12 national monuments that highlight a unique part of U.S. history

You’ve probably seen a few of the big ones: Mount Rushmore, Lincoln’s Memorial or the Statue of Liberty. But beyond the powerhouse attractions, there are a slew of national monuments worthy of your family’s time.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Montana. 

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service (NPS). In addition to the unique and expansive beauty of parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, the NPS also maintains and preserves America’s national monuments and historic sites. There are more than 400 sites across the country, which means that no matter your interests or what state you live in, chances are that there’s one worth visiting nearby.

Many national monuments, from Mount Rushmore to the Statue of Liberty and the presidential monuments in Washington, D.C,. are celebrated American icons. But beyond these powerhouses are a slew of more you might not have considered, each casting a unique spotlight on a facet of American history. Many are staffed with knowledgeable guides and rangers, and boast visitor’s centers and family activities. Each one is worth your time, either alone or with your family, for a unique lesson in American history.

 

Travel tip:

The Junior Ranger Program, is available at most national parks but look online to check if the site you’re visiting has a program. The website also gives you lots of information and activities to prepare your trip in advance. Suitable for ages 5–13 the program is a fantastic way to get children engaged in the story of a particular park or monument, just head to the park’s visitor center to pick up an activity book to fill in during your visit that highlight key facts of the site. After turning in satisfactorily completed forms, they will be sworn in as an official ranger of that monument—and walk away with a shiny new badge to add to their collection.

Federal Hall

New York, New York

Federal Hall, Main Hall, New York City

Federal Hall, Main Hall, New York City. Hemis | Alamy Stock

Nestled in the heart of Wall Street, this site is where George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States; it was also home to the first Congress, Supreme Court, and Executive Branch offices.

The current building was a Customs House and serves as an interactive museum to honor George Washington and the earliest foundations of the United States.

Federal Hall can easily be combined with visits to other national monuments like Castle Clinton, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty, which are all within walking distance. You may also want to check out the Oculus, and World Trade Center memorial while you’re downtown.

26 Wall Street
New York, NY 10005
(212) 825-6990

Open Monday–Saturday from 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.

Free admission

Montezuma Castle

Arizona

Montezuma Castle

Montezuma Castle, Arizona. Steven Reynolds | Flickr

Part of the Sonoran Desert in central Arizona and 45 minutes south of Flagstaff, Montezuma Castle is a stunning example of cliff dwellings built by the indigenous Sinagua people over 900 hundred years ago.

This site is a bit of a misnomer, as Americans mistakenly named it for Aztec emperor Montezuma, who was not part of its construction—nor is it a castle in the true sense of the word. But even though it’s not a castle, the site is an impressive one: the main building has about 20 rooms, is five stories tall, and is carved into a sheer limestone rock face about 90 feet in the air.

Visitors can explore the museum, the trails around the cliffs and learn about the life of the people who lived here during a ranger talk.

Don’t miss Montezuma Well, a natural limestone sinkhole, which also contains dwellings and though several miles away is still considered part of the site.

P.O. Box 219
Camp Verde, AZ 86322
(928) 567-3322 x221

$10 per adult. Children 15 and under free.

Fort McHenry

Baltimore, Maryland

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Fort McHenry National Monument and historic shrine, Fort barracks, Baltimore. RGB Ventures | SuperStock | Alamy Stock Photo

Most people head straight to D.C. for the White House and Lincoln’s Memorial, but the Baltimore area is home to more than its fair share of American history, and this gem is worth a trip. This star-shaped fort inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star Spangled Banner” during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814.

Explore the fort and exhibits, check out the visitor’s center, and even help a ranger raise or lower a replica of “The Star Spangled Banner” flag.

Note: If you are seeking to immerse yourself in the Civil War era, Gettysburg, Antietam, and Harpers Ferry are all within an 80-mile drive.

2400 East Fort Avenue
Baltimore, MD 21230
(410) 962-4290 x250

Park Open Daily from 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.
Star Fort: 9:00 a.m.–4:45 p.m.
Visitor Center: 9:00 a.m.–4:45 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving Day, December 25 and New Year’s Day.

$10 per adult. Children 15 and under free.

Castillo de San Marcos

St. Augustine, Florida

Castillo De San Marcos

Lookout tower on a castle, Castillo De San Marcos National Monument, St.Augustine, Florida. Glowimages | Getty Images

Founded in 1565, St. Augustine is the nation’s oldest permanently occupied European settlement. Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the United States, symbolizes the struggle between the Spanish, English, and Native Americans that eventually led to the creation of the United States.

Take time to explore the fortress and its casements, learn from the park rangers about the life of the colonists who lived here, and perhaps even see a historic re-enactment or weapons demonstration.

If you have time, there are several historic sites within a few minutes’ drive including the Colonial Spanish Quarter Museum and the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum.

1 South Castillo Drive
Saint Augustine, FL 32084
(904) 829-6506

Open daily from 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

$10 per adult. Children 15 and under are free.

Little Bighorn Battlefield

Montana

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Montana. Zachary Frank | Alamy Stock Photo

The Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” took place in 1876 between the 7th Cavalry of the United States Army and the northern tribe Indians, including the Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho.

This site, a sweeping flat landscape, has come to signify the clash of cultures between the industrial United States and the Plains Indians. Visitors can walk the quarter-mile ravine where the battle took place, drive the 4.5-mile loop around the battlefield, see the Indian Memorial and 7th Cavalry monument on Last Stand Hill, and explore the visitor’s center.

756 Battlefield Tour Road
Crow Agency, MT 59022
(406) 638-2621

Hours vary by season. Open at 8 a.m. year-round. Closing varies from 4:30–7:30 p.m. Check the site for details.

Entrance is $20 per car or $10 per person walking or biking. Children 15 and under are free.

Fort Sumter

Charleston, South Carolina

You might remember this spot from your high school history textbooks. After decades of growing tension between the North and South, the Civil War officially began on April 12, 1861 when Confederate artillery opened fire on this Federal Fort in Charleston Harbor.

Before boarding the ferry that travels the fort, leave ample time to explore the education center, full of interactive exhibits explaining the significance of the fort, its position and role in the Civil War.

Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center at Liberty Square
(Ferry embarkation point in downtown Charleston)
340 Concord Street
Charleston, SC 29401
(843) 883-3123

Visitor’s Education Center open daily from 8:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. See ferry schedule for access to the Fort.

Free admission, but the fort is only accessible by boat and there is a charge for the trip. More information available at the website.

Cabrillo National Monument

San Diego, California

Perhaps the best known landmark in Point Loma is the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, an icon occasionally used to represent the entire city of San Diego. The Old Point Loma Lighthouse is located within the Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego, California.

The Old Point Loma Lighthouse located within the Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego, California. Gregor Inkret | Getty Images

On June 27, 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo led the first expedition from Mexico to explore what is now the west coast of the United States, and shortly after found what we now know as San Diego bay.

There is a tremendous amount of natural and cultural beauty to see at Cabrillo. Learn about the “Age of Exploration” in the visitor’s center or with a guided ranger talk, and check out the Cabrillo statue. The next stop is Old Point Loma lighthouse, which has been restored to its 1880s appearance and offers a glimpse into the lives of lightkeepers and their families.

South of the lighthouse is the whale overlook—if your visit falls in January or February you may be in for an extra treat. Otherwise, there is plenty of interesting marine life to be found in the Tidepools, one of the most accessible “intertidal” ecosystems in California and home to unique plants, invertebrates and fish that collect in the small pools here during low tide.

1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive
San Diego, CA 92106
(619) 557-5450

Open daily from 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.
Closed on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

$10 per vehicle.

General Grant National Memorial

New York, New York

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General Grant National Memorial, New York. Sue Waters | Flickr

Ulysses S. Grant, as the commanding general of the Union Army, brought the biggest military conflict in American history to an end; he was also a two-term president tasked with bringing the nation back together after the Civil War.

Known for his immortal words “Let Us Have Peace,” Ulysses S. Grant fought for the rights of all. He also signed legislation to establish Yellowstone as the very first national park in 1872.

Visitors can view exhibits about his life and legacy, take a guided ranger tour and view the mausoleum (the largest in North America) where Grant and his wife Julia are laid to rest.

122nd Street and Riverside Drive
New York, NY 10027
(212) 666-1640

Open Wednesday through Sunday from 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. Closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
The mausoleum is open to visitors, Wednesday through Sunday, at the following times: 10:00–11:00 a.m.; 12:00 p.m.
–5:00 p.m.

Free admission

Wright Brothers National Memorial

Manteo, North Carolina

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Wright Brothers National Memorial, with bronze sculpture of Orville Wilbur Wright in First Flight, Kill Devil Hills. Universal Images Group North America LLC | Alamy

After years of experimentation, Orville and Wilbur Wright changed the future of transportation with the first successful airplane flights at this very site in 1903.

Visit the spots where each of the first four flights took off and landed, see the Wright Brothers Monument, climb aboard a sculpture of their historic plane and explore the reconstructed camp buildings to see what life was like for the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk.

And while you’re in the area, check out Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which starts 10 miles south of the Memorial.

1401 National Park Drive
Manteo, NC 27954
(252) 473-2111

Open seven days a week from 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. Closed on Christmas Day.

$7 for adults; children 15 and under are free.

Booker T. Washington Birthplace

Hardy, Virginia

Barn at the Booker T. Washington birthplace, Hale’s Ford, Franklin County, Virginia.

Barn at the Booker T. Washington birthplace, Hale’s Ford, Franklin County, Virginia. Dennis K. Johnson | Getty Images

Half an hour southeast of Roanoke, this homestead commemorates the life of Booker T. Washington. Born a slave, Washington gained renown after the Civil War for his work as an educator, advisor, author and orator.

Visitors can explore the Plantation Trail, with its reconstructed 19th century buildings that would have stood on the Burroughs Plantation when Booker T. Washington was a boy here, and learn more about his life through the visitor’s center and exhibits.

12130 Booker T. Washington Highway
Hardy, VA 24101
(540) 721-2094

Open daily, year-round, 9:00 a.m–5:00 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.

Free admission

Aztec Ruins

Aztec, New Mexico

Aztec Ruins National Monument

The ceremonial Great Kiva, Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico. Emily Riddell | Getty Images

Unlike Montezuma, this is an actual Aztec site that was built by the Pueblo people more than 900 hundred years ago. The ruins are quite well preserved and let visitors virtually step into ancestral life.

Explore the 400-room Pueblo “Great House,” which was once the social and economic center of the region, and see the ceremonial Great Kiva, a semi-underground structure that is the largest of its kind. After viewing the buildings, learn more about the life of the Pueblo through videos and artifacts at the home of archeologist Earl Morris, one of the earliest leaders in his field.

725 Ruins Road
Aztec, NM 87410
(505) 334-6174 x0

Open daily 8:00 a.m–5:00 p.m from Labor Day through Memorial Day and 8 a.m–6 p.m. Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. Closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.

$5 per adult. Children under 15 free.

WWII Valor in the Pacific

Honolulu, Hawaii

The best educational excuse for a tropical family vacation, Hawaii is home to the USS Arizona Memorial. This monument stands as a reminder of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into World War II.

After entering through Aloha Court, visitors can delve into exhibits about the attack, including artifacts and personal memorabilia, watch a brief documentary film, and visit the Remembrance Circle. There is also an opportunity to take a Navy-operated shuttle boat to the USS Arizona Memorial before returning to the visitor’s center.

If you have more time, there are several other Pearl Harbor historic sites in the immediate area, including the Battleship Missouri Memorial, the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum, and the Pacific Aviation Museum.

1845 Wasp Blvd. Bldg. 176
Honolulu, HI 96818
(808) 422-3399

Open daily from 7:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. Closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

Free admission on a first-come, first-serve basis—only 1,300 tickets are given out each day.

Amy Cojac Andrews
Amy Andrews
Amy Cojac Andrews is based in Charlotte, North Carolina, and New York City. She writes about luxury and family travel for Ciao Bambino and other publications.

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