8 National Monuments with Amazing Stories to Tell

Panoramatic view of famous volcano Mount St Helens, Credit Dreamstime

by Matt Wastradowski

Back in early 2006, I saw my first-ever photo of the Painted Hills—one of three disparate units that comprise the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Eastern Oregon. I’d never heard of the Painted Hills and figured the image—depicting hillsides covered in angular layers of black, red and yellow—must have been Photoshopped. Even when a friend insisted otherwise, I had my doubts.

I visited a few years later and, at long last, gazed upon the otherworldly landscapes for myself. Colorful halos topped soft domes of ancient dirt, rust-colored gradients knifed through sloping hillsides, and wheat-hued bluffs contrasted sharply against the brown-green forests beyond the Painted Hills’ borders. 

That visit was my introduction to national monuments: federally protected areas recognized for their myriad values, whether scenic, cultural or historic. The John Day Fossil Beds, for instance, were designated a national monument for their surreal landscapes and collection of fossils that date back more than 40 million years. In Montana, meanwhile, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument recognizes a momentous battle between Native Americans and the United States Cavalry.

Whatever the reason, this selection of sites across the Pacific Northwest highlights the region’s natural history, cultures, beauty and more. Entire books could be devoted to each, but I selected these eight especially significant national monuments because they tell some of the Northwest’s most important stories.


Misty Fjords National Monument, Credit Dreamstime

Misty Fjords National Monument, Alaska

You could spend a lifetime cruising, flightseeing and driving around Alaska—and still never see all the state’s natural beauty. But a trip to Misty Fjords National Monument in the Tongass National Forest—flanked by crystal-clear lakes, thundering waterfalls, snowy mountains, scenic fjords and lush valleys—distills that wonder into one rugged destination.

From Ketchikan, visitors can explore “The Mistys,” as they’re commonly known, in a number of ways. One of the easiest and most popular is via floatplane, with some trips including a water landing for a short hike to experience this wilderness on the ground. Day cruises, meanwhile, provide up-close looks at the monument’s many natural wonders. More adventurous travelers can take day-long and multi-day kayak trips. All afford the chance to see bears, moose, river otters, orcas and other species of wildlife that frolic in the rainy monument.

When planning, note that tours of all kinds are typically available between late spring and early fall. Advance reservations are highly recommended.

Learn more at fs.usda.gov/visit/destination/misty-fjords-national-monument. Plan your stay in Ketchikan at visit-ketchikan.com.


A paleontologist works on a fossil skull to stabilize it before beginning, removal. Credit NPS

Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, Idaho

To visit the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument is to step back in time. The monument occupies a rocky grassland along the Snake River in south-central Idaho; three million years ago, however, the area teemed with wetlands, verdant forests and a rich variety of wildlife—from saber-toothed cats and mastodons to beavers and birds. 

Get a feel for that fascinating history at the monument’s new Thousand Springs Visitor Center, offering fossil displays, interpretive panels, and ranger talks just 90 minutes southeast of Boise and 45 minutes northwest of Twin Falls.

Away from the visitor center, attractions include the 6.5-mile (round-trip) Emigrant Trail (where hikers can view Oregon Trail wagon ruts), a five-mile scenic drive that affords sweeping vistas of the wider Hagerman Valley and excellent birdwatching at the monument’s Snake River Overlook.

Learn more about the National Monument at nps.gov/hafo. Plan your stay in Boise at visitboise.com and Twin Falls at twinfallschamber.com/visit.


Indian Memorial dedicated on June 25, 2003. Credit Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Montana

In the mid-1800s, the United States government began forcing Native Americans onto newly created reservations across the country—and away from their hunting grounds, fishing villages and ancestral homelands. As those efforts continued into the 1860s and 1870s, tribes fought back against the oppressive reservation system. 

No clash was more famous than the Battle of Little Bighorn, where members of the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes (led by Sitting Bull) defeated the U.S. Calvary (commanded by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer).

Today, that battle (commonly called Custer’s Last Stand) is memorialized at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, which occupies a grassy hillside roughly one hour southeast of Billings. There, a visitor center details the conflict through interpretive panels, artifacts and artwork; a 4.5-mile driving tour visits the sites of two battles; and memorials honor those who fought and died in the struggle. A short walk from the visitor center is Last Stand Hill, where the historic battle ended. 

Visit the National Monument’s website for more information at nps.gov/libi. Plan your stay in Billings at visitbillings.com.


John Day Fossil Beds Painted Hills. Credit Dreamstime

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon

More than 40 million years of history come alive at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Eastern Oregon, where three disparate units tell a captivating story that covers ancient forests, colorful hillsides and (of course) the monument’s namesake fossils.

The most popular is the Painted Hills Unit, where visitors view vibrant, striated hillsides from roadside viewpoints and along five mostly easy hiking trails that total just under 3 miles.

Roughly 45 minutes east is the Sheep Rock Unit, where rock formations date back some 95 million years. Learn about that history—and peer into a lab where scientists study fossils today—at the unit’s Thomas

Condon Visitor Center. Pair your visit with a hike along the Blue Basin and Island in Time trails (totaling 4.5 miles), which head above (and into) a colorful canyon of seafoam green rock formations.

The northernmost of the monument’s units, roughly 90 minutes from the others, is the Clarno Unit, home to towering rock formations and well-preserved fossils—all visible from along a trio of hiking trails, each a quarter mile long.

Time a visit to late spring or early fall to avoid scalding summer temperatures, and give yourself two to three days to visit the entire monument.

Check nps.gov/joda for more information about the John Day Fossil Beds. Since this National Monument covers so much territory, go to visiteasternoregon.com to plan your trip.


Mt St Helens Erupting 5-18-1980, Credit US Forest Service

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Washington

Many Cascade Range volcanoes welcome visitors for year-round hiking, skiing, climbing and camping—but none highlight the region’s explosive past quite like Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted—sending ash, rock and ice thousands of feet skyward and hundreds of miles away. When the eruption ended after nine hours, the mountain had lost one-third of its height and the remaining slopes were covered in thick layers of mud and debris.

A visit to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument today provides a glimpse of rebirth and renewal in the surrounding forests, lakes and the nascent meadows.

In May 2023, a landslide at the Mount St. Helens National Monument destroyed a bridge on Highway 504, the only way in an out of the area that’s home to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, the Monument’s main interpretive center. The road is closed at mile post 43 and will remain closed indefinitely. To learn the status of the road closure and access to Johnston Ridge Observatory, visit the U.S. Forest Service website at fs.usda.gov/recarea/giffordpinchot/recarea/?recid=31562.

In the meantime, the Windy Ridge Interpretive Site offers excellent viewing of the volcano and surrounding blast zone. Find information about and directions to Windy Ridge at fs.usda.gov/recarea/giffordpinchot/recarea/?recid=81498.

Go to fs.usda.gov/recarea/giffordpinchot/recarea/?recid=34143 for more information about Mount St. Helens. Visit visitmtsthelens.com to plan your stay in the area.


Turn Point Lighthouse, Credit Vantage Point Photography

San Juan Islands National Monument, Washington

San Juan Islands National Monument was established in 2013 and comprises roughly 75 bluffs, rock formations, reefs, bays and even small islands across the wider San Juan Islands region.

These smaller sites, typically found away from tourist hotspots, offer plenty of solitude for admiring the islands’ towering forests, spying the snow-capped crest of the Olympic Mountains, and watching for a mix of resident and migrating orcas feasting on the region’s salmon runs. 

Highlights are numerous but include Blind Island on the north side of Shaw Island (where visitors arriving by human- or wind-powered watercraft can pitch a tent for the night), Cattle Point at the southern tip of San Juan Island (which hosts an oft-photographed lighthouse, resident seals and sea lions and panoramic views of the Olympic Mountains) and—at the southwestern edge of Lopez Island—the quiet Watmough Bay (home to a small, pebble-covered cove for swimming, scenic hiking trails, and excellent wildlife-watching).

Find more information, including a comprehensive catalog and maps, about all the sites that are part of this National Monument at blm.gov/programs/national-conservation-lands/national-monuments/oregon-washington/san-juan-islands. Plan your visit to the San Juan Islands at visitsanjuans.com.


A Park Rangers shows visitors drapery formations inside the room, Paradise Lost. Credit NPS

Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve, Oregon

Deep within the Siskiyou Mountains sits the Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve—a regal cave complex of marble and limestone that poet Joaquin Miller dubbed the “Marble Halls of Oregon.”

You can experience the grandeur of the caves between spring and early fall via one of four ranger-led tours that involve stairs and a bit of stooping—but no crawling or intense caving. The Discovery Cave Tour heads through marble passageways and into a massive room 220 feet below the surface, Candlelight Cave Tours evoke a bygone era with lanterns, a family-friendly tour is geared toward children 13 and younger, and the off-trail tour is a crash course in basic caving.

The nearest large community is Grants Pass—a scenic, one-hour drive away. Also note that the final four miles of Highway 46, the only road leading to the Oregon Caves, is curvy and narrow—so RVs and trailers are not recommended.

Learn more at nps.gov/orca. Plan your stay in Grants Pass at visitgrantspass.com.


Newberry National Volcanic Monument, Credit Dreamstime

Newberry National Volcanic Monument

The largest volcano by volume in the Cascade Range sits in the heart of Central Oregon, extending 75 miles north to south and 27 miles east to west. Newberry is a shield volcano, shaped by several eruptions over the last 400,000 years. It covers 1,200 square miles, roughly the size of Rhode Island. More than 400 cinder cone volcanoes and vents cover its surface, looking less like a solitary volcano than a nesting doll of volcanic ranges within volcanic ranges. 

The Volcanic Monument has several access points: Lava Lands Visitor Center, roughly 10 miles south of Bend and next to the 500-foot Lava Butte cinder cone; the popular Lava River Cave (tip: visit midweek for fewer people); Lava Cast Forest Trail; and the caldera at Paulina Lake, with the 7,984-foot Paulina Peak, a visitor center, lodge, campgrounds and more. 

That rare chance to see lava flows, numerous peaks, a massive caldera and other volcanic features—all while actually on an active volcano—gets at the heart of what makes Newberry so special. John Ceballos, lead ranger for the Butte Zone at the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, says, “A lot of volcanoes are, for a lot of people, an abstract idea or something they view from a distance—where you can look at it and appreciate it, but not interact with it. But when you come to Newberry, you can really engage directly with these incredible forces, and that leaves a really lasting impact.”

Find more information at fs.usda.gov/recarea/deschutes/recarea/?recid=66159. Go to visitcentraloregon.com to plan your stay in Central Oregon.