Chiricahua National Monument

America’s nation­al mon­u­ments have been under the spot­light late­ly due to efforts to both save and elim­i­nate a few of them. With over 100 Mon­u­ments spread across the coun­try you prob­a­bly haven’t heard of, we thought now would be a good time to high­light some of the least visited.

Chiricahua National MonumentChir­ic­ahua Nation­al Mon­u­ment, Arizona
The Chir­ic­ahua Nation­al Mon­u­ment in Ari­zona is a des­ig­nat­ed wilder­ness acces­si­ble by foot and horse­back. It con­tains rough­ly 17 miles of day-use trails for the intre­pid explor­er with var­i­ous forests, mead­ows and tow­er­ing rock pin­na­cles to wind through. Though ille­gal, we hear it’s also pop­u­lar with climbers; we don’t rec­om­mend tempt­ing fate or the author­i­ties with that one, though. Oth­er­wise, it’s a won­der­ful, unique mon­u­ment with fas­ci­nat­ing rock for­ma­tions and great hikes like the Echo Canyon Trailhead.

Aniakchak National MonumentAni­akchak Nation­al Mon­u­ment, Alaska
Ani­akchak Nation­al Mon­u­ment sees few­er vis­i­tors than even Cape Krusen­stern, aver­ag­ing less than 300 a year. Access to the park is not easy, requir­ing a com­bi­na­tion of fly­ing, boat­ing and back­coun­try hik­ing very few can com­plete. That, com­bined with a large num­ber of wolves and griz­zlies in the region make most poten­tial vis­i­tors weary of mak­ing an attempt. If you can hack it, you’ll be reward­ed with an exten­sive array of hik­ing up Vent Moun­tain along with sport fish­ing and epic raft­ing in the Ani­akchak Riv­er. The region is also home to the 2,000-foot deep vol­canic caldera to explore.

Organ Pipe Cactus National MonumentOrgan Pipe Cac­tus Nation­al Mon­u­ment, Arizona
Organ Pipe Cac­tus was most­ly closed to the gen­er­al pub­lic for 11 years due to it being con­sid­ered the most dan­ger­ous nation­al mon­u­ment in the coun­try. Its loca­tion next to the bor­der of Mex­i­co made it a prime stomp­ing ground for the drug trade, so hik­ing here was pret­ty unsafe. Now that it’s reopened, it pro­vides some of the country’s most scenic hik­ing trails. The sur­round­ing Puer­to Blan­co Moun­tains and Alamo Canyon con­tain dozens of hik­ing trails as well as camp­ing spots where you can spend the night. Organ Pipe is in the heart of the Sono­ran Desert and con­tains unique wildlife you won’t find any­where else; it’s the only place on Earth you can find the cac­tus for which it’s named.

Cape Krusen­stern Nation­al Mon­u­ment, Alaska
Cape Krusen­stern is one of the most remote regions in the Unit­ed States and is locat­ed along 70 miles of the Chukchi Sea in Alas­ka. Get­ting there is no easy task and only the most expe­ri­enced back­coun­try explor­ers should even attempt it. Once there, how­ev­er, you’ll find the 540,000-acre mon­u­ment is loaded with Eski­mo arti­facts dat­ing back 5000 years and plen­ty of natives still liv­ing in the region. The wilder­ness is as rugged as it gets with blis­ter­ing win­ter colds pre­sent­ing the biggest threat, but dur­ing the sum­mer months, it’s a great place to explore the rolling lime­stone hills and coastal plains pep­pered with lagoons. Cape Krusen­stern is also kayak­ing heaven.

Buck Island Reef Nation­al Mon­u­ment, Vir­gin Islands
The U.S. Vir­gin Islands are vir­tu­al­ly teem­ing with adven­ture, though not a lot of peo­ple choose to wade into the Buck Island Reef Nation­al Mon­u­ment. The region is a spec­tac­u­lar spot for those who enjoy spend­ing time on the water. The coral grot­toes are per­fect for snor­kel­ing through­out the day, while fur­ther off­shore there’s plen­ty to dis­cov­er for scu­ba divers at the two des­ig­nat­ed moor­ings. If you pre­fer to stay above water you’ll find great oppor­tu­ni­ties for hik­ing and bird watch­ing through­out the area.

Redwood National Park

From sea to shin­ing sea, the Unit­ed States boasts some of the world’s most diverse and beau­ti­ful wild places. More than 640-mil­lion acres of these belong to and are beloved by the Amer­i­can peo­ple. This is where you love to hike, climb, kayak, and camp. But how much do you know about it? What’s the dif­fer­ence between a nation­al park and a nation­al for­est? And who’s in charge of all that land? Here’s a quick guide.

national parkTypes of Pub­lic Land
Lucky for out­door junkies, we’ve got tons of choic­es when head­ing out for a week­end of wilder­ness bliss. While there is a huge range of high­ly spe­cif­ic pub­lic land des­ig­na­tions, from wildlife refuges to nation­al trails, let’s focus on three major types: Nation­al parks, nation­al mon­u­ments, and nation­al forests.

The most icon­ic pub­lic lands are our nation­al parks. Start­ing with Yel­low­stone in 1872, some of the world’s most stun­ning wilds are pre­served with­in the system’s 58 parks. These are cur­rent­ly some of the best-pro­tect­ed lands we’ve got. It takes an act of Con­gress to cre­ate one.

Many of the parks were nation­al mon­u­ments first. Under the Antiq­ui­ties Act, a pres­i­dent can set aside pub­lic lands with­out a con­gres­sion­al act. Nation­al mon­u­ments are deemed to be his­tor­i­cal­ly valu­able. The most recent was cre­at­ed in December.

Nation­al forests are a slight­ly dif­fer­ent game. While huge swaths of for­est are indeed pro­tect­ed for pub­lic recre­ation or preser­va­tion, our forests are also con­sid­ered sites for log­ging, min­er­al extrac­tion, and oth­er nit­ty-grit­ty activ­i­ties that don’t align with peace­ful visions of pris­tine nature.

national parkWho’s in Charge? 
Broad­ly, the Depart­ment of the Inte­ri­or and the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture are respon­si­ble for fed­er­al­ly owned lands.

With­in The Depart­ment of the Inte­ri­or, three sep­a­rate bureaus over­see dif­fer­ent types of fed­er­al land: The Bureau of Land Man­age­ment, the Nation­al Park Ser­vice, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Bureau of Land Man­age­ment oper­ates in the west­ern states. Most of the land the BLM administers—about an eighth of the total land­mass in the country—is con­tained with­in the west­ern states. And a lot of it is the stuff that home­stead­ers couldn’t eke a liv­ing from. BLM land has dif­fer­ent func­tions. From pro­tect­ed nation­al mon­u­ments to graz­ing land and min­ing oper­a­tions, the bureau has a mas­sive task on its hands.

The Nation­al Park Ser­vice admin­is­ters, of course, our Nation­al Park sys­tem, plus a host of oth­er land units, includ­ing nation­al mon­u­ments. Its hun­dreds of sites include nation­al parks, nation­al mon­u­ments, his­toric sites, trails, and wilder­ness zones.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice is the only agency with a pri­ma­ry mis­sion of pro­tect­ing plants and wildlife. The folks at Fish and Wildlife enforce the Endan­gered Species Act and pro­mote con­ser­va­tion. More than 93-mil­lion acres of Nation­al Wildlife Refuge sites fall under its jurisdiction.

The Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture con­tains the U.S. For­est Ser­vice. The For­est Ser­vice man­ages 193-mil­lion acres of nation­al forests, grass­lands, and tall­grass prairie.

Redwood National ParkPre­serve or Conserve?
Back in 1905, the first For­est Ser­vice Chief, Gif­ford Pin­chot, advo­cat­ed con­ser­va­tion of resources over preser­va­tion of wilder­ness. What’s that mean? For Pin­chot, wise use was the key to a healthy, pro­duc­tive envi­ron­ment, but the resources con­tained there­in weren’t off-lim­its from human use. One of Pinchot’s most famous oppo­nents was John Muir, who argued for preser­va­tion, lim­it­ing inva­sive human activ­i­ty, espe­cial­ly huge-scale projects like dams that change the whole char­ac­ter of the land.

The argu­ment between wise use and leav­ing nature alone to do its thing with­out any human inter­ven­tion remains a big struggle.

Even those areas we view as sacred to our nation­al wilds have his­tor­i­cal­ly been man­aged in some ques­tion­able ways. Whether by human-cre­at­ed spec­ta­cles like the old Fire­fall at Yosemite or by inter­ven­tions at Yel­low­stone to pro­mote up-close and unnat­ur­al wildlife encoun­ters for human enter­tain­ment, we are a species that likes to meddle.

Thank­ful­ly, mod­ern envi­ron­men­tal­ism has giv­en us a broad­er view. We’re start­ing to fig­ure out that less manip­u­la­tion is bet­ter. And that even the process of tak­ing resources from the land should be as non-inva­sive as pos­si­ble, keep­ing our land great for gen­er­a­tions to come.

Great Basin National Park

Plan a trip to Yel­low­stone or Yosemite and you’re like­ly to see as many humans as ani­mals. While these icon­ic regions are not to be missed, our Nation­al Park sys­tem offers plen­ty of hid­den trea­sures, too. Check out some of these equal­ly dynamic—but-less-visited—parks.

gates of the arcticGates of the Arc­tic, Alaska
Cari­bou, griz­zly, wolf, and moose all make them­selves at home here amid one of Alaska’s most dra­mat­ic land­scapes. If you’re a self-suf­fi­cient adven­tur­er who longs to expe­ri­ence the pris­tine Arc­tic envi­ron­ment in all its beau­ty, this is one of the best places in the world to real­ize your fantasy.

Just be aware that no por­tion of this park is that vis­i­tor friend­ly, which accounts for its low vis­i­tor tal­ly. There are no guest ser­vices, no neat­ly marked camp­sites. Not so much as a trail dis­turbs the wilder­ness. To reach this remote place, you’ll have to hike in, ford­ing rivers in the process.

northern cascadesNorth Cas­cades, Washington
Some pre­served places are so far off track, just get­ting there is a quest. But if you’re seek­ing alpine back­coun­try, abun­dant glacial activ­i­ty, and plen­ti­ful wildlife, you don’t real­ly have to sac­ri­fice all ameni­ties. North Cas­cades is just about three hours from Seat­tle and fea­tures trails and des­ig­nat­ed camp­ing spots. Vis­i­tors get a first­hand view of a cli­mate in transition—scientists do lots of research here on glac­i­er melt—as well as a dose of splen­did iso­la­tion. Despite all its acces­si­bil­i­ty, this park is still among the least vis­it­ed in the system.

Great Basin National ParkGreat Basin, Nevada
Unex­pect­ed diver­si­ty is on full dis­play at Great Basin. Rang­ing from the sum­mit of Wheel­er Peak to the foothills, this park has plen­ty of sur­pris­es. Here you’ll dis­cov­er forests of bristle­cone pine (the old­est tree species on the plan­et) and a host of aston­ish­ing cav­erns to be explored. Great Basin is also a par­adise for star-gaz­ers, where you can spot fan­tas­tic astro­nom­i­cal activ­i­ty over the clear, dry Neva­da skies.

Isle Royale National ParkIsle Royale, Michigan
This diminu­tive island in enor­mous Lake Supe­ri­or offers vis­i­tors the gift of iso­la­tion. Con­sist­ing of one main island and 450 small­er ones, Isle Royale is a par­adise for kayak­ers, Scu­ba divers, and oth­er explor­ers. Pulling ashore in your kayak or canoe, you’ll be wel­comed by the teem­ing wildlife. Lush­ly forest­ed, Isle Royale is home to moose and wolves, conifers and ferns. Although far few­er species are rep­re­sent­ed here than on the main­land, the iso­la­tion of the park makes vivid encoun­ters like­ly. Even dur­ing peak sea­son, you might avoid meet­ing anoth­er human on your excur­sion. Dur­ing the win­ter, the storm-and-snow-buf­fet­ed island is almost exclu­sive­ly the ani­mals’ domain.

Congaree National ParkCon­ga­ree, South Carolina
Nation­al Parks high­lights some of our nation’s most rare and spe­cial wild places. Con­ga­ree is no excep­tion, encom­pass­ing the last remain­ing and the biggest por­tion of old growth bot­tom­land hard­wood for­est remain­ing in the Amer­i­can south­east. It’s also a thriv­ing flood­plain ecosys­tem, which owes its bio­di­ver­si­ty to the nat­ur­al ebbs and flows of the Con­ga­ree and Wateree Rivers. Explor­ing here is noth­ing short of a bio­log­i­cal and geo­log­i­cal delight.

dry tortugasDry Tor­tu­gas, Florida
Don’t let the word “dry” in its name fool you: More than 99 per­cent of this park is under the sea. If you’re look­ing for a vis­it to a warm-water par­adise, Dry Tor­tu­gas is your per­fect match. Snor­kel­ing, div­ing, swim­ming, and boat­ing are prime choic­es for explo­ration. A Tech­ni­col­or vari­ety of fish and plant life beck­ons. But the human mark on Dry Tor­tu­gas is fas­ci­nat­ing in its own right. The island was home to Fort Jef­fer­son, a valu­able post for patrolling ships of yesteryear.