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Best of the West: 10 top monuments

By Peter Fish, Sunset
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The West offers a wide selection of remarkable national monuments
  • Devil's Tower was featured in Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"
  • See where Mount St. Helens destroyed 230 square miles of forest with volcanic ash in 1980
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(Sunset) -- The West's top national monuments: Build a great vacation around a spectacular island, forest, cliff dwelling, canyon, fossil bed, tower or volcano.

1) Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

Bandelier has been entrancing people for nearly 1,000 years -- from when the Ancestral Pueblo people first began building homes in the cliffs of Frijoles Canyon.

They're easily seen on the monument's Main Loop Trail; more ruins can be glimpsed in Tsankawi Canyon to the north.

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But archeology isn't the only reason to come here -- the monument is stunningly beautiful, with dramatic mesas and broad views across Northern New Mexico. All this only a 45-minute drive from Santa Fe.

2) Admiralty Island National Monument, Alaska

Everything you want from Alaska is here. Deep green old-growth forests (thanks to 100 inches of rain a year), rushing streams alive with salmon, a rugged coastline, and the largest collection of brown bears -- AKA grizzlies -- anywhere in the world.

In fact, one of the best places to see brown bears anywhere (from a safe distance) is at Pack Creek, on the island's northern shore.

Admiralty Island is wild but it isn't remote, just about 15 miles west of Juneau and reachable by boat and floatplane. Tongass National Forest even has cabins you can rent; there are also wilderness lodges.

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3) Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

Canyon de Chelly in northern Arizona is one of the longest continuously inhabited places in North America. But it's no mere living history museum -- t's still a vital part of life on the Navajo Nation.

You can see White House Ruin from the canyon rim, or take a 2-hour hike to see the ruin up close. And a number of Navajo outfitters lead Jeep, hiking and horseback trips into the canyon backcountry. Nearest hotels are in Chinle.

4) Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho

Who needs NASA when you can come to theCraters of the Moon monument about 90 miles north of Twin Falls, Idaho?

This eerie lunar landscape is the product of volcanic lava flows that stopped only about 2,000 years ago. (Geologists say they could start up again, although no one seems too worried.)

You can see it all on a 7-mile loop drive or if you want to feel boot on lava, hike the North Crater Flow trail.

5) Devil's Tower National Monument, Wyoming

Sure, moviegoers know Wyoming's Devil's Tower as the place where mankind met friendly aliens in Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

But nothing prepares you for the real thing: the 1,300-foot chunk of granite rising out of Wyoming badlands is bigger than even the widest of wide-screen attractions.

It's a sacred site to Crow and Cheyenne peoples; once you see it (say on the Tower Trail, which circles the rock's base) you will understand why.

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6) Grand Staircase National Monument, Utah

The "staircase" in the name is a vast series of rock terraces. The "Escalante" is Father Silvestre Velez de Escalante, the 18th century Spanish explorer who started the habit of being awed and amazed by the landscape here: cliffs and hoodoos and the sinuous canyons of the Paria and Escalante rivers.

In Southern Utah due east of Zion National Park, Grand Staircase National Monument is so big -- 1.9 million acres -- that it would take a lifetime to discover it all.

Explore it by car on Utah Highway 12 and Hole-in-the-Rock Road; even better, get out and hike to Calf Creek Falls or Devil's Garden. Numerous outfitters lead jeep and hiking trips into the area; for creature comforts, you'll find good food and places to stay in Boulder and Escalante.

7) John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon

Elephants! Tigers! Rhinos! All here in Eastern Oregon. Well, not the living animals -- their ancestors, preserved in rock for eternity at the John Day National Monument northwest of Bend.

John Day's beautiful badlands contain some 50 million years worth of plants and animals; you can get all that ancient natural history straight at the excellent Thomas Condon Paleontology Center.

And the monument offers more than just looking at bones; it's also great for hiking, particularly in the Painted Hills area, which explodes with wildflowers in spring and summer.

8) Mount St. Helens National Monument, Washington

Kaboom! In 1980, nearly 4 billion cubic yards of mountaintop blasted skyward in an instant. Nearly 230 square miles of forest blown down or buried beneath volcanic ash and mud.

Even now, decades after an eruption that impacted nearly all of the Pacific Northwest, Mount St. Helens is ranked as the most famously unstable mountain in North America.

The geology here is fascinating, of course, but so is the quieter spectacle of forests and meadows gradually reclaiming the mountain's scorched slopes. Must-sees include Johnston Ridge Observatory and Blowdown Forest and Spirit Lake Viewpoints.

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9) Muir Woods National Monument, California

It seems that something so beautiful shouldn't be this easy to reach. John Muir's favorite woods lie just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, but step onto its trails -- especially on a quiet weekday -- and you are in another world.

The coast redwoods (sequoia sempervirens if you want to get Latin about it) grow 300 feet tall; beneath them spread lush carpets of ferns and mosses. With most trails paved and relatively flat, this is a great place to take kids.

10) Pinnacles National Monument, California

Only 90 minutes south of Silicon Valley, Pinnacles proves that California geology is just as creative as Facebook, Google and Apple.

The larger-than-life rock formations here were shaped both by ancient volcanoes and by the San Andreas Fault, which runs through the monument.

Along with wild rocks, Pinnacles has bragging rights to some of the state's best spring wildflower displays. Look sharp and you might even see a California condor: This is one of the endangered bird's release sites.

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