8 activities you can do at national monuments

Bears Ears National Monument

Mason Cummings

There are more than 100 stunning national monuments across the U.S. that have been preserved for their wild or historic significance. Here are just a few of the activities you can do when you visit them.

Stretching from Maine to New Mexico and Utah to Hawaii, America’s national monuments can be found all over the country, and offer the chance to do everything from exploring ruins and discovering dinosaurs to rock climbing and snorkeling.

These stunning, diverse public lands are now under threat by the Trump administration, which has ordered a “review” of at least 27 national monuments designated since 1996, with an eye towards rescinding or downsizing some.

The U.S. has more than 100 national monuments, which have been protected for their wild or historic significance.

Here are just some of the things you can do when you visit national monuments across the U.S.


Photo: Bears Ears National Monument by Mason Cummings (TWS)

1. Exploring Ruins

Numerous monuments throughout the Southwest allow visitors to take a step back in time. Among them, Bears Ears in Utah was designated just last year by President Obama and faces the most immediate threat from President Trump’s executive order. Bears Ears contains more than 100,000 Native American archaeological sites, including cliff dwellings, underground pit houses and rock art. Its protection was in response to an unprecedented coalition of Native American tribes from the area who joined forces to save these lands and artifacts that they consider sacred. In Colorado, Canyons of the Ancients holds what may be the greatest density of archaeological cultural sites in America, and in New Mexico, the sprawling Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks monument is also cherished for its historical and archaeological sites. 


Photo: Elephant seals at the Piedras Blancas area of the California Coastal Monument, by Mason Cummings

2. Watching Wildlife

Countless national monuments offer unique ways to watch birds and other wildlife. On a visit to Nevada’s Gold Butte National Monument, which was protected by President Obama, you’ll find rare and threatened wildlife such as the Mojave desert tortoise and desert bighorn sheep — and great spots for birding. Among the lush forests and meadows of Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument outside the San Francisco Bay Area, visitors enjoy abundant wildlife, including tule elk, river otters  osprey and bald eagles. And the scenic California Coastal National Monument is home to sea lions, beavers, shore birds and raptors, as well as threatened species like the Behren’s silverspot butterfly and the Mount Point Arena mountain beaver.


Photo: Basin and Range National Monument by Tyler Roemer

3. Rock Climbing

Several national monuments feature breathtaking views and challenging rock climbing. Devils Tower National Monument in southeastern Wyoming, which is considered sacred to the Lakota and other Native American tribes, has hundreds of parallel cracks that make it ideal for climbing. Further west in Nevada, Basin and Range National Monument is perfect for those looking to climb its rugged contours while exploring its vast, rocky landscape. Rock climbers have also added their voices to those working to protect Utah’s Bears Ears, which is known for its rugged natural beauty and remote landscape. Climbing was even specifically acknowledged in the monument’s proclamation in December 2016.


Photo: Katahdin Woods and Waters by Elliotsville Plantation

4. Mountain Biking

In May, the International Mountain Biking Association issued an alert encouraging its members to speak out in defense of the monuments. The group has highlighted the need to protect San Gabriel Mountains, Berryessa Snow Mountain and Fort Ord in California; Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah; and Canyons of the Ancients in Colorado, as well as Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine, where there are mountain bike trail plans under review. Biking is also one of the many popular recreational activities at Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico.


Photo: The "Quarry Wall" at Dinosaur National Monument, Colo., by NPS.

5. Discovering Dinosaurs

Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah is known for its dramatic, colorful landscape, but it’s also riveting because so many dinosaur fossils have been found beneath its scenic surface — including those of a close ancestor of Tyrannosaurus Rex. Dinosaur National Monument, located in Colorado, was preserved back in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson for its historic dinosaur beds. The fossils of Allosaurus, Abydosaurus and various sauropods were discovered there.


Photo: Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, Mont., Bob Wick, BLM.

6. Hunting, Fishing and Gathering

Among the important activities that our national monuments protect are places to hunt, fish and gather. Some destinations for hunting include Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in New Mexico and Upper Missouri River Breaks, which is a prominent location for trophy hunts for bighorn sheep. Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters, where there’s a vital habitat for moose, bears, lynx and Atlantic salmon, is open to hunting and fishing. Gathering firewood and piñon nuts, which is especially important to the Native American communities, is allowed at Rio Grande del Norte and Bears Ears.


Photo: Stonewall National Monument by Razlan, flickr

7. Learning About History

There’s also a wide range of historical and cultural landmarks that have been deemed national monuments — and many of them are under review by the Trump administration. Americans can learn about civil rights at places like Alabama’s Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, which includes several sites that were key to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s; Stonewall National Monument in New York, the first national monument recognizing LGBT rights and history; and the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument in Washington, D.C., which marks the former headquarters of the National Woman’s Party. Americans also have the opportunity to learn about the sacrifices of our military heroes at the World War II Valor in the Pacific, including the sunken USS Arizona; and difficult parts of our history are remembered at the Honoululi Internment Camp and the Minidoka Internment Camp, as well as the Harriet Tubman National Monument in Maryland, which celebrates the great abolitionist’s work on the Underground Railroad.


Photo: Papahānaumokuākea by Greg McFall (NOAA, flickr)

8. Snorkeling and Diving

Designated by President George W. Bush and expanded by President Obama, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii preserves important living laboratories for climate change, the habitat for marine life like tropical fish and sea turtles — and gives visitors the rare chance to tour a national monument underwater by diving and snorkeling. Other marine monuments include the Pacific Remote Islands, located nearly 1,000 miles southwest of Hawaii and host to a large population of sharks, rays and other predatory fish.

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