4 Secret treasures of the National Park Service for your family to discover
National monuments rarely grab the attention or attendance records of national parks like the Great Smoky Mountains or Grand Canyon. That’s exactly why savvy families should seek them out. Unspoiled and uncrowded, national monuments are worth a stop along the way. As my family has discovered, these gems even can outshine their national park cousins.
The major difference between national parks and national monuments is the manner in which they’re created. National parks are preserved through an act of Congress. The majority of national monuments have been created by a presidential proclamation through power granted in the Antiquities Act of 1906 to protect their historic, prehistoric or scientific interest.
KidTripster Tip: Despite being national monuments and not national parks, all these monuments have Junior Ranger programs. Stop at the visitor center to pick up your child’s booklet.
Here are four national monuments worth a visit.
1/Mount St. Helens National Monument, Washington
With a two-hour drive from Portland, Oregon, or a three-hour drive from Seattle, getting to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument does take some effort. However, the ability to witness firsthand the effects of a fairly recent cataclysmic event like the eruption of Mount St. Helens is truly memorable.
You’ll want to start your visit at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, the visitor center nearest the crater. I’d recommend going straight inside to view the video recounting the events leading up to the eruption on May 18, 1980. At the end, there’s a big reveal; I don’t want to ruin the surprise! Then venture outside to see the swelling lava dome that volcanologists continue to monitor on a daily basis.
Now as you drive back down the mountain toward the Science and Learning Center at Coldwater, you’ll be able to fully appreciate the landscape around you, formed by the resulting avalanche and mudslide. The center is an excellent spot for a picnic, overlooking the blue waters of Coldwater Lake, and a hike through the meadows of colorful wildflowers.
While Mount St. Helens can be approached from the south and east via winding roads, I’d recommend the western route off Interstate 5 via Route 504, especially if you’re short on time.
Seaquest State Park offers distant views of the mountain (maximum RV site length of 50 feet); there’s also a wide variety of commercial campgrounds in the area.
The monument has an 8.6-mile loop that you can hike to view all three bridges. However, our family opted for the trail to Sipapu Bridge. A little over a mile roundtrip with an elevation gain of 500 feet, this trail has three ladders, stairs, switchbacks, and a short steep section of slickrock. Its variety will delight your kids. Best of all, we never saw a single soul.
And what a payoff at the end! Sipapu is the largest and most stunning of the three bridges. (It’s the second largest natural bridge in the world behind Rainbow Bridge at Glen Canyon.) The opening nearly could fit the dome of the United States Capitol. Its Native American name means “the place of emergence,” an entryway by which the Hopi believe their ancestors came into this world. The bridge is considered middle-aged, older than Kachina but younger than Owachomo. Formed thousands of years ago by a river - not wind (like arches) - Sipapu will completely erode someday and collapse as part of the endless cycle of change. Best to get here before it happens.
KidTripster Tip: Bring a lunch or snack and sit in the Gambel's oak grove at the base of Sipapu.
There’s a 13-site campground without hook-ups for tenters and RVers (vehicles 26-feet and under) at the monument. Alternatively, you’ll find a number of commercial campgrounds in nearby Bluff and Monticello.
3/Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, Idaho
In 1969, Apollo 14 astronauts Alan Shepherd, Edgar Mitchell, Eugene Cernan, and Joe Engle visited the monument for a lesson in volcanic geology as part of their moon mission training. Since only a limited amount of material could be brought back from the Moon, it was critical that the astronauts knew enough about geology to select the most scientifically-relevant specimens.
Craters of the Moon is made up of approximately 60 lava flows (with examples of both a’a and pahoehoe lava) and 25 cinder cones. After climbing to the top of Inferno Cone, you and the kids will be rewarded with a spectacular view of the 1,100-square mile preserve, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island.
The monument is best visited in the early or late part of the day to view the subtle color variations in the rocks and cinder cones. You’ll also have a better chance of seeing wildlife including mule deer and marmots. To fully appreciate this monument, take advantage of the ranger programs. I highly recommend the two-mile Buffalo Caves hike, where you’ll see nearly every type of volcanic activity and vegetation that the monument has to offer. At the halfway point, rangers will lead you into a lava tube for an underground tour. Caves also can be explored on your own.
KidTripster Tip: Make sure to wear closed-toed shoes at this preserve, as the rocks can be sharp.
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument consists of three units in Eastern Oregon - Clarno, Painted Hills, and Sheep Rock. Visiting all three units in a single day is a difficult task and not recommended, especially with kids in tow.
The Sheep Rock Unit is home to the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, the best place to see animal and plant fossils from the Age of Mammals over 40 million years ago. After stopping at the visitor center, hike one of the trails to see the blue-green claystones of the Blue Basin. Along the way, my young paleontologists inspected some fossils that had been left in place for all to enjoy and eagerly looked for new discoveries.
The Painted Hills are simply stunning. With changes in light and moisture levels, the hills’ tapestry of red, orange, yellow, and green hues weave together a dynamic landscape of indescribable beauty. In the spring and summer months, a vibrant array of wildflowers add to the scene. The trails here are easy and accessible. For the best photographic conditions, plan to visit in late afternoon.
The Clarno Unit is 18-miles west of Fossil and a bit more difficult to reach. The Palisades are the most prominent landform. Here, fossils from tiny four-toed horses, rhino-like brontotheres, and crocodilians have been unearthed along with an incredibly diverse range of ancient plant life.
KidTripster Tip: Short on time? Sheep Rock and the Painted Hills can be done in one day. Skip Clarno.
Clyde Holliday State Recreation Site along the John Day River provides an excellent home base. It has more than 30 sites with electricity and water. But for real fun, stay in one of the tepees!
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah travels to national parks and monuments with her husband and two sons. She’s logged thousands of miles behind the wheel of the family’s RV.