Utah's National Monuments

Apr 19, 2018
By: Jake Wilhelmsen

Millions of people travel to Utah each year to tour Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion. And it makes sense. They’re incredible.But Utah has about four states’ worth of other attractions, just as beautiful and usually a lot less crowded. Look through the list of Utah’s national monuments and start planning a road trip. (San Juan County would be a good place to start.)

Golden Spike National Historical Site

Box Elder County

The Union Pacific Railroad met the Central Pacific Railroad at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869, tying America together by rail. Train fanatics and students of manifest destiny can relive this remote section of Utah’s great big moment in U.S. history at the site’s museum, visitor center and live reenactments with replicas of the original Jupiter and 119 locomotives.

Golden Spike National Historical Site

Timpanogos Cave National Monument

Utah County

Climb Mount Timpanogos and you can look out approximately forever. Feeling more introspective? Climb inside the mountain at Timpanogos Cave. Must be part of a guided tour (tickets are $8; available daily from May to September) which will teach you about stalactites, stalagmites, popcorn, helicities, draperies, flowstone and the bats that call them home.

Timpanogos Cave National Monument

Dinosaur National Monument

Uintah County

Kids have notoriously bad judgment regarding clothing, movies and what to do with boogers, but there are two childish preoccupations adults would do well to (re)adopt. First, trampolines. (Have you jumped on a trampoline lately? It’s like you’re flying.) And, second, dinosaurs. Dinosaur National Monument’s world-famous concentration of Jurassic fossils — including some of the best-preserved skeletons ever found — will have you reading illustrated library books by flashlight under the covers when you get home.

Dinosaur National Monument

Hovenweep National Monument

San Juan County

This one’s out there. You might feel like the first person ever to set foot in Hovenweep National Monument, but you’re not. Hunter-gatherers beat you to it by 10,000 years at least, passing through with the seasons, and Ancestral Puebloans settled down there around 900 CE. Visit the six groups of structures these Puebloans left behind, and be sure to stay the night in this International Dark Sky Park.

Hovenweep National Monument

Natural Bridges National Monument

San Juan County

The bridges have Hopi Indian names: Owachomo ("rock mounds") is dangerously delicate; Sipapu ("the place of emergence") is among the longest natural bridges in the world (just behind Rainbow Bridge); and Kachina ("dancer") is a massive hole punched through a gooseneck in Armstrong Canyon. Each is tiger-striped with desert varnish and startling in its own way, posing semi-permanently along the nine-mile loop of Bridge View Drive.

Natural Bridges National Monument

Rainbow Bridge National Monument

San Juan County

Just south of Lake Powell is Rainbow Bridge National Monument, a massive sandstone half-circle the Navajo culture holds sacred as a symbol of deities who bring clouds, rain and rainbows. It was nearly inaccessible to tourists before Glen Canyon was flooded in 1966, but the shores of Lake Powell’s Forbidding Canyon now approach Rainbow Bridge’s long evening shadow, making it just a long boat ride and a short hike away.

Rainbow Bridge National Monument

Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument

Kane and Garfield Counties

A huge variety of formations, ecosystems and world-class paleontological sites exist in the Monument’s three distinct sections: 1. The Grand Staircase rises in broad, tilted terraces of sedimentary Technicolor, like the layers of Utah’s famous Jell-O salad. 2. The Kaiparowits Plateau is wild, arid and remote, rich with canyons and Late Cretaceous fossils. 3. Canyons of the Escalante are the rocky bones laid bare after the Escalante River gnawed through the earth’s flesh.

Grand Starcase-Escalante National Monument

Cedar Breaks National Monument

Iron County

It’s like one of Bryce Canyon’s monstrous (in all the good ways) red rock coliseums grew up and moved out of the house. The rim of Cedar Breaks is 10,000 feet above sea level — that’s 1,000 feet taller than Bryce — and it drops a full 2,000 feet before it bottoms out. Native Americans called it “Circle of the Painted Cliffs,” describing the colorful bands of shale, limestone and sandstone revealed by eons of uplift and erosion.

Cedar Breaks National Monument

Bears Ears National Monument

San Juan County

Come to see what all the fuss is about, stay for the peace and quiet. Utah’s youngest (by designation) national monument is named for a couple of buttes that rise attentively from the horizon. Bears Ears is made up of sandstone canyons, mesas and forested buttes, and protects artifacts such as rock art, ancient dwellings, ceremonial kivas and countless other artifacts from 13,000 years of native civilizations. And the views ain’t nothin’ to sneeze at, neither.

Bears Ears National Monument

Bonus: Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

San Juan County

(This one isn’t a U.S. designation, but we’re including it here because it’s the Navajo Nation’s equivalent.)

Monument Valley is what wind and water can make with enough time and creative license. It’s home to the iconic East and West Mitten Buttes and so many other iconic backdrops from so many iconic John Ford/John Wayne westerns. You’ll see the sky, bigger and bluer than you remembered. You’ll see the earth, red, rough and unpredictable. And you won’t see anything else. Stand stranded at its center, struck by astounding simplicity. It will never happen again.

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

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