America's best kept secrets: 20 most unique national monuments

Aniakchak National Monument (Alaska).

Credit: NPS, flickr.

America has 120 places protected as national monuments. Every one of these gems has been designated because of its unique historical, geological, biological, scientific or cultural value.

These protected lands also contribute greatly to the economic vitality of nearby communities (White Sands National Monument alone garnered $15.7 million for the local economy in 2008, supporting 308 jobs). Visitors - and their dollars - are drawn to these spectacular places because they offer unique opportunities to experience the splendor of nature, and often of culture as well. 

Some of these wild lands are amazingly remarkable, world class treasures. Here are the 20 most surprising, most spectacular and most obscure National Monuments in our country:

1. White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Photo: Lightning_Todd, flickr

The world's largest gypsum dunefield, White Sands National Monument features very dynamic dunes, which may shift up to 30 feet per year. The pure gypsum is formed from an ephemeral lake with a very high mineral content that evaporates (as much as 80" annually), leaving behind deposits that are carried by wind. Native legend of the Pavla Blanca says that the evening winds are the ghost of Mañuela, who once went in search of her Spanish conquistador lover who died here hundreds of years ago. Visitors can enjoy bike rides, music performances, and other night events during full moons in summer and fall. Be aware that sometimes the site is closed when there is testing at the neighboring missile range. 

2. Devils Postpile National Monument, California.

Photo: Sandip Bhattacharya, flickr.

Devils Postpile National Monument has one of the world's best examples of columnar basalt, with unusually symmetrical columns (about 55% of which are six-sided) that rise 60 feet off the ground, which were formed by volcanic and glacial events. This area also protects the 100-foot tall Rainbow Falls and has an impressive species diversity concentrated in this small area. As the place where the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail connect, this place often hosts "through-hikers."

3. Lava Beds National Monument, California

Photo: NPS

Volcanic activity over the last half-million years has made this place one of geological intrigue. There are hundreds of caves which feature unique crystal ice formations. As one of the longest continually occupied areas in North America, this monument features one of the largest Native American rock art panels, as well as historic battlefields where natives once fought with the U.S. Army. Lava Beds is also a Dark Skies Preserve, so amateur astronomers might want to check out the weekly night sky programs in summer. 

4. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado

Photo: Drew Averyflickr

The Petrified Redwood pictured above is 35 feet around and is estimated to have been 250 feet tall and 750 years old when it was enveloped in volcanic mud 35 million years ago. Florissant Fossil Beds is considered one of the richest and most diverse fossil deposits in the world, with thousands of fossilized plants and insects representing 1700 different species. Visitors can visit the Demonstration Fossil Lab daily and get hands-on paleontological experience. 

5. Prehistoric Trackways National Monument, New Mexico

Photo: BLM New Mexico

This monument hosts a major deposit of Paleozoic Era fossilized footprint megatrackways, and is considered one of the most scientifically significant Early Permian track sites in the world. Footprints of numerous amphibians, reptiles, and insects as well as plants and petrified wood tell stories of life 280 million years ago. Visitors will have to brave desert weather, rough terrain, hostile wildlife, as well as lack of trails and signs (translation: prepare for a one-of-a-kind adventure!). 

6. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Photo: mypubliclandsflickr

With its numerous canyons, plateaus, mesas and cliffs this wild land is well known for its spectacular, colorful geologic formations, as well as its renowned paleontological, historic, archaeological and biological resources. Visitors may spy a number of wildlife gems, including bald and golden eagles, peregrine falcons, California condors, pronghorns, elk, black bears and bighorn sheep. Brave river runners can find real excitement here, as the Class III river presents many unique challenges.

7. Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, New Mexico

Photo: veeseesflickr

“Kasha-Katuwe” means “white cliffs” in the native language of Cochiti Pueblo. The cone-shaped tent rock formations here are the result of volcanic eruptions that happened 6 to 7 million years ago, which spewed incandescent avalanches called “pyroclastic flows”. Visitors may discover volcanic glass fragments, also known as "apache tears", which should be left at the site

8. Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho

Photo: DaveSchumakerflickr

Craters of the Moon National Monument preserves the Great Rift volcanic rift zone and the largest lava field in the U.S. Its huge concentration of volcanic landforms and structures include amazing natural features like vents, fissures, lava tubes, lava bombs, spatter cones, tree molds, rafted blocks and one of the largest purely basaltic cinder cones in the world. There are also over 300 caves of three types and, since there's too much to enjoy here in merely one day, over 50 camping sites.

9. Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming

Photo: Shelby Bellflickr

Devils Tower is a sacred site to numerous native plains tribes and there are several legends about how it was created. While geologists agree that was formed by magma, it remains a mystery how that process took place exactly. The tower is made of phonolite porphyry, crystals that are able to reflect sound. This national monument was the first to be designated, and it has since become one of the best crack climbing areas on the continent. But cracks where prairie falcons nest are closed to climbers. 

10. African Burial Ground National Monument, New York

Photo: wallygflickr

In 1991, as construction began for a new Federal office building in lower Manhattan, workers discovered a forgotten graveyard that held the remains of about 15,000 free and enslaved Africans buried in the late 17th century. Considered one of the most important recent archaeological finds, this circular memorial is home to a wall of remembrance to those who once used this place to maintain and celebrate their ancestral heritage. 

11. Aniakchak National Monument, Alaska

Photo: Buzz Hoffmanflickr

Incredibly remote and known for its severe weather, it is no wonder that this is one of the least visited units of the National Park System in the country. Still those who venture here can experience awe as they witness a six-mile-wide caldera from a volcanic eruption 3,500 years ago. Only the most daring will raft here, but there is prime fishing. Wildlife lovers may see brown bears, caribou, moose, wolves, wolverines, harbor seals, sea lions or eagles. 

12. Buck Island Reef National Monument, US Virgin Islands


The elkhorn coral barrier reef that surrounds the majority of Buck Island has stunning coral formations, cavernous grottoes, beautiful reef fishes as well as sea fans and gorgonians. There are also over 180 native plant species in the tropical dry forest on the land. This special place provides critical nesting habitat for the hawksbill, green and leatherback sea turtles, and is home to several Threatened and Endangered species. In other words, a spectacular place to swim, snorkel and scuba dive. 

13. Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Colorado

Photo: mypubliclandsflickr

With an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 archeological sites, this place undoubtedly has the largest concentration of such in the country. These glimpses into native life include villages, field houses, check dams, reservoirs, great kivas, cliff dwellings, shrines, sacred springs, agricultural fields, petroglyphs and sweat lodges. With many not labeled, apparent or easily accesible, this place is for the true explorer.

14. Castle Clinton National Monument, New York

Photo: flickr4jazzflickr

Even though it welcomes over 3 million visitors a year, making it one of the most visited National Park Service sites in the country, this monument in New York is noteworthy for its varied history. in the past two hundred years, this building has served as a fort, beer garden, theater, aquarium and the first immigration station (predating Ellis Island). Unfortunately, it temporarily closed to visitors after Hurricane Sandy.

15. Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona

Photo: Denny Armstrongflickr

The Chiricahua Mountains are an inactive volcanic range rising to over nine thousand feet. Forested valleys showcase the extraordinary pinnacles, columns, spires and balanced rocks of Chiricahua National Monument, known by the Apaches as "The Land of Standing-Up Rocks". Most of the area is designated wilderness, great for hiking and camping, but visitors can also enjoy a relaxing scenic drive here. 

16. George Washington Carver National Monument, Missouri

Photo: Stephen Connflickr

The first monument dedicated to an American who'd never been president was also the first dedicated to an African-American. George Washington Carver's love for nature is what ultimately drove him to become a famous agricultural scientist and inventor, educator and civic leader. This site highlights the home of his youth, a time marked by numerous tragedies but which formed him into a man of great legacy. 

17. Jewel Cave National Monument, South Dakota

Photo: NPS

The third longest cave in the world, Jewel Cave contains 166 miles of passages. With only about three miles discovered per year, most of the cave still remains a mystery. This monument truly is a world renowned gem, with exquisite cave formations like hydromagnesite balloons, conulites, calcite crystals and fragile gypsum strands. Unlike many caves, Jewel was not carved by underground rivers but rather formed by acid-rich groundwater. Above ground, visitors can hike trails leading through ponderosa forests to limestone cliffs and canyons.

18. Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Photo: paraflyerflickr

Including the second and third longest in the world, the three natural bridges here have the Hopi names of "Sipapu," "Kachina" and "Owachomo." But those aren't the only treasures here. Sandstone basins collect rain water, forming small pools that offer habitat to desert wildlife. Even the soil itself is alive, composed of microorganisms that support desert plants. Those that visit by night might glimpse the grandeur of the Milky Way rising over Owachomo Bridge, the reason this place became the first International Dark Sky Park. 

19. Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, Hawaii

Photo: USFWS-Pacific/James Wattflickr

The largest conservation area in the U.S., and one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world, this monument is also the first mixed UNESCO World Heritage Site in the U.S. Coral reefs here are home to over 7,000 marine species, a quarter of which live only in the Hawaiian Archipelago. Papahānaumokuākea is of great cultural importance to Native Hawaiians, and the Mokumanamana Island has the highest density of sacred sites in the Hawaiian Archipelago. All visitors must obtain a permit. 

20. Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, American Samoa

Photo: lucidlouflickr

At the southernmost point in the U.S., this place has the Samoan name “Motu o Manu,” or “island of seabirds,” and in fact 97% of the American Samoa's seabird population resides here. In addition to important nesting and roosting habitat for 12 species of federally protected migratory seabirds, this place is also home to the threatened green and endangered hawksbill turtles as well as endangered humpback whales. It is one of the most unique and least visited areas of the world, so ideal for scientific research. It is so unique that it is actually off limits to any public visitors.