Least-Visited National Monuments
You’re probably familiar with National Parks, a source of well-earned pride among many Americans. But did you know that, hidden among the Yellowstones and Joshua Trees, there are hundreds of different types of sites boasting their own natural wonders and historical significance?
National Monuments are important lands and waters set aside for preservation, typically by presidents who are unable to bestow similar status to National Parks or National Historic Sites. Perhaps the most famous sites are the Statue of Liberty in New York and Muir Woods just north of San Francisco. But hundreds more exist — and many of them are hardly visited at all.
Here’s a guide to the least-visited National Monuments in the U.S. (including one that welcomes just 100 visitors a year!) — and why you should add them to your bucket list.
30. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
Location: New Mexico (198 miles northwest of El Paso, Texas)
Annual visitors: 79,108
If you’re looking for a remote desert adventure, it’s hard to beat Gila Cliff Dwellings, established in 1907. The cliffs were used for shelter for millennia by nomadic people until the late 1200s, when the Mogollon Culture built up the caves into proper dwellings. They abandoned the area after only a few decades, but their story lives on in the cave walls.
The site also contains ruins from the Mimbres Culture; one of the more dramatic features is Cliff Dweller Canyon, with 46 rooms spread among five caves.
The cliff dwellings are part of the Gila Wilderness, which became the world’s first protected wilderness on June 3, 1924. This means motorized vehicles and even bicycles are not allowed within its boundaries. But there are several campgrounds along the one small highway that lead to it.
Gila is also accessible from Tucson, Ariz. and Albuquerque, N.M., but El Paso is the closest large city.
*All figures are from 2018, updated in 2019
29. Pipestone National Monument
Location: Minnesota (48 miles northeast of Sioux Falls, South Dakota)
Annual visitors: 73,267
This quarry in southwestern Minnesota is hallowed ground for Plains Indians. For centuries, they mined the brownish-red catlinite, or pipestone, to make pipes for religious ceremonies. It’s unclear how long mining has taken place here, but by the time the United States was expanding westward in the 1800s, these pipes made their way into the hands of white settlers.
This led to the Yankton Sioux Treaty in 1858 that protected the pipestone. However, the Yankton Sioux eventually sold their claim to the U.S. government in 1928, having relocated their reservation decades earlier. Pipestone National Monument was then designated in 1937.
Quarrying and pipe-making continue today, and the methods and tools used to do so are largely unchanged. That makes this national monument a terrific destination for the hands-on adventurer or family, and the small town of Pipestone just south of the site offers lodging and dining options.
28. Homestead National Monument of America
Location: Nebraska (103 miles southwest of Omaha)
Annual visitors: 68,091
Homestead National Monument in the heartland of the country explores a fraught period of U.S. history in which 10 percent of the entire United States was given away to homesteaders. The Homestead Acts of the mid-1800s undeniably shaped the America we know today — but they were not without significant controversy.
Freed slaves were told they could obtain and farm their own land only to find out that the vast majority of it went to white settlers — who in turn were taking away American Indian lands. Some claims were also dubious, since the government largely relied on the honor system and iffy witnesses to prove a land claim.
At the national monument, which was dedicated in 1936, visitors will be surrounded by some of the first acreage claimed under the acts. And the Homestead Heritage Center is not shying away from the history, with exhibits delving into the impacts on prairie ecosystems, American Indians, government land policy, agriculture and immigration.
27. Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve
Location: Oregon (188 miles south of Eugene)
Annual visitors: 67,417
Just north of the California-Oregon border in the remote wilderness of the Siskiyou Mountains lies the 4,500-plus acre Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve. It was dedicated in 1909 a few years after the passage of the Antiquities Act to protect such lands.
The caves are made from marble, giving them a sort of gooey, oozing look. And although carbon dating has estimated that humans lived in the area as far back as 8,500 years ago, there’s no evidence suggesting anyone ever used the caves. They were first discovered in 1874, and attempts to turn them into a tourist attraction largely failed.
Today, there are several options for guided tours to learn about Oregon’s “marble halls,” including family-oriented outings, candlelit treks and off-trail excursions through tight spaces not for the faint of heart.
There are 17 walk-up campsites available on the grounds and an inn just down the road from the main entrance, along with other campsites nearby.
26. Capulin Volcano National Monument
Location: New Mexico (200 miles northeast of Santa Fe)
Annual visitors: 67,411
Designated in 1916, Capulin Volcano has not erupted since long before that — some 60,000 years ago, which is actually considered recent by volcanic standards. The area surrounding the Sentinel of the Plains was hunting ground for both paleo-indians and American Indians. It became cattle-grazing land in the mid-1800s and remains so today.
Visitors take a winding roadway up to the top and can hike down into the mouth or around the rim of the volcano, which is 1 mile in circumference. From that unobstructed vantage point, you can see parts of five different states — New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and Colorado — and a volcanic field containing at least 100 other volcanoes and ancient lava flows.
There is an RV park and campgrounds just south of the volcano in the tiny town of Capulin.
25. El Morro National Monument
Location: New Mexico (119 miles west of Albuquerque)
Annual visitors: 65,453
Here lies the remains of a pueblo that once sat atop a sandstone mesa and was home to some 1,500 people living in more than 800 rooms — and a literal oasis in the desert, as the site contains a large pool of water. But what brings visitors to the area are the thousands of carvings in the sandstone left by travelers over the centuries.
Its national monument status in 1906 also outlawed further etchings in the sandstone, but El Morro offers more than enough ancient signatures, dates, messages and petroglyphs to delight visitors. For instance, the signatures of Spanish Conquistadores sit next to the petroglyphs of American Indians.
Ranger-led tours unearth the history and mystery surrounding the site, and there are several campgrounds nearby to make an extended trip out of it.
24. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
Location: Arizona (53 miles southeast of Phoenix)
Annual visitors: 62,995
Casa Grande Ruins mark an ancient Sonoran Desert community and its extensive irrigation canals. But today, you certainly won’t mistake this area for an American Indian village or trading post, what with the Walmart Supercenter across the street.
Located in the small city of Coolidge, Arizona, Casa Grande features guided tours, arts and crafts demonstrations, and educational archaeology outings for the whole family. “Casa Grande” refers to the four-story structure gracing the site that is thought to have been abandoned by 1450 but that has stood for some seven centuries. The site was designated a national monument in 1916.
23. Navajo National Monument
Location: New Mexico (188 miles northwest of Albuquerque)
Annual visitors: 61,195
As its name might suggest, Navajo National Monument is located in the middle of the Navajo Reservation, which spans parts of New Mexico and Arizona. It was dedicated in 1909 and features stunning natural formations of the ancient Tsegi Canyon, plus human-built structures such as Pueblo buildings carved from sandstone that appear almost hidden in the landscape. The area’s three cliff dwellings — Keet Seel, Betatakin and Inscription House — date to the 1200s.
Archaeologists believe a significant drought lasting more than 20 years led to the abandonment of the area, but Hopi Indian legend says it was more of a spiritual quest that led the people of the area to migrate elsewhere.
The visitor center contains a museum, and there are ranger-led tours available for part of the year. Campgrounds are walk-up only.
22. Chiricahua National Monument
Location: Arizona (117 miles east of Tucson)
Annual visitors: 60,577
Chiricahua National Monument, which was designated in 1924, features the telltale hoodoos and balancing rocks of the American Southwest in abundance, and they’re truly something to behold. It’s no wonder this site is called the Wonderland of Rocks, as the formations appear like gigantic statues carved by Mother Nature herself.
This large national monument contains miles of hiking trails, which rangers will help you navigate with free maps. Campsites can be reserved, and the Faraway Ranch can be explored via a guided tour. The ranch house was built by the Erickson family, who successfully lobbied to preserve the area via federal designation.
The monument covers a small portion of the Chiricahua Mountains, which are notable for being the site where famous Apache chief Geronimo fought white settlers for the last time before surrendering in 1886.
21. Effigy Mounds National Monument
Location: Iowa (100 miles north of Cedar Rapids)
Annual visitors: 55,576
Built by the Woodland Culture in the first millennium, the sacred Effigy Mounds are of great significance to 20 different American Indian tribes. The monument contains more than 200 mounds depicting various animals, and 31 are considered effigies.
These types of earthworks are common throughout the Midwest. Some were constructed for burial purposes; uses for others in the shape of long rectangles are unknown. They might have been used as territorial boundaries between tribes or for ceremonial purposes. The most common animals depicted in the mounds are bears and birds.
The monument, which was designated in 1949, contains a visitor center and museum. The park itself has no paved roads, but there are 14 miles of hiking trails. Ranger-led hikes and prehistoric tool demonstrations take place during summer. Situated along the Mississippi River, the grounds are thick with forests, tallgrass prairies and wetlands.
20. Aztec Ruins National Monument
Location: New Mexico (180 miles northwest of Albuquerque)
Annual visitors: 54,933
The Aztec Ruins aren’t actually Aztec at all. White settlers in the 19th century mistakenly called them that even though the ruins are in fact an Ancestral Puebloan village along their migration route dating from the 11th to 13th centuries. Nevertheless, the name stuck and the area was dedicated as a monument in 1923.
A trek through the ruins reveals original timber-roof beams and fingerprints preserved in mortar of the people who built these structures. The Great Kiva house has been reconstructed, offering a glimpse into an ancient past. These engineering achievements earned the site World Heritage status.
Rangers help visitors navigate the half-mile self-guided tour and also lead tours in summer. The visitor center contains a museum. The ruins are near the small town of Aztec, which offers lodging, dining and camping options.
19. African Burial Ground National Monument
Location: New York City
Annual visitors: 45,035
This site might be located in America’s largest city, but the African Burial Ground receives some of the fewest visitors of any national monument and was only designated as such in 2006. The visitor center has been open since 2010.
The monument is the country’s largest known colonial cemetery for Africans, most of whom were enslaved, and today contains the remains of more than 400 people buried during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was first discovered in 1991 during excavation for an office-tower project in Manhattan’s Civic Center area. Initially, the remains of more than 15,000 Africans were unearthed.
Despite its sordid history, the discovery of the burial grounds reshaped our understanding of early New York City. And now the site serves to protect the important legacy of African Americans, some free but most enslaved, in the development of the city.
Tours are mostly self-guided, but rangers will lead visitors and large groups through the monument free of charge.
18. George Washington Carver National Monument
Location: Missouri (158 miles south of Kansas City)
Annual visitors: 44,411
This monument was dedicated in 1943 as the first for a black American and a non-president. It is the location of George Washington Carver’s boyhood home and the site also contains the Moses Carver house and Carver cemetery. Carver would ultimately become a renowned scientist, educator and humanitarian, but it was here where he first cultivated his love for nature.
Visitors will find an interactive educational exhibit for youths featuring a model of one of Carver’s labs at the Tuskegee Institute. There is also a nature trail and museum for visitors to explore and get a better sense of the natural majesty of the area.
17. Hovenweep National Monument
Location: Utah (354 miles southeast of Salt Lake City)
Annual visitors: 40,574
Hovenweep is part of the greater Canyons of the Ancients that straddles Utah and Colorado and contains the largest concentration of archaeological sites in the entire country, mostly Ancestral Puebloan ruins.
People have inhabited the area of Hovenweep for at least 10,000 years, and the sprawling village of Hovenweep was once home to 2,500 ancient Puebloans. The structures contained within it date from the 1200s to 1300s. Some of the structures are multi-story towers that rest atop boulders, and the skill and precision of those who built the village are evident in the remains. It was designated a monument in 1923.
Walk-up camping is available within the monument. And although the area is quite remote, many more national parklands and attractions are nearby.
16. Tonto National Monument
Location: Arizona (109 miles northeast of Phoenix)
Annual visitors: 39,822
Located within the vast Tonto National Forest, this monument was dedicated in 1907 to preserve two cliff dwellings of the Salado Culture. The area is notable for the Salado Phenomena in which, seven centuries ago, the lifestyles and teachings of two distinct American Indian cultures merged to form a unique and vibrant society.
While the monument is part of the arid Sonoran Desert and sees sparse annual rainfall, it’s also within the Salt River Valley that provided a much-needed water source for early inhabitants to farm the lands. The river also creates an abundant ecosystem supporting native trees, flowers and other flora.
Salado people were also renowned craftsmen, creating impressive polychrome pottery and woven textiles that are revered in Southwestern culture. Visitors can see some of these artifacts in the museum.
15. Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument
Location: New Mexico (93 miles southeast of Albuquerque)
Annual visitors: 34,629
This site is comprised of three Spanish missions dating back to 1622, the most significant being the Gran Quivira, which is one of the most revered ruins in the Southwest and the most expansive complex of Christian temple ruins in the U.S. The origin of the “Quivira” name is unknown, although at the time it represented the idea of a great and wealthy city.
The monument, dedicated in 1909, holds a certain mystique. The Milky Way, for one, shines brightly over the area at night. Spaniards thought it was the perfect place for their missionary efforts, but by the late 1670s it was completely abandoned by both settlers and American Indians.
Thanks to its intriguing past, the site is an ideal place for history buffs in particular to visit.
14. Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument
Location: Xenia, Ohio ( 16 miles southeast of Dayton)
Annual visitors: 31,448
March 25, 2013 marked the culmination of decades of struggle and hope that one day the legacy of Col. Charles Young, who was black, would be forever preserved in American history. Perhaps the long wait until President Barack Obama dedicated this site as a National Monument was fitting for a man who endured extreme racism and inequality to become one of the nation’s most important and influential military men.
Young was a leader of the Buffalo Soldiers, who comprised regiments formed by the U.S. government when the military was segregated during and after the Civil War.
The monument’s low attendance figures are likely due to the fact that the site is currently open by appointment only.
13. Buck Island Reef National Monument
Location: Caribbean Sea (just north of St. Croix)
Annual visitors: 31,411
Buck Island Reef has been under U.S. government protection since 1948 and was expanded in 2001. It offers snorkelers and divers a marine garden of Caribbean Sea life. The eastern tip even has an underwater trail marked by signage.
Wildlife is in great abundance in and around the island, which is not inhabited by people. The beach on the west side of the island is one of the world’s most active turtle-nesting areas.
The monument is only accessible by guided tour so as to ensure preservation of the sensitive ecology. Those efforts include encouraging visitors to use non-toxic, reef-safe sunscreen and rash guards while swimming around the island.
12. Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument
Location: Idaho (105 miles southeast of Boise)
Annual visitors: 26,477
There are fossilized remains of some 200 species of horse in Hagerman, the most famous of which is a species considered to be Idaho's original wild horse, featuring a bone structure like the modern-day zebra.
This monument was dedicated in 1988 and has international significance because it contains the richest known fossil deposits in the world from the late Pliocene epoch some 3.5 million years ago.
Visitors will see fossils of the last plants and animals that existed before the Ice Age, and the earliest examples of modern flora and fauna. Other fossils of interest include mastodons, saber-toothed cats and bone-crushing dogs (so named for their powerful jaws).
11. Pipe Spring National Monument
Location: Arizona (88 miles northwest of Grand Canyon National Park)
Annual visitors: 25,179
If not for Pipe Spring, life would not be able to survive this harsh desert climate. Pueblo and Kaibab Indians used the spring’s water for at least 1,000 years, and Conquistadors on the Old Spanish Trail discovered it for their own use in 1829. Mormon missionaries would eventually give it the name Pipe Spring in 1858.
The monument, which was fully protected in 2000, serves as a means to share the history of human settlement in the area and how it was impacted by the spring. Several ranger-led programs are offered, such as one exploring the historic Winsor Castle, which was built by Mormons starting in 1870.
10. Booker T. Washington National Monument
Location: Franklin County, Virginia
Annual visitors: 22,732
This is the site where the influential author, presidential advisor, orator and generational black leader Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in 1856. The monument showcases Washington's life and achievements while also acknowledging the history of 1850s slavery and farming on the property, a tobacco farm owned by the Burroughs family. It was dedicated in 1956.
Washington lived in a small cabin on the property with his mother and two half-siblings. He would later say he remembered the day in 1863 when a Union soldier read aloud the Emancipation Proclamation on the porch of the main house.
In order to purchase the site for preservation, Congress issued the first coin to feature a black person, a half-dollar displaying the likeness of Washington.
9. Russell Cave National Monument
Location: Alabama (42 miles southwest of Chattanooga, Tennessee)
Annual visitors: 21,620
This cave, which was primarily used as a winter shelter by prehistoric American Indians, contains an incredibly thorough record of the South’s prehistoric culture.
It’s Alabama’s third-longest mapped cave at 7.2 miles, and although caving is forbidden now, visitors can enjoy numerous trails on the grounds. The area is also part of the North Alabama Birding Trail, making it an ideal stop for bird-watchers.
Guided tours of the cave are offered to those seeking a more thorough education, and the Native American Festival is held the first weekend of May.
8. Fossil Butte National Monument
Location: Wyoming (145 miles northeast of Salt Lake City, Utah)
Annual visitors: 21,349
Fossil Butte is known as America’s Aquarium in Stone due to the fact that 27 species of fish have been identified in fossils in the area. Dozens of other animals are also fossilized, and it’s the high quality of these fossils that draw (albeit not many) visitors to the monument.
In fact, this area is considered to be one of the world’s best examples of the early Cenozoic Era, the current geological period that stands for “new life.” The 50-million-year-old Green River Formation indicates that the region was once a subtropical freshwater basin.
The limited private property around the monument, which was dedicated in 1972, is still a hotbed for fossil seekers.
7. Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
Location: Nebraska (northwest part of state)
Annual visitors: 16,238
Popular with paleontologists, Agate is one of the most significant Miocene Epoch mammal sites in the world. Miocene is perhaps most famous for being the period when the ancestors of humans diverged from the ancestors of chimpanzees, although the most prevalent fossils found at Agate are horses.
The monument was established in 1997 and its museum contains over 500 Plains Indians artifacts from the collection of Capt. James Cook, who once owned a cattle ranch on the site.
The area is largely grass-covered plains, but visitors will find wildflowers like lupin, spiderwort, western wallflower and sunflowers in abundance.
6. Cape Krusenstern National Monument
Location: Alaska (inside the Arctic Circle)
Annual visitors: 15,087
If you’re going for remote, it doesn’t get much more out there than Cape Krusenstern in the far reaches of isolated Alaska. However, humans have been coming here for at least 9,000 years — and somehow 15,000 of them made the trek in 2017.
This permafrost area is a vast expanse of coastal plains with enormous lagoons and limestone hills. The remnants of a brief gold rush in the 1890s still exist within the monument, which was dedicated in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter.
Wildlife is the main draw for visitors, as more than 150 bird species breed here in the summer and the muskox (named for its strong odor during mating season) roam these flatlands.
5. Cesar E. Chavez National Monument
Location: Keene, California (35 miles southeast of Bakersfield)
Annual visitors: 12,769
Cesar Chavez is widely considered the most important Latino leader of the 20th century, and for good reason. He led the push to organize farmworkers to give them collective bargaining rights and improve their working conditions.
This monument, dedicated by President Barack Obama in 2012, is located near the headquarters of the United Farm Workers organization and is where Chavez spent the last decades of his life. It was here that the farmworker movement became a modern labor union.
The site contains a memorial garden where Chavez and his wife, Helen, are buried, plus a visitor center with photo exhibits and Chavez’s well-preserved library and office.
4. Fort Union National Monument
Location: New Mexico (100 miles northeast of Santa Fe)
Annual visitors: 10,860
This historic site dates back to 1851 and has long been known as the Defender of the Southwest, strategically located near the junction of the Mountain and Cimarron branches of the Santa Fe Trail. Following victory in the U.S.-Mexican War in 1848, New Mexico became a U.S. territory and thus needed to be protected.
Today, Fort Union is a mere shadow of its former self. But its unmistakable adobe walls blend in seamlessly with the desert surroundings, offering visitors a peaceful scene in what was once a bustling military village.
Fort Union was abandoned by the military in 1891 and lost to time until 1956. That’s when a group formed to protect and preserve the site, successfully advocating for National Monument status.
3. Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument
Location: Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.
Annual visitors: 9,081
This historic house and museum holds a special place in the history of women’s equality and to this day remains the headquarters of the National Woman’s Party. It was renamed in 1929 after suffragist icons Alva Belmont and Alice Paul.
The NWP, of course, was instrumental in the passage of the 19th Amendment to prohibit states and the federal government to deny voting rights on the basis of sex.
The building on this site dates back to the mid-1600s, long before Washington, D.C. became a city and the nation’s capital. The NWP acquired it in 1929 after it lost the even more historic Old Brick Capitol to eminent domain. President Barack Obama dedicated the site in 2016.
2. Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument
Location: Texas Panhandle
Annual visitors: 7,415
Surprisingly, up until a few years ago, this was the only National Monument in Texas. (Two have been added since: Military Working Dog Teams National Monument in 2013 and Waco Mammoth National Monument in 2015.)
Alibates was designated in 1965 for its abundance of flint that, for some 13,000 years, had been harvested by hunters and used to create spear points — going all the way back to the days when Imperial Mammoths roamed the land. This flint was so popular for spears that it could be found across the Great Plains and beyond.
The gorgeous rainbow-colored flint is easily accessible in the area, with leftover quarries measuring only 4 to 7 feet deep. But the main draw of Alibates for tourists and archaeologists alike are the stone-walled homes built by the Antelope Creek people that are still standing today and accessible by guided tour only.
1. Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve
Location: Alaska (400 miles southwest of Anchorage)
Annual visitors: 100
If you’ve been to Aniakchak, you’re among a very exclusive group: only 100 people officially visited this site in 2017, making this the least-visited of all the country’s 377 National Park Service sites.
And for good reason. Aniakchak — designated in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter in order to protect the Aniakchak Caldera and the wilderness and wildlife surrounding it — is located on the remote Alaskan Peninsula.
Anyone adventurous enough to brave the cold, wet climate of this area will be treated to stunning horizons and vistas, ancient volcanic craters and an abundance of wildlife such as brown and grizzly bears, moose, caribou, sea lions, seals, other marine life and countless bird species.
Aniakchak Caldera is 6 miles wide, and the last volcanic eruption in the area, in 1931, was the precursor to National Monument status, although it took decades to materialize.