14 national treasures in the West

These unique landscapes have been suggested for national monument status. But you don't have to wait for Washington, D.C., to decide. Here's where to go right now.

West's amazing places: Berryessa Snow Mountain, California

Berryessa Snow Mountain, California

San Francisco is only 100 miles away. But Berryessa Snow Mountain feels far more distant, and much wilder.

A half-million acre portion of Northern California’s Inner Coast Range, it offers pleasures like steep, oak-dotted hillsides, rushing creeks, and wildlife such as bald eagles and tule elk. Groups like Winters-based Tuleyome are pushing for its protection, as national monument or as part of the National Landscape Conservation System.

You can access existing Snow Mountain Wilderness from the little town of Maxwell, off I-5. For directions and road conditions, contact the Mendocino National Forest office in Willows: (530) 934-3316.

West's amazing places: Bodie Hills, California

Bodie Hills, California

Bodie, California, is one of the most famous ghost towns in the West. Now preserved as Bodie State Historic Park, its weathered wood buildings are an echo of the days when Bodie had 10,000 residents, most of them drawn to the mineral wealth ($32 million, by one estimate) in the surrounding hills.

Today the Bodie Hills are valued for other assets—bird-watching, horseback riding, and hiking among stands of aspen and pinyon pine. 

That’s why groups like Friends of the Inyo are eager to see them preserved as a monument or perhaps as a wilderness area, making sure that Bodie’s historic backdrop remains intact.  More

West's amazing places: Cascade Siskiyou, California

Cascade-Siskiyou, California

Think green. These mountains receive more than 50 inches of rain a year, which is why their slopes are thickly forested with conifers—perfect habitat for rare species like the Northern Spotted Owl. 

A Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument was established on the Oregon side of the border in 2000; now some environmentalist want to extend it south into California.

The most accessible portion of the existing monument is the Hyatt Lake recreation complex in Oregon.

West's amazing places: Cedar Mesa, Utah

Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management

Cedar Mesa, Utah

Southeast Utah is crowded with natural wonders: red rock canyons and arches, soaring mesas. And with manmade ones: centuries-old rock art and cliff dwellings. But even here, Cedar Mesa stands out. The 410,000-acre area southwest of Blanding, Utah, has amazing archeology and views and not many visitors.

Despite its size and rugged remoteness, Cedar Mesa can be enjoyed by the casual traveler. For the first time visitor, one sure bet is Natural Bridges National Monument, on the north edge of the mesa. Another good stop is the trail to Butler Wash Ruins, off of Utah Highway 95: a half-mile stroll leads to impressive, 800-year-old ancestral Pueblan ruins.

To venture deeper into the mesa, consider joining up with one of the companies that lead guided trips into the area: these include North Wash Outfitters and Four Seasons Outfitters. More

West's amazing places: Heart of the Great Basin, Nevada

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service

Heart of the Great Basin, Nevada

The Great Basin is probably the most spectacular part of the West that nobody sees. You fly over it, you drive across it on 1-80, you notice the flat basin and the crinkled mountains without realizing how gorgeous they are up close.

The Heart of the Great Basin centers on three mountain range—the Monitor, the Toquima, the Toiyabe.

One of the best backcountry drives in the West is on FR 002, which goes over the crest of the Toiyabe and then down through Kingston Canyon. What else to do in the vicinity? Berlin Ichthyosaur State Park has some interesting fossils. And Austin is a charmingly eccentric Old West mining town.

From Austin, take Big Creek Road south to FR 002 across the Toiyabes to Nevada Highway 376. More

West's amazing places: Lesser Prairie Chicken Preserve

Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management

Lesser Prairie Chicken Preserve, New Mexico

The Lesser Prairie Chicken is adorable, with patterned feathers that would earn raves on Project Runway. It has a flamboyant love life, too, with males gathering in a mating ground to strut, puff out their chests, and “boom”—expel air from bright orange air sacs on the sides of their heads. All this is done in hopes of thrilling female prairie chickens.

About 50 miles east of Roswell, New Mexico, the  Lesser Prairie Chicken Preserve offers the sand dunes and shinnery oak the chicken loves. The preserve has even made this part of New Mexico a must stop for birders eager to add the species to their life lists. 

Join the hosts of bird watchers at the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival in April. For maps and more, contact the BLM’s Pecos office at 2909 W. Second Street, Roswell, NM; (575) 627-0272.

West's amazing places: Modoc Plateau, California

Modoc Plateau, California

In far Northern California the Modoc Plateau is a vast (3 million acres) of volcanic tableland that slopes gently to mountain ranges, among them the nicely named Skedaddle Mountains.

Pronghorn antelope roam here, and in spring and fall migrating waterfowl are drawn to the plateau’s lakes—Honey, Clear, Tule. Lava Bed National Monument sits at the Western edge of the plateau.  

Best bases of exploration are Susanville and Alturas, California. More

West's amazing places: Northern Montana Prairies

Photo by Dave Hanna

Northern Montana Prairies

Montana's open grasslands aren't just beautiful—they provide invaluable habitat for endangered species like the sage grouse and black-footed ferret.

In recent years, the prairies been threatened by plowing for winter wheat and other crops, and have been suggested for National Monument status. But the Nature Conservancy has already taken the lead in preserving these remarkable lands. They’ve purchased 60,000-acre Matador Ranch, south of Malta, Montana, and are using it as a model of how to manage grasslands.

This area is "like the old-growth forests of plains,” says the conservancy's Barbara Cozzens. “Once they’re plowed, you can’t ever replace them.” Just as important, to be out on those prairies under Montana’s big sky is to feel a sense of infinity you won’t experience anywhere else.

Matador Ranch is open to the public for special events, including two birding weekends in May. More

West's amazing places: Northwest Sonoran Desert, Arizona

Northwest Sonoran Desert, Arizona

Cactus, roadrunners, luminous sunsets—for most of us Arizona and desert are synonymous.

But as the state has grown, more and more of its desert lands have been swallowed by subdivisions and shopping centers. The existing Sonoran Desert National Monument protects 487,000 acres of this landscape south of Phoenix; the proposed new monument would protect more desert to the West.

From Phoenix to the eastern national monument boundary, take I-10 east and south about 16 miles to Exit 164/Queen Creek Road, turn right and continue on AZ-347 about 15 miles to Maricopa, AZ. Turn right onto AZ-238 and continue west about 16 miles to the national monument. More

 

West's amazing places: Otero Mesa, New Mexico

Photo by Nathan Newcomer

Otero Mesa, New Mexico

Otero is gem that has been preserved because it’s so remote—tucked in far southern New Mexico.

The 1.2 million-acre mesa consists mainly of rolling hills, much of it covered with grasslands. In fact, it’s one of the largest intact grassland areas in the Chihuahuan Desert that extends from Northern Mexico into New Mexico and Arizona. Environmental groups are fighting to preserve it from oil and gas development.

Who’s here? Pronghorn antelope, black-tailed prairie dogs, golden eagles—and hardly any people. Best time to visit is in fall, after summer monsoons have turned the grasslands vivid green.

The mesa lies northeast of El Paso, Texas; take Texas 62 east, then turn north on Hueco Ranch Road and into New Mexico. The dirt road is suitable for cars—but take it slow. More

West's amazing places: Owyhee Desert, Idaho and Nevada

Photo courtesy of the Idaho Division of Tourism Development

Owyhee Desert, Idaho and Nevada

First the name. It comes from Hawaii—a tribute to the native Hawaiians who accompanied Donald McKenzie on his 1818 exploration through this remote part of the West.

Tropical paradise it may not be, but the Owyhee is gorgeous in its own austere, sculptural way—the canyonlands of the Owyhee River are some of the most beautiful anywhere in the country.

The Idaho portion of the region was set aside as a wilderness last year; a proposed monument would extend protection into Idaho and Nevada.

The Owyhee lies about 125 miles south of Boise, Idaho, or 100 miles north of Elko Nevada. ROW Adventures leads kayak trips down the Owyhee. More

West's amazing places: San Juan Islands, Washington

San Juan Islands, Washington

Orcas, Lopez, San Juan are the islands visitors know best. But the San Juans actually consist of 750 islands, many of them uninhabited save by gulls, cormorants, and seals.

Today, 83 of the islands are set aside as San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge; many of them are off-limits to visitors, but you can hike and bird watch on Matia and Turn islands, both of which are Washington State Parks.

This is also a great place for kayaking; numerous outfitters (including Sea Quest Expeditions) lead trips.

West's amazing places: San Rafael Swell, Utah

Photo by Bryce Pincham/Getty Images

San Rafael Swell, Utah

Red rock West. In central Utah, the Swell is a dramatic rock dome surrounded by equally dramatic mesas and canyons.

Interstate 70 skirts the area, making it one of the more accessible proposed monuments; you can hike it and backpack it or experience it via jeep or even hot air balloon.

More

West's amazing places: Vermillion Basin, Colorado

Photo by Sam Cox

Vermillion Basin, Colorado

“It’s something that is truly wild,” says Luke Schafer. “Truly a place that has never been tamed.”

Schafer is talking about Vermillion Basin, in far northwestern Colorado. Stunningly beautiful, the basin is a maze of cliffs and canyons, many glowing with the red-orange rocks that give the region its name. Some of Colorado’s best petroglyphs can be found here; it’s also home to endangered species like the greater sage grouse. 

Schafer, of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, and other activists hope to shield the land it from possible oil and gas development.

You can get your best introduction to the basin from Lookout Mountain. From Craig, go north on Colorado Highway 13 about 40 miles; then west on CR 4 for roughly 60 miles, then south on CR 67 for approximately 15 miles. More

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