This is an extension of the Ranking All of Utah’s National Parks blog that includes nearby NPS sites in surrounding states--giving your Utah trip to the famous Mighty 5 the best supplemental parks not limited by manmade state borders.
Includes parks in Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona.
Ranking nearby parks:
13. Yucca House National Monument (Colorado)
OK. It’s always hard to start an ascending list, especially because I know how much work (time, money, politics) goes into creating every single National Park Service unit. But in any list, there has to be a lowest ranked, and for me it’s Yucca House National Monument.
I should start by noting that Yucca House was perhaps one of my most adrenaline inducing parks. Likely not what you’d expect for a park of 16 acres out in the middle of farm fields, however, it was caused by a warning from a friend in nearby Cortez, Colorado:
“To access this park, you have to drive through private land. The owner doesn’t like people doing it or the federal government, so if you see him, maybe don’t mention the journey you’re on…”
From crossing the multiple gates that say “Private Property! Do Not Enter!” to parking in what is essentially the ranch owner’s driveway, it was an anxious experience. Whether driving through his herds of cattle and being afraid I’d hit one, or walking around the Yucca House lot and wondering if the owner had placed booby traps or was going to come out with a shotgun.
Never have I been to a national park and worried my Vanny McVanface would be keyed, more than this place.
So yes, it was exciting in some odd ways, like capturing a photo proving I’d made it in. But this list, and the ranking I’m giving all the parks so I can give you a comprehensive list at the end, is mainly driven by visitor experience. What value did I place on my time at each park site? What will a visit be like for the general traveler?
And with that in mind, Yucca House earned this lowest spot. No visitor should be anxious about reaching a National Park Service site, and the lack of interpretive aspects makes the time in Yucca House much less enriching than any of the other parks on this list.
No matter how excited I was to get this pic and get out alive…
12. Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument (Idaho)
Did you know horses existed in North America before Europeans brought them over? I didn’t until I visited Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, and apparently scientists didn’t until they discovered horses bones old enough to allow horses on North America that would’ve crossed the land bridge into Asia.
Apart from the museum that explains this interesting fact, there isn’t much for a visitor to experience aside from some views at a picnic area near the excavation site.
11. Fossil Butte National Monument (Wyoming)
Very far off the beaten path, Fossil Butte National Monument sits near the Wyoming/Utah border about 3 hours drive south of Grand Teton National Park.
As the name suggests, this site packs a punch full of fossils--a large number I had not seen at any other fossil-based NPS site. That said, for the park visitor wanting to view fossils or an excavation site in the wild, those portions are blocked off to visitors. Essentially, the visitor experience is a museum—though a very good one at that!
My favorite part of the park was the timeline of life on earth that begins with road posts as you drive the road to the Visitor Center, traceing millions of years as you eventually wrap around a large deck to present day at the Visitor Center’s front door.
10. Navajo National Monument (Arizona)
“Try to break up the American Southwest if you can. It gets a little ‘There’s another Native American ruin’ if you do them all in order.”
Wise words were given from my friends at SoManyParks.com when I visited them on the exact 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. It’s not that these sites aren’t interesting. It’s that when done in succession, they can get a little monotonous. What differentiates Navajo National Monument is that to access the ruins up close you need to take a 3 – 5 hour Ranger guided hike. For some that might be a positive, while for others with accessibility issues—especially relevant given that the average age of an NPS visitor floats around 60—it is a major negative.
There is the ability to view the cave/ruins from a moderately step paved trail, but the park is pretty remote and far from visitor development, so if you’re planning a visit, try to sandwich it between two places you have confirmed hotels/camping/lodging.
9. Minidoka National Historic Site (Idaho)
The fascinating and heartbreaking story of Japanese internment during World War II. As was well-explained in the Visitor Center film (housed in the same VC as Hagerman Fossil Beds), when Japan became involved in the war, the entire population of Japanese living on/around Bainbridge Island (across the Sound from Seattle) was moved to internment camps in California and Idaho. Not only would this be devastating to any human, but when visiting Bainbridge Island soon after my Minidoka stop and realizing it is now one of the wealthiest areas of the primarily Caucasian Seattle metro area, it drives home the damage done, and highlights how efforts like affirmative action attempt to right the wrongs of the past.
Imagine the wealth those Japanese families would now have if that land stayed in their families? Instead, these people, many of whom were strawberry farmers, were sent away from their farms to live for years in the hot, dry desert of central Idaho. Upon returning to their homes, they found they had been taken over by whites. No longer able to be claimed as their own.
This injustice is now commemorated partially by the Minidoka National Historic Site, and also by a memorial on Bainbridge Island.
The strength of the story is what gives this Historic Site higher ranking. However, the minimal reconstruction of the former internment camp leaves a visitor feeling slightly cheated for driving the miles into the middle of nowhere. Perhaps that is one of the strongest aspects of visiting the site though. A reminder of what was taken from these people, and the desolation to which they were taken.
8. Pipe Spring National Monument (Arizona)
I had heard news stories, jokes, and stereotypes about the Utah/Arizona border being a place famous for polygamy. Aside from the game of “Polygamist Wives Group or Hipster Girls Weekend Trip?" I played during my few days in Kanab, UT, trying to win The Wave entry tickets, Pipe Spring National Monument was my only other exposure to this polygamist fame.
And there is historical basis for the stereotype. One that is explained well at Pipe Spring, along with how Mormon settlers clashed over a vital resource in the desert: water.
Highlight of the visit was the Ranger Guided Tour* through the fort/house which was the catalyst for so much strife for Native Americans and ranching economic benefit for the Mormons.
*When taking the tour, make sure the Ranger tells about the secret back doors and hiding spots the polygamist wives used.
7. Curecanti National Recreation Area (Colorado)
The scenery of Curecanti National Recreation Area is a great extension of what you’ll see at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, which is easy because the park’s boarders touch each other. It would be crazy to visit Black Canyon and not come to nearby Curecanti, especially because the water that is so far—and difficult to access—from the rim of Black Canyon, is easily accessed via a NPS guided boat tour.
6. Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve (Idaho)
Growing up, did you ever want to be an astronaut? Ever want to walk on the moon?
While most of us won’t get that opportunity, we CAN visit Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve and feel like a moonwalker. Watch in the below video the way my feet on a cinder cone look so similar to those on the actual moon.
Craters of the Moon is one of the few places I’ve been where every step you take is an experience, because the sound made from the volcanic rock under your feet makes any trail a sensory overload.
Mikah Meyer and VOA collaborative tour of Craters of the Moon
5. Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado)
The only of the 59 National Parks designated primarily because of its historic benefits, Mesa Verde National Park is like all the other ruins of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado…except on steroids!
Thanks to their cave covers, the dwellings in this park are much better preserved than ruins exposed to more weather. The size of these communal living areas is also on a level of its own. Allowing visitors the chance to be awed in a way most ruins can’t provide.
Mikah Meyer and VOA collaborative tour of Mesa Verde
4. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (Colorado)
Do you know the song Johnny One Note from Rogers and Hart’s 1937 “Babes in Arms”?
If you don’t want to watch the YouTube link above, the gist is that Johnny can only sing one note.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is kind of like Johnny. Whether driving along the scenic rim or hiking a path, the dramatic views of this narrow, dark-colored canyon are the one note. And Black Canyon plays that one note very well.
The only problem is, of course, that we are musical people, and we want melodies and harmonies or else music isn’t as exciting.
Much is the experience at Black Canyon. The initial view is breathtaking beyond belief, but after 10 – 15 views that all play the same note, it starts to feel a little autotuned.
So while I wouldn’t skip Black Canyon of the Gunnison, I would certainly give part of your planned visit to next door—the more easily overlooked due to its name—Curecanti National Recreation Area.
3. City of Rocks National Reserve (Idaho)
City of Rocks rocks!
That basically describes this “Joshua Tree of the North,” as I named it. I did so because it reminded me so much of that famous National Park in Southern California. Like Joshua Tree, this one had dramatic views of boulders that seemingly burst out of the ground, abundant hiking opportunities, and even cacti!
But what's most distinguishable about City of Rocks National Reserve is that it's a haven for rock climbers. No other park I’ve been to thus far—nearly 200 parks in—has as many easily accessible chances to do proper rock climbing. And the relative remoteness of this site (2-3 hours from area cities Twin Falls, Pocatello, or Salt Lake City), means it is far less crowded than many other NPS sites.
So what are you waiting for? Rock out!
Mikah Meyer and VOA collaborative tour through City of Rocks
2. Great Basin National Park (Nevada)
Wow is this place secluded. Perhaps one of the least accessible and known of the 59 National Parks in the Lower 48 states, Great Basin National Park doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Whether for its eerie and beautiful aspens, decorative cave, or snow-capped mountains. Chief on my list of surprises was that Nevada—a state I, and likely many, associate only with deserts and gambling, has (according to the Ranger at the Visitor Center) more mountain ranges in its state than Alaska!
Driving across the entire state from Cedar City, Utah to Jackpot, Nevada on Highway 93, I can confirm the mountainous scenery.
And that scenery is the great basin. The region giving Great Basin National Park its name, and one of the reasons President Reagan changed the protected space from Lehman Caves National Monument to a National Park—because it provides a good example of these mountain ranges that felt endless as I drove on Highway 93 to my next parks in Idaho.
Mikah Meyer and VOA collaborative tour of Great Basin National Park
Not to be missed is a tour of Great Basin National Park’s Lehman Cave, home to rare spherical shaped rock formations.
1. Colorado National Monument (Colorado)
Some of the most amazing NPS views are also some of the hardest to get to.
Not so at Colorado National Monument.
Their 23-mile Scenic Rim Rock Drive provides views that would take hours of hiking in many other parks. Even better, it’s just minutes away from Fruita, Colorado and only a bit further from the major Western Colorado population center of Grand Junction.
Check out video views of the Monument via their local CBS/FOX news coverage of my visit, or even better, be one of the retired people doing the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive by bike and making me feel incredibly lazy in my Vanny McVanface!
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Below are the park numbers included in this blog. Donate to help me share all 400+ sites.
#153 Mesa Verde National Park
#154 Yucca House National Monument
#157 Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
#158 Curecanti National Recreation Area
#159 Colorado National Monument
#161 Fossil Butte National Monument
#163 Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument
#164 Minidoka National Historic Site
#165 Craters of the Moon National Monument
#166 Craters of the Moon National Preserve
#167 City of Rocks National Reserve
#175 Pipe Spring National Monument
#179 Navajo National Monument
#181 Great Basin National Park