Aztec Ruins National Monument

Overview

Aztec, New Mexico is home to the incredible Ancestral Puebloan ruins of a three-story, 400-room ancient apartment building near the Animas River.  Only partially excavated, Aztec Ruins National Monument has a variety of rock walls that display a change in building styles over the centuries.  Similar to Montezuma Castle National Monument in Arizona, Aztec was named for the Central Mexican culture mistakenly believed by earlier archaeologists to have had influence in this region.

Highlights

Museum, film, reconstructed great kiva, ruins

Must-Do Activity

Aztec Ruins National Monument boasts a great kiva that was rebuilt to appear as it may have 800 years ago.  We especially recommend a visit before or after seeing the extensive ceremonial structures at nearby Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  Reconstruction is not appropriate at all National Park Service (NPS) sites, but here it helps the past come alive.  It is easy to imagine costumed dancers coming down the stairs into the smoky kiva to celebrate a religious ritual. 

Best Trail

The half-mile self-guided trail leads through ruins where wooden roofs have been partially reconstructed.  Aztec Ruins also has the same T-shaped doorways you may have seen at Mesa Verde National Park and Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Darker stripes in the walls were decorative, and evidence of several architectural styles are evident at this site.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/azru/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

There is an NPS campground at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, but we recommend the free campground in Angel Peak Recreation Area run by the Bureau of Land Management east of Highway 550.

Related Sites

Chaco Culture National Historical Park (New Mexico)

Pecos National Historical Park (New Mexico)

Bandelier National Monument (New Mexico)

Explore More – How far away from Aztec were the nearest Douglas-fir, ponderosa pine, and aspen trees used in the original roof construction?

Wright Brothers National Memorial

Overview

The Wright Brothers hailed from Dayton, Ohio but they came to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for the sustained winds they needed to get their winged contraptions off the ground.  They glided from the top of Kill Devil Hill more than a thousand times between 1900 and 1902.  Then on December 17, 1903 they finally made history: twelve-seconds of motor-powered, man-carrying flight in a heavier-than-air airplane.  After the fourth and longest flight (59 seconds) that day the flying machine was irreparably crashed and the brothers headed back to Ohio. 

Highlights

Museum, replica flyer and glider, monument, sculpture

Must-Do Activity

Since 1932, a massive granite monument has stood atop the 90-foot tall hill, which is actually a sand dune stabilized with planted grass.  Visitors to Kitty Hawk will also find a replica flyer and glider, reconstructed hangar, boulders marking the landing spot of each of the four flights, and a life-size bronze sculpture added on the first flight centennial in 2003. 

Best Trail

A paved walkway connects the Wright Brothers Monument atop Kill Devil Hill with the five boulders marking the lift-off point and four landings that occurred on December 17, 1903.

Instagram-worthy Photo

A full-scale replica of the 1903 flyer is located inside the museum run by the National Park Service (NPS).  Rangers give lectures in that room throughout the day, also explaining details of the replica 1902 glider.

Peak Season

Summer and every December 17

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/wrbr/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$10 per person or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

There are NPS campgrounds located south of the memorial in Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Related Sites

Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park (Ohio)

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site (North Carolina)

Cape Hatteras National Seashore (North Carolina)

Explore More – The 1903 flyer on display here is a replica, so where is the original exhibited?

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Top 10 Native American NPS Sites

Whether you refer to the inhabitants of pre-European America as indigenous people, American Indians, or Native Americans, you can learn much more about their diverse cultures at numerous National Park Service (NPS) sites.  Many of these amazing places are located in the southwestern U.S., but we made sure our top 10 list spanned the entire nation.  Click here to check out all of our Top 10 Lists.

10. Hopewell Culture National Historical Park (Ohio)

Earth mounds and artwork from 2,200 years ago

9. Pipestone National Monument (Minnesota)

Red quartzite rock is still mined here by American Indian artisans

8. Poverty Point National Monument (Louisiana)

Enormous earth mounds built by hand starting 3,700 years ago

7. Hovenweep National Monument (Utah -Colorado)

Fascinating assemblage of architecture on the Utah-Colorado border

6. Ocmulgee National Monument (Georgia)

A massive earthen mound and reconstructed earthlodge in Macon, Georgia

5. Sitka National Historical Park (Alaska)

Tlingit and Russian history are both preserved in Alaska’s prettiest city

4. Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park (Hawai’i)

Indigenous Hawaiian culture is celebrated at this reconstructed village

3. Chaco Culture National Historical Park (New Mexico)

All roads led to this ceremonial center a thousand years ago

2. Bandelier National Monument (New Mexico)

Climb ladders into rooms carved by hand into soft volcanic tufa rock

…and finally our #1 Native American NPS site:

1. Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado)

Numerous cliff dwellings blend seamlessly with their environment

Honorable Mentions

Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument (Texas)

Human history dates back 13,000 years at this surface mine

Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site (North Dakota)

Walk inside the spacious earthlodge reconstruction near the Missouri River

Aztec Ruins National Monument (New Mexico)

Enter a reconstructed great kiva and walk through beautiful ruins

Big Hole National Battlefield (Montana)

A pretty spot where the Nez Perce and U.S. Army fought on the morning of August 9, 1877

Saguaro National Park

Overview

The only U.S. National Park within the expansive Sonoran Desert is divided into two separate districts east and west of Tucson, Arizona.  Its namesake cactus can reach 50 feet in height and weigh more than 16,000 pounds when swelled with water during the rainy season.  Saguaros do not typically branch their first arms until age seventy-five and they can live over 200 years.  They share their home with other cacti that have cuddly names like teddybear cholla, hedgehog, barrel, staghorn cholla, and prickly pear.

Learn more in our guidebook to the 62 National Parks, A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks (available on Amazon).

Highlights

Cactus Forest Drive, Desert Ecology Trail, Scenic Bajada Loop Drive, Desert Discovery Nature Trail

Must-Do Activity

There are National Park Service (NPS) visitor centers in both the Rincon Mountain District and Tucson Mountain District.  In each district, opportunities for visitors include scenic drives, handicap-accessible nature trails, and more strenuous hiking options.  Much of the wildlife is nocturnal in the hot desert, but watch for unique species like javelinas, ringtails, kangaroo rats, roadrunners, phainopeplas, desert tortoises, Gila monsters, and western diamondback rattlesnakes.

Best Trail

Hikers can find great overlooks of the surrounding mountains along the short Ridge View Trail in the eastern Rincon Mountain District of the park.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Winter is a great time to come to Saguaro National Park due to mild temperatures, but to see the desert in bloom the spring is best.  Saguaros typically bloom in early June, though their large white blooms are hard to photograph at the top of the tall cacti where moths, bats, and other pollinators can find them.

Peak Season

Spring

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/sagu/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$25 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

In the Rincon Mountain District the Cactus Forest Drive is all paved, but in the Tucson Mountain District the Scenic Bajada Loop Drive is mostly a graded gravel road.

Camping

Only backcountry camping in designated sites (with a permit) is allowed in the National Park, but campgrounds are available at Tucson Mountain County Park just outside the western district and throughout Coronado National Forest which borders the eastern district.

Related Sites

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (Arizona)

Tumacacori National Historical Park (Arizona)

Chiricahua National Monument (Arizona)

This design we created to celebrate Saguaro National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – Tohono O’odham Indians utilized saguaro fruit for jam, syrup, and wine; at what age do the cacti start flowering?

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Nez Perce National Historical Park

Overview

Nez Perce National Historical Park is unique because it comprises 38 sites stretching across four states, not even including an 1877 incident inside Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park.  Many of the locations (as well as Big Hole National Battlefield) cover the War of 1877, when a portion of the tribe fled more than 1,000 miles from Oregon towards the Canadian border only to be stopped 40 miles short by the U.S. Army at Bear Paw Battlefield in Montana.  Under the leadership of legendary Chief Joseph they crossed the Rocky Mountains at Lolo Pass, made famous by the Lewis and Clark Expedition that the tribe assisted in 1805.

Highlights

Museum, film, Heart of the Monster, Lolo Pass, Bear Paw Battlefield

Must-Do Activity

The main National Park Service (NPS) visitor center is in Spalding, Idaho on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation where the “heart of the monster” resides.  According to legend, after Coyote slew the monster that inhaled all the people, its heart and liver came to rest on the banks of the Clearwater River.  This park is also unique because the Nez Perce remain an active tribe with a strong sense of community, as documented in the excellent new film at the visitor center.  Highway 12 follows the beautiful Clearwater River through northern Idaho and provides access points for the unpaved Lolo Motorway (a section of the Nez Perce National Historical Trail) and its many scenic overlooks.

Best Trail

Nez Perce National Historical Trail stretches 1,170 miles from Oregon to Montana, ending at the NPS site at Bear Paw Battlefield where a five-day fight finally led to the tribe’s surrender in October 1877.

Instagram-worthy Photo

At a roadside pullout on Highway 95 in Idaho, the NPS interprets White Bird Battlefield where 34 U.S. Army soldiers were killed on June 17, 1877 escalating the U.S. government’s conflict with the Nez Perce into a war.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/nepe/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

Most of the major roads are paved, with the notable exception of the Lolo Motorway which requires a high clearance vehicle (and four-wheel drive on its western end).

Camping

There are camping opportunities ranging from dispersed to developed located throughout Clearwater, Nez Perce, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests.

Related Sites

Big Hole National Battlefield (Montana)

Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site (Montana)

Whitman Mission National Historic Site (Washington)

Explore More – After the 1863 “Steal Treaty” reduced the Nez Perce Reservation by 90%, what was the 1887 federal law that allowed another 90% to end up in white ownership?