This article was first published on Medium by Justin and Andreea from Conservation Atlas and some of the text and photos are republished here with their permission. If you’re into nature, the outdoors and environmental protection, I strongly encourage you to check out their website.
From the calm waters of the Missouri River to the lush Pacific Northwest forests of the Cascade and Siskiyou ranges, national monuments in the West cover a wide range of ecosystems and display a diverse array of wildlife and landscapes. If you’re looking for new adventures in 2018, consider adding these beautiful public protected lands to your list, which came under threat this past year.
Many of us head to national parks to get inspired by stunning landscapes, backpack, camp, climb or learn about biodiversity. There are well over 300 million annual visits to the lands managed by the National Park Service (NPS). By comparison, national monuments fly a bit under the radar, despite the fact that their importance, and the beauty and wildness of the landscapes they protect, is equally impressive.
When President Trump announced a review of 27 national monuments, opening them up for potential extractive industries, his actions also triggered a positive reaction: people became more aware of these beautiful public lands, spoke loudly in their favor, read about them in the media, supported local organizations protecting the monuments, and headed out to discover them.
- 10 Adventures in National Monuments of the West
- 1. Be a Citizen Scientist in Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, Oregon/California
- 2. Float Down the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, Montana
- 3. Hike Up Sand Dunes in Mojave Trails National Monument, California
- 4. Take a Driving Tour of Nevada’s Last Wild Valleys in Basin and Range National Monument
- 5. Explore the Slot Canyons of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
- 6. Backpack on a Section of the PCT in the Sand to Snow National Monument, California
- 7. Go Fly Fishing in Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, New Mexico
- 8. Learn About Native Heritage in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah
- 9. Discover the Amazing Geology of Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada
- 10. Observe Wildlife in Carrizo Plain National Monument, California
10 Adventures in National Monuments of the West
Between August and November 2017, we visited twenty national monuments in the West that were on the review list, getting to experience in depth what these places represent. Below you’ll find a selection of ten things to do in national monuments we’ve visited. All of them are or were targeted for changes or reductions in size by the presidential administration, and they need our full awareness and appreciation.
1. Be a Citizen Scientist in Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, Oregon/California
Cascade-Siskiyou is the only national monument designated for its unique biodiversity and ecology. It is a place where different mountain ranges with different geology and biodiversity converge, creating a rich landscape where plants and animals that aren’t normally found living in the same place coexist.
Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument hosts one of the largest diversities of butterflies in the U.S. Pictured here is an Atlantis fritillary.
Sadly, Cascade-Siskiyou is also one of the monuments recommended for a reduction in size, despite the fact that over 200 scientists have argued for an expansion to better protect the amazing ecology of this region. The Friends of the Cascade-Siskiyou group organize annual “BioBlitzes”: events where scientists and volunteers come together to count and observe species of amphibians, butterflies, fungi or conifers. Sign up here for an upcoming one. Events like this or guided trips by local non-profits working in the monument can help you fully experience the place and understand its complexity and importance for science.
A female woodpecker picks through the moss and lichens.
2. Float Down the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, Montana
This monument protects the last free-flowing section of America’s longest river, the Missouri. All the hiking trails within it are only accessible from the river, so if you want to experience the beauty of these landscapes, you’ll have to hop in a canoe and float down for a few days. Most paddlers start at Coal Banks Landing and continue for three or four days down to Judith Landing, or beyond that for eight days all the way to James Kipp.
Our canoe parked for the night at the first campsite after Coal Banks Landing, in Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
Once you find yourself in the middle of this beautiful river, you’ll feel like you’re taking a trip back in time. The serene landscape looks like it’s coming straight out of a painting from the 1805 Lewis & Clark Expedition. This is an experience that will connect the traveler to a time when the American landscape was wilder, despite the cattle that graze along the banks of the Missouri. It’s truly an extraordinary adventure to able to connect with the flow of a river that has been crossing this landscape for millennia.
Prairie dogs at sunset behind one of the campsites.
3. Hike Up Sand Dunes in Mojave Trails National Monument, California
At 1.6 million acres, this national monument is among the largest in the Continental US. It came to be in 2016, after more than two decades of work to protect the ecosystems of California’s Mojave Desert. The monument is a wonderland of rugged mountains, volcanic craters, fossil beds, Joshua trees, and one of the best preserved original sections of the historic Route 66. One of its main features, however, are some of the most beautiful dune fields in the country, resembling those in Death Valley or Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Cadiz Dunes Wilderness in Mojave Trails National Monument.
Within the Cadiz Dunes Wilderness you’ll find a landscape that will take your breath away with every sunset and every sunrise you’ll experience. Head here for a good explanation on how to reach the trailhead to the dunes.
Whether you visit at sunset or at sunrise, the light on the dunes will make for an incredible landscape.
4. Take a Driving Tour of Nevada’s Last Wild Valleys in Basin and Range National Monument
When we spoke to one of the people involved in the creation of this national monument, he told us that the valleys are where we build our highways, farms, cities and so on; and that they are the places through which we think to drive in order to get to the places where we want to recreate in the mountains.
A coyote in Garden Valley.
So, this national monument, dedicated to the vastness of Nevada’s valleys, is less about the impressive mountains surrounding it and more about taking the time to immerse yourself in the beauty of these open spaces. Soon you’ll start feeling like you’re at the edge of an ocean, observing its calming waves. On the more than 700,000 acres there are no designated hiking trails, except for the short walks around sites that harbor numerous petroglyphs. Head here for a full description of the 81-mile dirt road loop and the attractions along the way.
The road through Coal Valley in Basin and Range National Monument was in good shape when we visited in November 2017.
5. Explore the Slot Canyons of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
At almost 1.9 million acres, Grand Staircase-Escalante is a wild land of slot canyons, river gorges, mysterious rock and sandstone formations, and plateaus that hide some of the highest densities in the world of dinosaur fossils. Located in southern Utah, to the east of Bryce Canyon National Park and south of Capitol Reef National Park, this is a place teeming with adventure and recreational opportunities. The dozens of hidden slot canyons will give you the thrill of a lifetime, whether you’re hiking on your own, going horseback, canyoneering or rappelling down with a guide.
Inside the Spooky Canyon.
The diversity of the canyons allows you to choose your type of adventure and level of intensity. This could be a good resource to help you choose a hike, but there are many guidebooks available for purchase, dedicated to hiking the canyons in the monument. On December 4, 2017, the President proclaimed that Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument will be broken in three smaller, disconnected national monuments and will lose 46% of its size.
Many of the slot canyons in the Escalante region are no longer protected under the national monument status. Visiting this place, voicing your concern to your senators and representatives, and supporting the work of those fighting to conserve it is now vital for protections to be upheld into the future.
The scenic route that winds through the Escalante region of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, where dozens of slot canyons are found.
6. Backpack on a Section of the PCT in the Sand to Snow National Monument, California
From the Whitewater Canyon Preserve, managed by The Wildlands Conservancy as a gateway into the national monument, you can go on an overnight backpacking trip along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). You can choose whether you just want to venture out for one night or hike the whole 30-mile distance that the trail covers within the national monument.
On the Pacific Crest Trail.
It’s a strenuous walk with many ups-and-downs and a substantial altitude gain, and that takes you up into the San Bernardino Mountains dominated by the San Gorgonio Peak at over 11,000 feet of altitude. The walk is known as the “Nine Peak Challenge” and it’s a one-way. In the winter, the low-lying landscapes of the desert contrast with the snow-covered ridges and peaks surrounding them.
The Whitewater River is a beautiful sight in the dry desert environment of Sand to Snow National Monument. You can pitch your tent nearby on one of the sandy beaches
7. Go Fly Fishing in Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, New Mexico
The monument was designated in 2013 by President Obama to include the Wild & Scenic Rio Grande River and expand protections to the Taos Plateau and its watershed. The Rio Grande is the state’s lifeline. It’s the largest river in the state, and whose might from the past has been substantially reduced by numerous dams and irrigation systems.
The Rio Grande and the Red River converge in Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. Both are great rivers for fly fishing.
While native species in the river, such as the cutthroat trout, have been severely depleted by introduced species like the rainbow trout, they are now starting to make a comeback along the Rio Grande. The Orilla Verde National Recreation Area in the monument is recognized as one of the most scenic and the best areas for fly fishing. Permits are required and they can be purchased at the Rio Grande Gorge Visitor Center in Pilar, New Mexico. More information here.
There are several steep hikes that can take you down by the river, inside the deep gorge of the Rio Grande.
8. Learn About Native Heritage in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah
Bears Ears is the monument that potentially has suffered the most as a result of the presidential review in 2017. Alongside Grand Staircase-Escalante, it was Utah’s other monument announced to be drastically reduced in size. More than 85% of the original acreage was excluded and Bears Ears was broken up into two smaller national monuments.
The sacred landscape of the Valley of Gods, in Bears Ears National Monument.
Over 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites dot the original 1.35-million-acre monument, and five Tribes worked together to see Bears Ears protected. The website of the Inter-Tribal Coalition for Bears Ears will give you a lot of good information on places to visit. The town of Blanding, UT has a good museum that can provide an introduction into the local native cultures. In Bluff, the Friends of Cedar Mesa organization is working to open up an Education Center which will be a useful resource for visitors.
The original map of the national monument highlights some of the more accessible historic sites, but if you get a chance to sign up for a guided trip you will likely get a much fuller experience of the cultures in Bears Ears.
An Ancestral Puebloan settlement at Butler Wash Ruins.
9. Discover the Amazing Geology of Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada
This national monument, which Secretary of Interior Zinke recommended for a size reduction, is a true gem. If you want to be left without words while admiring some of the most spectacular rock formations, head here. The monument was designated in 2016 and it protects over 300,000 acres of natural and cultural resources that are truly unique to this landscape. Here you can find a relict forest from the Ice Age up in the Virgin Mountains, diverse rock and sand stone formations, bright orange dunes, and a human record spanning over 12,000 years.
A mix of water seeping through the sandstone and the iron deposits are what give color to these amazing formations, in Gold Butte National Monument.
Its remoteness, however, requires plenty of precautions and preparations before heading out. If you want to get the best possible experience, sign up for one of the guided hikes that Friends of Gold Butte organize in the monument. That way you’ll learn about the colors of the rocks, the best places to marvel at what the water and the wind have sculpted, and to respectfully visit sites where ancient tribes have left behind dozens of petroglyphs.
The “Little Finland” area.
10. Observe Wildlife in Carrizo Plain National Monument, California
This place made headlines last year with its super bloom, an explosion of colorful wildflowers which made it look otherworldly. We arrived there in October, long after the spring flowers were gone and the thousands of visitors had left. This is when time seems to slow down to a halt here, yet despite the high summer temperatures, the plain is full of life.
Walking along the large alkali Soda Lake, with the Temblor Mountains in the background.
Carrizo Plain is California’s largest native grassland, crossed by the San Andreas Fault and surrounded by mountains that rose from tectonic activity. The yellow grasses, the soft shapes of hills and mountains which seem covered in velvet, the light at sunset and sunrise, and the wildlife moving across the landscape all help you understand what the California Central Valley was like.
This is the perfect place for observation, for taking a moment to breathe deep and appreciate the diversity that lives in a grassland. Bring a book, binoculars, your camera or just simply sit still looking at the open space. Spending a couple of days in this bliss will get you fully recharged.
The silhouette of the Caliente Ridge at sunset in Carrizo Plain National Monument.
Know what to expect: national monuments managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the by the Forest Service have less infrastructure than national parks, and offer wilder, more remote experiences. Some are in truly rugged places, where you have to be completely self-reliant. Therefore, make sure that you properly and carefully plan some of these adventures in national monuments of the West.
Because these monuments receive much less funding and are more understaffed than national parks in America, any damage we cause or unwanted trace that we leave behind will be harder to erase. Artifacts and archaeological sites are more exposed and their preservation depends on our ability to visit respectfully. Enjoy, appreciate and respect your public lands!
If you enjoyed this post and the photos, go and check out Conservation Atlas, an organization dedicated to the conservation and protection of our planet’s most beautiful and vulnerable places. You can also follow Justin and Andreea on Facebook and Instagram.