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Top 10 national monuments in California
Read time: 5 mins
California’s national parks may get all the love, but the state has many more historic and scientific landmarks worth protecting and preserving. Here’s the top 10 designated national monuments, all of which have been established under the 1906 Antiquities Act - one of the USA’s most crucial conservation tools. And yes, we’ve skipped out the Giant Sequoia National Monument as it already features in our national parks round-up.
Devils Postpile National Monument
The devil's in the detail at this towering 60-foot-high structure near Mammoth Mountain in the Sierra Nevada. Made of narrow, near-vertical and six-sided rock columns formed 100,000 years ago from cooling lava eroded by glacial movement, this bizarre-looking topographical artefact is one of the best examples of columnar basalt on the planet. Scaling this surreal attraction takes minimal effort; expect around 15 minutes of moderate uphill hiking from the Devils Postpile Ranger Station to get up-close with what looks like a giant bunch of matchsticks. A further 2.5-mile forest hike gets you to the dazzling 101-feet Rainbow Falls - the highest waterfall on the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River. Just be prepared for area road closures in times of heavy snowfall if you’re planning to visit here during the winter months.
Fort Ord National Monument
This supersized 15,000 federal park was home to one of the largest-ever US military bases from 1917 until its closure in 1994. Named in honour of Major General Edward Ord - a leader in the Union Army during the Civil War and the Indian Wars - it was where 1.5-million troops trained on ranges with riffles, rockets, and hand grenades. Nowadays, it serves as a flourishing nature reserve complete with endemic plant species, lush grasslands, scrub-lined canyons, and live oak woodlands. You’ll also find 86 miles of well-signposted trails for mountain biking, horseback riding and hiking, and abandoned buildings that were been torn down for anticipated development. Best of all, there’s plenty of spots to stake out bobcats, mountain lions, Smith’s blue butterflies, golden eagles, and the protected California black legless lizards.
San Gabriel Mountains National Monument
Upgraded from a Southern California mountainous backyard to a national monument by President Obama in 2014, this compelling landscape covers around 346,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest and 4,000 acres of the neighbouring San Bernardino National Forest. The remit was to provide one-third of the drinking water for 15 million people in the Los Angeles Basin as well as securing a critical habitat for wildlife such as San Gabriel mountain salamanders, desert bighorn sheep, and yellow-legged frogs. In addition to hundreds of miles of hiking, mountain biking and equestrian trails, the area is also home to Mount Wilson Observatory - the century-old icon where Edwin Hubble made two of the most shocking scientific discoveries of the 20th century: the universe was larger than anyone imagined - and it was expanding.
Mojave Trails National Monument
Named for the desert trails that the Chemehuevi people used to follow along the trading routes to the Pacific, this eye-poppingly huge (1.6 million acres) of wide-open land is found along a 105-mile stretch of old Route 66 between Ludlow and Needles. Established as a national monument by President Obama in 2016, the area links Joshua Tree National Park with the Mojave National Preserve. The result is a landscape fuelled by colourful canyons, rugged mountain ranges, ancient lava flows, spectacular sand dunes, and fossil beds containing 550-million-year-old trilobite remains. There’s also protected wilderness areas for bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, and fringe-toed lizards as well as plenty of pending plans for outdoors types to get stuck into hiking, camping, backpacking, hunting, fishing, rock climbing, cycling, and bird watching.
Cabrillo National Monument
Commemorating Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo nearly four hundred years after he disembarked the San Salvador at San Diego Bay and made his mark as the first European to set foot on West Coast soil, this historic area covers less than one square mile at the southern tip of the Point Loma Peninsula. The site features a larger-than-life sandstone statue of Cabrillo looking out over the waterfront, a fascinating maritime museum that chronicles his life, work and explorations, and some of the city’s best vantage points. There’s also excellent hiking trails, bluffs for watching migrating Pacific gray whales, and the chance to take a guided tour of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse - the cherished landmark built in 1855 that was lit for the very last time on 23 March 1891 after only 36 years in service.
Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument
Stretching from Putah Creek below Lake Berryessa and across remote stretches of Cache Creek north to Snow Mountain, this 100-mile-long wonderland may be California’s little-trekked and little-known region but it’s one of the most stunning. Easily accessed from the Sacramento and Bay Area, there’s much to applaud; oak-dotted hillsides, rocky outcrops, waterfalls, lakes, 5,000-year-old archaeological sites, native plants, and precious wildlife such as Tule elk, bald eagles, osprey, river otters, dragonflies and butterflies that are deemed worth protecting. And while the area lends itself to outdoorsy pursuits such as kayaking, boating, paragliding, fishing and cycling, most thrill-seekers come here to conquer the challenging white-water rapids of Cache Creek and hike past the 80-foot-high Zim Zim Falls.
Sand to Snow National Monument
Rising from the Sonoran Desert floor to the snowy peaks of 11,500-foot-high Mount San Gorgonio, this 154,000-acre landscape is one of the most critical wildlife corridors in Southern California. Brilliantly named for its dramatic changes in elevation, it was established in February 2016 when President Obama invoked the Antiquities Act of 1906 after protective legislation was thwarted by environmentalists, hunters, and mining companies. Nearly a year on, it delights adventurers with hiking, horse riding, backpacking, fishing, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing - and keeps nature fans happy with sightings of mule deer, mountain lions, black bears, and bighorn sheep. The area also includes 24 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, around 1,700 Native American petroglyphs, and the Big Morongo Canyon - one of world’s best birding destinations that’s home to a recorded 235 species, ranging from eagles to great egrets.
Lava Beds National Monument
There’s no shortage of thrills for spelunkers (Latin for cave-lovers) deep in the rugged desert wilderness just four miles south of Tulelake. There’s around 700 surreal-looking lava tube caves created by the explosive activity of the Medicine Lake shield volcano over millions of years as well as a sculptured landscape punctuated with cinder and spatter cones, Native American rock art sites, historic battlefields, and campsites. So long as you have a good torch, headlamp, bump hat and map (all of which can be borrowed or bought from the Visitor Centre), you’re free to twist and crawl through the tubes on your own. All of the caves are ranked according to their difficulty levels, so most first-timers tend to start with the 1,405-foot Hopkins Chocolate Cave or 1,541-feet Blue Grotto Cave before tackling the more complex 6,903-feet Catacombs Cave.
Muir Woods National Monument
Just 14 miles north of San Francisco in an isolated canyon that’s a skip away from Mill Valley, this old-growth coastal redwood forest is one of the finest on the planet. Named for 19th century Scottish naturalist, author and conservationist John Muir who described it as “the best tree-lovers monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world”, it rewards with 560-acres of thousand-year-old giant coast redwoods (sequoia sempervirens) - some of which grow to nearly 380 feet. This wildly popular spot gets extremely busy, so it’s worth arriving early (around 9am) to avoid the crowds. Most rewarding is hiking the relatively easy 3.5-mile Canopy View Trail, joining the free ecology tours with park rangers, and keeping your eyes peeled for wildlife such as the American shrew mole, Sonoma chipmunk, and 10 recorded species of bat.
Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument
Accessed by trails from both the Coachella Valley and the alpine village of Idyllwild, this 60-mile-long and 13-mile-wide monumental treasure rises abruptly from the desert floor just outside Palm Springs. There’s a lot to take in, but what’s most memorable are the 200 miles of hiking trails, the endemic plant and animal life (including some 30 rare and endangered species), the stately date palms, and the 10,834-feet-high Mount San Jacinto Peak - one of the steepest escarpments in the lower 48 states. Mostly, this place is all about breathtakingly beautiful scenery (sand dunes, wildflower-filled meadows, snow-topped peaks) that can be experienced firsthand by hitting the relatively short 2.4-mile Randall Henderson Trail at the Visitor’s Centre. Alternatively, take the more strenuous 4.5-mile Bear Creek Oasis Trail that starts at the top of the La Quinta Cove.