded redwood is 379.1 feet, about the height of a 35-story building.)
Muir Woods is about 16 miles north of San Francisco. Temperatures average range from 40 to 70 degrees, with rain between November and April.
Matanzas, Spanish for “slaughterss” or “killings,” is an appropriate name for the river on the east coast of Florida, where the Spanish massacred French soldiers in 1565 during efforts to colonize the area.
Fort Matanzas is 15 miles south of St. Augustine, about midway between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach. A ferry ride takes visitors to the fort, where they can explore a boardwalk forest trail, fishing on the riverbank and walk along the beach. The best time to travel to Fort Matanzas is in the temperate fall and spring.
The ruins of indigenous Anasazi and Navajo tribes sit amongst distinct rock formations in Canyon de Chelly in Chinle, about 250 miles from Flagstaff. (National Park Service)
The survivors at the somber USS Arizona Memorial in Honolulu are living history of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, which preceded the United States’ entrance into World War II.
The reverent memorial educates visitors through survivors’ firsthand accounts, museum exhibits and the opportunity to reflect on the underwater remains of the USS Arizona. The Arizona is accessible only by boat.
Perhaps the most recognized symbol of freedom and democracy in the world, it is no surprise that the Statue of Liberty is one of the most visited monuments in the nation.
In July 2009, visitors were again permitted to visit the statue’s crown, closed to the public since Sept. 11. Reserve tickets online for all visits, and be prepared for long ferry lines and large crowds.
Before Ellis Island, which in 1892 became the nation’s main immigration portal, more than 8 million immigrants passed through Castle Garden. The fort, originally a defense fort built for the War of 1812, is named after New York’s former mayor and governor, DeWitt Clinton.
After it closed as an immigration station in 1890, it reopened as the popular New York City Aquarium. It is now a museum with ranger-guided tours and a ticket office for the Statue of Liberty ferry.
Castle Clinton is in Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhattan.