3 New Western National Parks and Monuments to Discover

Enjoy expanded access and services at these spectacular preserves before the crowds start arriving.
Basin and Range National Monument. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Jul 19, 2016· 5 MIN READ
Melanie Haiken is a San Francisco Bay Area–based health, science, and travel writer who contributes regularly to Forbes.com and numerous national magazines.

Not only will Barack Obama go down in history as the president who has made the most visits to national parks and monuments (30), but he’s also been on a roll when it comes to preserving wildlands. These three new Western parks and monuments have begun expanding services to welcome visitors. At the same time, they’re still relatively undiscovered, offering the perfect chance to give your inner explorer free rein.

Pinnacles National Park. (Photo: Harold Litwiler/Flickr)

Pinnacles National Park, California

So named for its stunning volcanic and tectonic rock formations, Pinnacles National Park—about 130 miles southeast of San Francisco—is a maze of rock spires, craggy valleys, and talus caves that until recently was visited mainly by climbers and serious hikers. But it’s just as important as a refuge for numerous protected species, including 13 varieties of bats and raptors, such as the prairie and peregrine falcons. While summer in the park can be blazing hot, it’s also the perfect time for post-nesting bird-watching as the youngsters test their wings.

What’s Special

A sanctuary for the critically endangered California condor, Pinnacles has been a release site for a captive breeding program that has brought the bird back from the edge of extinction. (The original plan to designate 3,000 acres inside the park as wilderness to protect the condor was abandoned.) Catch the impressive birds riding thermal currents above the High Peaks or the ridge southeast of the campground. The hiking in Pinnacles is spectacular, with trails ranging from easy nature loops perfect for families to challenging peak climbs, some of which require serious scrambling.

What’s New

Now that Pinnacles Campground, previously operated by the federal Bureau of Land Management, is within the boundaries of the national park, it’s run by a park concessionaire, which means reservations are made through recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777. The store, also under new management, has reopened, so supplies are available onsite.

Bear Gulch Cave: Home to the largest colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats between San Francisco and Mexico, the cave is closed from mid-May through mid-July to protect the species during pupping season. This year the park service installed a gate that allows the lower half of the cave to be opened to visitors starting in mid-July, when nursing moms and pups require less privacy. There’s also a new trail from the middle of the cave to the Moses Spring Trail, which leads to the reservoir, making for a nice day’s excursion.

Night Hikes: From August through December, ranger-guided night hikes take place on the first Saturday of the month. Take advantage of the dark skies in this isolated mountain range and a chance to witness the nocturnal antics of owls, bats, and coyotes. The hikes, which are limited to 20 participants, vary in difficulty and in length (typically one to two hours) and depart from different locations. Reservations are required at least seven days in advance. Call 831-389-4485 to reserve space.

Campfire Talks: During the month of August, free evening programs feature speakers at the Pinnacles Campground Amphitheater. Talks begin at 8 p.m., and reservations are not required.

Petroglyphs on a rock wall at Basin and Range National Monument. (Photo: Ken Lund/Flickr)

Basin and Range National Monument, Nevada

The first thing you need to know about Basin and Range National Monument is that it’s big: 704,000 acres. The second is that it’s not at all easy to get there. It’s nowhere near any major highway, and much of the park is accessible only via unpaved roads. But it’s worth the journey. These lands preserve the remnants of some of North America’s most ancient cultures, including 4,000-year-old rock art panels.

What’s Special

If you like petroglyphs, this is your place. Three sites are particularly spectacular: the Mount Irish archaeological area, the White River Narrows, and a separate parcel known as the Shooting Range. All are accessed from state Route 318, which runs along the eastern end of the monument. For nature viewing, visit the limestone arches and bluffs of the Worthington Mountains, accessible from the other side of the park on state Route 375. The Friends of Basin and Range offer more in-depth information to help you find some of the best sites.

There’s also one surprising attraction, artist Michael Heizer’s monumental earthen installation known as City, in process for almost 50 years. Located on land owned by Heizer, the work has been financed by foundations and championed by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and other art museums, which also threw their weight behind efforts to create the park. City is not yet open to the public, though Heizer has been promising to do that on completion, which has been imminent for the past five years. Stay tuned.

What’s New

Pretty much everything. Formerly privately owned and used primarily for cattle ranching, the monument is under the supervision of the Bureau of Land Management, which provides printable and interactive maps but not much else. Still, there’s plenty to see, from wildlife such as pronghorns and pygmy rabbits to abandoned mines and spring wildflowers. Services are limited, so if roughing it isn’t your style, you might want to wait a year or two for the monument to become more developed. But if solitude, wide-open spaces, and the darkest of skies sound appealing, come now before the tenderfeet get here.

Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument. (Photo: Alan O'Neill/Flickr)

Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, Nevada

Much more accessible than Basin and Range, Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument is just 20 miles north of Las Vegas—even with traffic, that’s just an hour from the Strip, and you can get there by bike or public bus. A brand-new national monument, it’s still completely undeveloped, allowing you to wander at will through sandy washes studded with tufa outcrops, where you might stumble over a fossilized tooth or mollusk.

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What’s Special

Ask any paleontologist, and you'll be told about the wealth of Ice Age fossils discovered over the years at Tule Springs, where marshy oases attracted giant sloths, Columbian mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, supersize camels, dire wolves, and other Pleistocene-era species. When ranchers quarrying rock in the early 1900s began turning up tusks, teeth, and skeletons from these massive beasties, the area became covered with dig sites, now left open for the perusing. For fans of the history of science, Tule Springs was the site of the 1962 Big Dig in which radiocarbon dating was used for the first time, remnants of which can be seen at the southern end of the monument along North Decatur Boulevard.

Note: Many fossils removed from Tule Springs over the years can be viewed at the San Bernardino County Museum in Redlands, which has been cataloging finds from the quarry since 2004. The museum’s resident paleontologist, Eric Scott, who has been collecting Ice Age fossils from the area for more than 20 years, was a key player in the campaign to protect the beds as a national monument.

What’s New

It’s not like fossil fanatics haven’t known about Tule Springs, but before the creation of the national monument, you pretty much had to sneak in—which means it was pretty easy to sneak out with fossils too. Now there are fences, gates, and a marker telling you you’ve arrived. But with signage and formal trails yet to come, you still get that frisson of excitement that comes with being an early explorer. As yet, there’s neither visitor center nor parking lot, but there’s plenty of parking along the road. If setting off into uncharted desert makes you nervous, you can follow the track of the popular Durango Loop fairly easily from the Durango Drive Trailhead.