When people plan their national parks road trips, they often overlook some of the best units, like national monuments, battlefields, and seashores. For many outdoor adventurers, the focus is understandably on the 63 national parks, which offer many world-class opportunities like Grand Canyon NP, Yellowstone NP, and Zion NP. But the National Park Service manages a total of 424 units, across all 50 states, totaling over 132,000 square miles. In fact, if all NPS units were combined into a single continuous piece of land, it would be the fifth-largest U.S. state, just after Montana. That’s a lot of adventure potential!
Within those 424 NPS units, there are about 20 different designations, ranging from national historic sites to national memorials to national recreations areas. The most abundant type of designation is national monument, currently at 83, which are created by presidential decree. The remaining types are established by acts of congress. Sometimes a unit will start as a national monument, or other designation, and later be redesignated as a national park. Most recently, this occurred with Gateway Arch NP, New River Gorge NP, and White Sands NP.
Depending on your interests, not all NPS units are made equal. For example, some national monuments are massive, having the scenery, trails, and campgrounds more commonly associated with national parks. Other national monuments are smaller, perhaps protecting a single attraction, like a dramatic rock formation, an ancestral ruin, or a historic building. The same proves true for seashores, recreation areas, historic parks, and other units. Ultimately, you have to learn more about each unit to decide which ones to visit. In this post, we’re going to discuss three types of NPS units, national monuments, battlefields, and seashores, including which ones you’ll definitely want to visit. You will no doubt walk away with some amazing roadtrip ideas!
With 83 national monuments to choose from, picking which ones to visit can be quite challenging. Because we’re a national park blog, we’re going to focus on sharing those monuments offering the best outdoor recreation, like hiking, camping, scenic drives and overlooks, and other adventure opportunities. Hopefully, the units below will give you some road trip ideas when planning your next national parks vacation.
Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah is at the top of this list. Covering 328 square miles, “Dino” has two units. The more popular to visit is the southern Utah unit, located near the town of Vernal. Highlights include scenic drives, hiking several short trails, viewing petroglyphs, and camping at park campgrounds. Another draw is the views of Split Mountain, where the Green River emerges from a narrow canyon through a stunningly upturned mountain. Whitewater rafting trips, from one to several days on the Green River, include fun rapids through excellent canyon wilderness. Originally established in 1915 to protect the famous dinosaur quarry, today the Quarry Exhibit Hall is an enclosed museum preserving an intact fossil bed, where dinosaur bones protrude from a stone cliff-face. Dinosaur NM makes a great stop on a road trip to Utah’s Mighty 5 or the Southwest’s Grand Circle.
Devils Tower National Monument in the Black Hills of Wyoming is another worthy unit to consider. The monument is centered on the mysterious Devils Tower formation, composed of thousands of hexagonal rock columns rising 867 feet high. Called Bear Lodge by local Native Americans, the tower is most likely the remnants of an ancient lava conduit that solidified underground. While extreme adventurers focus on climbing Devil’s Tower, most visitors hike loop trails around the formation’s base (note: you can only see the top of Devil’s Tower if you climb it). There are also trails through quieter parts of the monument, a campground, and the opportunity to view fields of prairie dogs.
Devils Tower NM makes a good stop on a road trip to Yellowstone NP and Grand Teton NP. The monument can also be combined with nearby destinations like Jewell Cave National Monument in South Dakota. Other great SD attractions include Badlands NP, Wind Cave NP, and Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills. The latter destination is often considered a monument of presidents, featuring the faces of four historic American figures, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt carved into solid granite.
Craters of the Moon in Idaho is a national monument and preserve worth checking out. This 1,177 square mile unit protects an otherworldly landscape of lava flows, cinder cones, and sagebrush. Highlights include driving a scenic road, hiking short trails, scrambling up cinder cones, and camping in a small campground amid a lava field. Located 4.5 hours west of Jackson, WY, Craters of the Moon NMP can be combined with trips to Yellowstone NP and Grand Teton NP.
Rounding out our list of national monuments, here are a few more options to consider during your road trip across America. Muir Woods NM in the San Francisco Bay Area offers the chance to walk through a primeval grove of old growth coast redwoods. Natural Bridges NM in Utah protects three impressive archways with a scenic drive and hiking trails. And if you’re contemplating a road trip to East Coast national parks, consider a detour to New York City for the Statue of Liberty National Monument. The colossal Statue of Liberty was a gift from France in the late 19th century, and today it’s one of the most visited units in the NPS system.
There are eleven national battlefields in the NPS system, along with four national battlefield parks, nine national military parks, plus other war-related units with various designations. Most of these units preserve the locations of major battlefields or fortifications from conflicts fought on U.S. soil, including the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the American Indian Wars, and World War II.
To learn about the Revolutionary War, consider Cowpens National Battlefield and Kings Mountain National Military Park in South Carolina and Moores Creek National Battlefield in North Carolina. To learn about the War of 1812, consider the River Raisin National Battlefield Park in Michigan.
Because of the expansive and bloody nature of the conflict, there are dozens of NPS sites related to the Civil War. A few of the more popular sites are Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland, Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee, and Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
To learn about the American Indian wars, NPS sites include Fort Larned National Historic Site in Kansas and Fort Laramie National Historic Site in Wyoming. While only a few battles of World War II happened in the U.S., two related NPS sites are Pearl Harbor National Memorial and Aleutian Islands World War II National Historic Area, which preserves a fiercely contested battleground in Alaska.
There are ten national seashores in the NPS system. One of the top choices is Point Reyes National Seashore on the Pacific Coast in Northern California. This 110-square-mile unit sees about 2.5 million visitors every year, offering a wide variety of recreational opportunities, forested landscapes, and rugged coastline to explore. With over 150 miles of trails, two favorite activities are hiking and backpacking, which allows access to the unit’s only camping at backcountry sites. Coastal sea kayaking is a challenging but rewarding adventure, with guided trips available. Given the prevalence of park wildlife, many animal enthusiasts consider Point Reyes to be a miniature Yellowstone-by-the-sea.
Worlds away, just off the Atlantic coast, Cumberland Island National Seashore protects the largest barrier island in Georgia. Accessible only by ferry, most visitors come for day trips from the town of St. Marys. Once on the island, there are miles of undeveloped beach, tangled salt-pruned oak forests draped in Spanish moss, and sandy trails and roads for hiking and biking. Camping, backpacking, and sea kayaking are also possible.
Want a complete list and recap of all our US National Parks as well as free downloadable maps and other great resources? Check out our US National Parks List and Map guide!
Cover photo: Point Reyes National Seashore. Jeremy Francis/Adobe