My Favorite National Park Service Sites (That Aren’t National Parks)

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The National Park Service maintains 59 different national parks in America spanning nearly all 50 states. BUT, did you know that there are also more than 350 other sites that the NPS takes care of, too? These range from monuments to memorials to historic sites to lakeshores to battlefields and more.

National Mall in Washington, DC

So many people focus on the 59 national parks when they talk (or even think) about the National Park Service. Which, I understand since America's national parks are incredible. I mean, have you SEEN places like Yosemite or Zion? But I wanted to do something a little different to celebrate the National Park Service today.

Instead of telling you about my favorite national parks, I want to share with you some of my favorite NPS-managed sites that AREN'T national parks!

My Favorite National Park Service Sites that aren't National Parks

Here they are, in no particular order:

Devils Tower

Devils Tower deserves the first spot on this list simply because it was the first National Monument in the United States. Designated in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt, Devils Tower is impressive simply because it looks so completely out of place. The 867-foot stone butte literally towers over the surrounding landscape in northeast Wyoming; there's nothing else quite like it in this part of the Black Hills.

Devils Tower is sacred to local Native American tribes, too, and their names for it include “Bear's House” or “Bear's Lodge.” When you visit, you can learn all about the native stories that surround the weirdly-shaped tower.

Where: Near Hulett, Wyoming

How much: $20 per car

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz is most well-known for the maximum security prison that operated on the island from 1933 to 1963. Before that, the island within sight of downtown San Francisco also served as a military prison, a fort, and a lighthouse. Today, visitors can take guided tours of the old prison with a park ranger to learn about its history and legacy.

Alcatraz

Where: San Francisco, California

How much: Starting at $33 for a day tour (includes ferry transfer)

RELATED: The Two Sides of Alcatraz

White Sands National Monument

Located in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico, I think that White Sands National Monument could be one of the most underrated NPS sites in the U.S. The monument consists of roughly 275 square miles of rolling gypsum sand dunes which look like snow under direct sunlight.

The desert environment here is fascinating (scientists call it the “Desert Galapagos” because of how plants and animals have had to adapt to live here), and the photo opportunities of white dunes against a backdrop of shadowy mountains are endless.

Sunset at White Sands

Where: Near Alamogordo, New Mexico

How much: $5 per person

RELATED: White Sands: The Most Underrated National Monument?

Perry’s Victory and International Peace Monument

How much do you know about the War of 1812? You might remember that it was fought between the U.S. and Britain (and Canada and many Native American tribes) over who would “get” Canada. But did you know that there were naval battles on the Great Lakes during this war? One of the biggest was the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813, in which Commodore Oliver Perry and his U.S. fleet managed to defeat a British fleet and take control of Lake Erie.

The monument in Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island commemorates both the battle and the peace that has existed among the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom since then. And the views from the top? They can't be beat!

The view from the top of the monument

Where: Put-in-Bay, Ohio

How much: $5 to ride the elevator to the top of the monument

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes

The National Park Service manages recreation areas and lakeshores, too, and one of my favorites so far is the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan. The Sleeping Bear Dunes tower up to 450 feet here, leading down to the Caribbean-blue-colored water of the lake. There's a beautiful 7-mile drive (the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive) along the shore with a few lookouts, or you can just take to the dunes on foot.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Where: Near Glen Arbor, Michigan

How much: $15 per vehicle

RELATED: Conquering the Sleeping Bear Dunes

National Mall and Memorial Parks

National Mall in Washington, DC
WWII Memorial with the Washington Monument in the background

If you're heading to Washington, DC, there's a very slim chance that you WON'T visit an NPS-managed site. The entire National Mall and its iconic memorials are all run by the National Park Service. This includes the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, WWII Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, among others. Just make sure to wear good walking shoes – the Mall is huge!

Korean War Veterans Memorial
Korean War Veterans Memorial

Where: Washington, DC

How much: All of the memorials are outdoors and free to visit; it's also free to go up the Washington Monument, but you need a ticket to do so (online reservations cost $1.50 each)

San Juan National Historic Site

Old San Juan city walls

Old San Juan in Puerto Rico is a popular tourist destination in its own right, but it's the old historic forts and city walls on the island that the National Park Service is in charge of.

Different countries (the U.S., Spain, Britain, France, the Netherlands) fought for centuries over the island of Puerto Rico, and at one point roughly 3 miles of city walls surrounded and protected Old San Juan. Most of the walls are gone now, but visitors can still visit both Castillo San Cristóbal and Castillo San Felipe del Morro.

Castillo de San Cristóbal

Where: San Juan, Puerto Rico

How much: $5 per person

Wright Brothers National Memorial

Wright Brothers National Memorial

You've probably heard of the Wright brothers – it's thanks in part to them that I can travel as much and as far as I do today! Wilbur and Orville Wright were responsible for the first manned and powered airplane flights in the world in North Carolina, in December 1903.

Today, their accomplishment is commemorated by a 60-foot-tall memorial atop Kill Devil Hill and a small museum and visitor center. In between the memorial and the visitor center, you can actually walk in the “footsteps” of those very first flights, following small stone monuments in the grass that mark the beginning and end of each one. You'd be surprised at how short those first flights were – the first one, for example, was less than 150 feet!

Where: Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina

How much: $7 per person

World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument

USS Arizona Memorial

You probably know this monument by a different name: the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. When Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, the USS Arizona battleship exploded and then sank right in the harbor, trapping 1,177 sailors aboard as she went down.

The destruction of the USS Arizona battleship and the immense loss of life associated with her sinking came to symbolize the reason the U.S. was fighting in WWII in the months and years following the attack. The memorial is absolutely beautiful, and the rest of Pearl Harbor is worth visiting, too.

USS Arizona Memorial

Where: Honolulu, Hawaii

How much: The USS Arizona Memorial is free to visit – you just need a ticket; the other attractions at Pearl Harbor have entrance fees

RELATED: Travel Guide: Visiting Pearl Harbor

Colonial National Historical Park

Historic Jamestowne
Historic Jamestowne

Want to go way back in American history? Then you'll have to head to some of the the first colonies in the New World. The Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia covers Historic Jamestowne (the first permanent English settlement in North America) and the Yorktown Battlefield (site of the last major battle of the Revolutionary War).

I'm not a huge fan of battlefields, but Jamestowne is pretty cool. And, while you're in the area, you can hit up the rest of the Historic Triangle and visit Colonial Williamsburg, too.

Where: Jamestown and Yorktown, Virginia

How much: $14 will get you entry to both NPS sites

RELATED: American Roots in Virginia's Historic Triangle

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Located in east-central Oregon, the John Day Fossil Beds comprise of three separate “units.” The most famous of the three is the Painted Hills Unit, where the hills really do look as though they've been painted in hues of orange and yellow. They're also full of well-preserved layers of fossil plants and mammals, which is where the “Fossil Beds” in the monument's name comes from.

There's a scenic drive to take through the park, as well as a handful of short trails to hike around the hills. Go in the late afternoon or right before sunset for the best colors.

Where: The Painted Hills are 9 miles northwest of Mitchell, Oregon

How much: $0 – this one's free to visit!

Oklahoma City National Memorial

Oklahoma City

The Oklahoma City National Memorial is an outdoor symbolic memorial on the former site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which was bombed in one of the only acts of domestic terrorism in the US on April 19, 1995. The memorial consists of a reflecting pool and a field of 168 empty chairs, representing the 168 victims of the bombing.

The memorial is very moving, but it's really the adjacent museum that is worth the extra time here. The museum walks visitors through the hours leading up to and the weeks following the bombing, and is one of the best museums I think I've ever been to.

Oklahoma City Memorial

Where: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

How much: The memorial is free to visit; the museum costs $15

Pecos National Historical Park

I haven't been to nearly enough Native American sites in the U.S. One of the first I visited out in the Southwest was Pecos National Historical Park, though, and it remains a National Park Service site that I continually recommend to people.

The park is located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains not far from Santa Fe in New Mexico and consists of the remains of Indian pueblos. The main attraction is what's left of Pecos Pueblo, which is also a National Historic Landmark.

Where: Pecos, New Mexico

How much: Free!

This of course isn't an all-inclusive list – there are more than 350 of these non-national-park sites, after all! But these are some of my favorites that I've visited thus far, and I hope you've enjoyed learning about them!

What are some of YOUR favorite National Park Service sites that aren't national parks?

 

The best National Park Service sites

 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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