7 Underrated U.S. National Monuments That Should Be on Your Bucket List

These beautiful American monuments make the perfect vacation destinations.

Off the top of your head, you can probably name a few of the most famous U.S. national monuments. Perhaps the iconic Statue of Liberty in New York is the first to come to mind, but that's just one of approximately 129 national monuments across the nation. According to the National Park Service (NPS), a "national monument" designation is given to a range of different sites, including "natural reservations, historic military fortifications, prehistoric ruins, and fossil sites."

National monuments tend to be smaller than national parks and as such, they generally don't offer as many attractions. But that doesn't mean they aren't well worth visiting, as they allow you to explore different parts of the U.S. outside of their more well-known (and sometimes more crowded) national park counterparts. In fact, travel experts say some monuments are so underrated that they deserve a spot on the top of your list. Read on to find out which seven sites they recommend.

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1
Chiricahua National Monument

chiricahua national monument
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Head out west to explore Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona, described by the NPS as the "Wonderland of Rocks."

"Chiricahua is a hidden gem in Southern Arizona that remains unknown to most, including many locals!" Adam Marland, travel photographer and writer for We Dream of Travel, tells Best Life.

The site was formed after an eruption of Turkey Creek Volcano, Marland explains, which sprayed ash across 1,200 miles. Over thousands of years, this settled and formed the "geological marvel," Marland says. "In Chiricahua, the NPS protects a world of strange rock formations in the least expected location," he adds. "A hike through Echo Canyon reveals an impossible display of balanced rocks, columns, and pinnacles."

The site was even nominated as an International Dark Sky Park in 2021 and is an ideal spot "to view our celestial world," according to Marland. The Dark Sky designation is given to sites "possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights," as well as a "nocturnal environment" protected for education, science, cultural heritage, and public enjoyment, the International Dark-Sky Association states.

2
Colorado National Monument

sunrise hike at Colorado National Monument
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Another underrated monument to make the list is in the Centennial State. Colorado National Monument is a site that should be one of your dream destinations. Sophie Clapton, travel blogger for We Dream of Travel, explains that this monument is "often overlooked," despite its massive monoliths and red rock canyons.

"It's primarily used as a scenic detour wherein passerby can enjoy the elevated 23-mile drive over the 'pocket-sized Grand Canyon,'" she explains.

The park was first promoted by trail builder John Otto in 1906, and thanks to his efforts, then-President William Howard Taft signed the proclamation to establish the monument in 1911. Legend has it that Otto looked up from the base of the canyon and "wondered what it would be like to view the world as the birds did," Clapton tells Best Life.

The historic site is a great destination for nature lovers, as well as those who want to see some native wildlife. "Along this photogenic route, visitors can expect to encounter a colorful array of rock islands, spires, pinnacles, and sheer canyon walls," Clapton says. "With a little luck, there's a good chance the scenery will be shared with a wide variety of wildlife, including bighorn sheep, golden eagles, and mule deer."

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3
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

john day fossil beds national monument
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If you've wondered what the U.S. was like in the prehistoric era, look no further than John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon. "This area offers one of the world's most continuous collections of fossils and other geological features from the Tertiary Period, which spanned between five and 50 million years ago," Jessica Schmit of the travel site Uprooted Traveler tells Best Life.

Schmit explains that the monument is divided into three main units, but Painted Hills is the most famous of the trio. "Here, you can explore five hiking trails that weave around and between enormous striated hills, painted with vibrant shades of green, red, and orange," she says. "These colors are remnants of significant and sudden climate change in the area some 30 million years ago."

According to the NPS, the three units at John Day Fossil Beds are between one and two hours apart, but you can also take in the scenery on the drive. If you're hoping to hike, the drive to Clamo or Sheep Rock will be worth it, as both offer a great opportunity to explore our prehistoric past. Clamo and Sheep Rock both "have an impressive collection of fossils, many of which have helped scientists piece together the evolution of dogs, cats, and other mammals," Schmit says.

4
Fort Monroe National Monument

fort monroe national monument
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If you're planning an adventure on the East Coast, check out Fort Monroe National Monument in Virginia, which was officially designated by President Barack Obama in 2011. A haven for history buffs, the fort is known as "Freedom's Fortress," Yuri Milligan, director of media and community relations for the Hampton Convention & Visitor Bureau in Virginia, tells Best Life.

"[Fort Monroe] has a diverse history spanning the American story from American Indian presence, Captain John Smith's journeys, arrival of the first enslaved Africans in English North America in 1619, a safe haven for freedom seekers during the American Civil War, and a bastion of defense for the Chesapeake Bay through the 21st Century," Milligan says, adding that it is also the largest stone fort ever built in the U.S.

Even if you aren't into American history, there's more to explore at this site, including a public beach, several places to eat, a Visitor & Education Center, and the Casemate Museum, Milligan says.

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5
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

grand staircase-escalante national monument
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Another national monument that should claim a spot on your bucket list is Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. According to Avichai Ben Tzur, publisher of the in-depth travel guide website X Days In Y, those who enjoy desert scenery and taking road trips will be particularly enthralled by Grand Staircase.

"This Southern-Utah national monument is wedged between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks, extending over 1.8 million acres of sandstone canyons, plateaus, cliffs, and unique rock formations," he explains. "The immense national monument is perfect for a one-day visit for travelers heading to Moab from Bryce Canyon, or on an extended stay that allows discovering some of the monument's gems."

Ben Tzur recommends visiting in the early fall or late spring when temperatures are a bit cooler and you can enjoy stopping at Head of the Rocks Overlook or hiking to "the desert oasis of Lower Calf Creek Falls." Looking to take a drive? He also suggests heading to Hells Backbone.

"Because of its size and lack of extensive tourist infrastructure, Grand Staircase receives just a fraction of the visitor numbers that flock to its neighboring national parks," Ben Tzur tells Best Life. "However, those who seek to get off the beaten track and experience Southern Utah without the crowds will cherish their visit."

6
El Morro National Monument

el morro national monument
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Head to western New Mexico and you will find El Morro National Monument. For hundreds of years, this site offered refuge for travelers thanks to a "reliable waterhole" at the base of the monument's sandstone bluff, according to the NPS. Fred Baker, senior travel editor of Travelness, says this monument is not to be missed, as it's truly a "hidden gem."

El Morro "offers visitors stunning views of natural sandstone formations, as well as a glimpse into the history of the area," he says. "El Morro was once a popular stopover point for Spanish conquistadors and early American settlers, and today, visitors can still see the petroglyphs and inscriptions left behind by these early travelers."

Much like Grand Staircase-Escalante, Baker suggests planning your visit in the fall or spring, when you'll have cooler weather and fewer crowds. You can take advantage of all the hiking and walking experience, namely the Inscription Trail, Headland Trail, and Atsinna Trail. "However, regardless of when you visit, El Morro is sure to leave a lasting impression," he says.

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7
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve

craters of the moon national monument
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Just as its name suggests, Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho is truly otherworldly—even the NPS describes it as "weird and scenic."

"The park contains a variety of different volcano types such as cinder cones as well as splatter cones which are caused later in the eruption cycle," Anwar Y of the travel blog Beyond my Door, explains. "The park is massive, and the majority of the park is actually wilderness. Visitors can even visit 'wild caves,' which are lava tubes that require you to navigate a bit more on your own to travel within."

Wildflowers and other vegetation bloom in the late spring and summer, he adds, and you should be able to see a majority of "the road accessible park" in one or two days. Unlike some of the other national monuments, Craters of the Moon should also be on your list of winter destinations, thanks to all that there is to do.

"In the winter, the park closes the roads and allows cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and hiking," Anwar Y tells Best Life. "Visitors can even hike up volcano cones and ski down if they prefer."

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