My Favorite National Park Service Sites (That Aren’t National Parks)

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The National Park Service maintains 63 different national parks in the United States. BUT, did you know that there are also more than 350 other sites that the NPS takes care of, too? These range from monuments to memorials to historic sites to lakeshores to battlefields and more.

National Mall in Washington, DC
National Mall in Washington, DC

So many people focus on the national parks when they talk (or even think) about the National Park Service. Which, I understand since America's national parks are incredible. (I mean, have you SEEN places like Yosemite or Zion?)

But I wanted to do something a little different to celebrate the National Park Service today. Instead of telling you about my favorite national parks, I want to share with you some of my favorite NPS-managed sites that AREN'T national parks!

PRO TIP: Even non-park NPS sites often carry entry fees. If you plan to visit a couple sites within a year, it's usually worth it to invest in an America the Beautiful Pass (AKA a National Parks Pass), which costs $80 but gets you free admission to all National Park Services sites for 12 months. It's worth it!

My Favorite National Park Service Sites that Aren't National Parks

Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Devils Tower

Devils Tower National Monument
Devil's Tower

Devils Tower deserves the first spot on this list simply because it was the first National Monument in the United States.

Designated in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt, Devils Tower is immediately recognizable simply because it looks so completely out of place. The 867-foot stone butte literally towers over the surrounding landscape in northeast Wyoming; there's nothing else quite like it in this part of the Black Hills.

Devils Tower is sacred to local Native American tribes, too, and their names for it include “Bear's House” or “Bear's Lodge.” When you visit, you can learn all about the indigenous stories that surround the weirdly-shaped tower.

Devils Tower National Monument

Where: Near Hulett, Wyoming

How much: $25 per car

2. Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island
On the boat to Alcatraz

Alcatraz is most well-known for the maximum security prison that operated on the island from 1933 to 1963. Before that, the island within sight of downtown San Francisco also served as a military prison, a fort, and a lighthouse.

Today, the island is part of the larger Golden Gate National Recreation Area, managed by the National Park Service. Visitors can take guided tours of the old prison with a park ranger to learn about its history and legacy.

Arriving on Alcatraz Island

Where: San Francisco, California

How much: Starting at $45 for a 2.5-hour tour (includes ferry transfer)

Tour option: This tour combines a sightseeing tour of San Francisco and a visit to Alcatraz.

RELATED: The Two Sides of Alcatraz

3. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes
That's Lake Michigan!

The National Park Service manages recreation areas and lakeshores, too, and one of my favorites so far is the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan.

The Sleeping Bear Dunes tower up to 450 feet here, leading down to the Caribbean-blue-colored water of the lake. There's a beautiful 7-mile drive (the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive) along the shore with a few lookouts, or you can just take to the dunes on foot.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan
Sand dunes at Sleeping Bear

Where: Near Glen Arbor, Michigan

How much: $25 per vehicle

RELATED: Conquering the Sleeping Bear Dunes

4. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Chapel Rock at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Pictured Rocks from a boat

Speaking of lakeshores in Michigan managed by the National Park Service, I also have to add Pictured Rocks to this list.

Located in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Pictured Rocks is most well-known for its 15 miles of sandstone cliffs towering over Lake Superior. But it's also filled with waterfalls and more than 100 miles of nice hiking trails.

Visitors can hike to waterfalls and scenic viewpoints, and see the cliffs from the water either by kayak or on a boat tour. Boat cruises are run by Pictured Rocks Cruises, which operates in tandem with the National Park Service.

Lovers Leap Arch at Pictured Rocks
Lovers Leap Arch

Where: Near Munising, Michigan

How much: Free! Boat tours are $40-$48 (and go in the afternoon for the best light).

5. National Mall and Memorial Parks

National Mall in Washington, DC
WWII Memorial with the Washington Monument in the background

If you're heading to Washington, DC, there's a very slim chance that you WON'T visit an NPS-managed site.

The entire National Mall and its iconic memorials are all run by the National Park Service. This includes the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, WWII Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, among others.

Just make sure to wear good walking shoes – the Mall is huge!

Korean War Veterans Memorial
Korean War Veterans Memorial

Where: Washington, DC

How much: All of the memorials are outdoors and free to visit; it's also free to go up the Washington Monument, but you need a ticket to do so (online reservations cost $1.50 each)

6. San Juan National Historic Site

Amanda at Castillo San Cristóbal

Old San Juan in Puerto Rico is a popular tourist destination in its own right, but it's the old historic forts and city walls on the island that the National Park Service is in charge of.

Different countries (the U.S., Spain, Britain, France, the Netherlands) fought for centuries over the island of Puerto Rico, and at one point roughly 3 miles of city walls surrounded and protected Old San Juan. Most of the walls are gone now, but visitors can still visit both Castillo San Cristóbal and Castillo San Felipe del Morro.

Castillo San Cristóbal is within walking distance of Old San Juan, and is a fun place to spend a couple hours exploring.

San Juan old city walls
Old San Juan city walls

Where: San Juan, Puerto Rico

How much: $10 per person

RELATED: 5 Days in San Juan, Puerto Rico: The Perfect Caribbean Getaway

7. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Painted Hills in Oregon
The Painted Hills really do look painted!

Located in east-central Oregon, the John Day Fossil Beds comprise three separate “units.” The most famous of the three is the Painted Hills Unit, where the hills really do look as though they've been painted in hues of orange and yellow. They're also full of well-preserved layers of fossil plants and mammals, which is where the “Fossil Beds” in the monument's name comes from.

There's a scenic drive to take through the park, as well as a handful of short trails to hike around the hills. Go in the late afternoon or right before sunset for the best colors.

Painted Hills in Oregon
Another view of the Painted Hills

Where: The Painted Hills are 9 miles northwest of Mitchell, Oregon

How much: $0 – this one's free to visit!

8. Perry’s Victory and International Peace Monument

Perry's Victory and International Peace Monument
Perry’s Victory and International Peace Monument

How much do you know about the War of 1812? You might remember that it was fought between the U.S. and Britain (and Canada and many Native American tribes) over who would “get” Canada.

But did you know that there were naval battles on the Great Lakes during this war? One of the biggest was the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813, in which Commodore Oliver Perry and his U.S. fleet managed to defeat a British fleet and take control of Lake Erie.

The monument in Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island in Ohio commemorates both the battle and the peace that has existed among the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom since then.

And the views from the top? They can't be beat!

Put-in-Bay, Ohio
The view from the top of the monument

Where: Put-in-Bay, Ohio

How much: $10, which includes a an elevator ride to the top of the monument (but you also need either a monument annual pass or a National Parks Pass for this one, and to buy a timed ticket in advance)

9. Wright Brothers National Memorial

Wright Brothers National Memorial
Wright Brothers National Memorial

You've probably heard of the Wright brothers – it's thanks in part to them that I can travel as much and as far as I do today! Wilbur and Orville Wright were responsible for the first manned and powered airplane flights in the world in North Carolina, in December 1903.

Today, their accomplishment is commemorated by a 60-foot-tall memorial atop Kill Devil Hill and a small museum and visitor center.

In between the memorial and the visitor center, you can actually walk in the “footsteps” of those very first flights, following small stone monuments in the grass that mark the beginning and end of each one. You'd be surprised at how short those first flights were – the first one, for example, was less than 150 feet!

Where: Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina

How much: $10 per person

10. World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument

USS Arizona Memorial
USS Arizona Memorial

You probably know this monument by a different name: the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. When Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, the USS Arizona battleship exploded and then sank right in the harbor, trapping 1,177 sailors aboard as she went down.

The destruction of the USS Arizona battleship and the immense loss of life associated with her sinking came to symbolize the reason the U.S. was fighting in WWII in the months and years following the attack. The memorial is absolutely beautiful, and the rest of Pearl Harbor is worth visiting, too.

USS Arizona Memorial
On the USS Arizona Memorial

Where: Honolulu, Hawaii

How much: The USS Arizona Memorial is free to visit – you just need a ticket; the other attractions at Pearl Harbor have entrance fees.

RELATED: Travel Guide: Visiting Pearl Harbor

11. Statue of Liberty National Monument

Statue of Liberty
Lady Liberty herself

As cliche as it sounds, the Statue of Liberty is nevertheless still a pretty cool thing to see in New York City.

The statue's official name is “The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World,” and she was a gift to the US from France in 1886. The statue – along with nearby Ellis Island – was designated as a National Monument in 1924.

While it's true that you don't HAVE to stand in line and pay for a ferry ticket to Liberty Island in order to see the Statue of Liberty (take the Staten Island Ferry to see her for free instead!), I do recommend the full-on tour if you want to visit Ellis Island.

Ellis Island immigration hall
Ellis Island immigration hall

Ellis Island was at one point the busiest immigrant inspection station in the United States. From 1892 to 1924, nearly 12 million immigrants were processed here – perhaps even one of your own ancestors! You can visit the island and the National Museum of Immigration alongside your trip to see the Statue of Liberty.

Where: Upper Bay between New York City and Jersey City

How much: The NPS sells ferry tickets that include access to both Liberty Island and Ellis Island, or you can book a guided tour like this one.

12. Colonial National Historical Park

Historic Jamestowne
Historic Jamestowne

Want to go way back in American history? Then you'll have to head to some of the the first colonies in the New World. The Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia covers Historic Jamestowne (the first permanent English settlement in North America) and the Yorktown Battlefield (site of the last major battle of the Revolutionary War).

I'm not a huge fan of battlefields, but Jamestowne is pretty cool. And, while you're in the area, you can hit up the rest of the Historic Triangle and visit Colonial Williamsburg, too.

Where: Jamestown and Yorktown, Virginia

How much: $30 will get you entry to both NPS sites

RELATED: American Roots in Virginia's Historic Triangle

13. Oklahoma City National Memorial

Oklahoma City
Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum and Reflecting Pool

The Oklahoma City National Memorial is an outdoor symbolic memorial on the former site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which was bombed in one of the only acts of domestic terrorism in the US on April 19, 1995. The memorial consists of a reflecting pool and a field of 168 empty chairs, representing the 168 victims of the bombing.

The memorial is very moving, but it's really the adjacent museum that is worth the extra time here. The museum walks visitors through the hours leading up to and the weeks following the bombing, and is one of the best museums I think I've ever been to.

Oklahoma City Memorial
The Field of Empty Chairs, with 168 chairs representing those killed on April 19, 1995.

Where: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

How much: The memorial is free to visit; the museum costs $18

14. Pecos National Historical Park

Pecos National Historical Park
Pecos Pueblo

I haven't been to nearly enough sites connected to indigenous peoples in the U.S. One of the first I visited out in the Southwest was Pecos National Historical Park, though, and it remains a National Park Service site that I continually recommend to people.

The park is located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains not far from Santa Fe in New Mexico, and consists of the remains of indigenous pueblos. The main attraction is what's left of Pecos Pueblo, which is also a National Historic Landmark.

Where: Pecos, New Mexico

How much: Free!

This of course isn't an all-inclusive list – there are more than 350 of these non-national-park sites, after all! But these are some of my favorites that I've visited thus far, and I hope you've enjoyed learning about them.

What are some of YOUR favorite National Park Service sites that aren't national parks?

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The best National Park Service sites

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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39 Comments on “My Favorite National Park Service Sites (That Aren’t National Parks)

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  1. These are great but you need to add Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California. One of the coolest parks I’ve been to!

    Greetings Amanda,

    This article is amazing and helpful for my next year’s traveling plan.

    I recently got to visit Mount Rushmore, which was a lot of fun simply from the standpoint of visiting a big touristy area with a lot of hisotry. But unlike you, I’m a fan of the battlefield parks. One of the best I’ve seen was Cowpens, South Carolina, which was a battle in the Revolutionary War. The way that the self-guided tour leads you through the battle is very comprehensive, and you can learn a lot about the actions during the battle and its ramifications afterward. Very neat.

      Very cool! I will definitely need to give some more battlefields in the US a try. I’ve been to Mount Rushmore, too, but it’s not a personal favorite of mine.

    I’m on a mission to see as many national parks and sites as possible. So far some of my favorites that are not “parks” have been Gettysburg (very solemn but interesting and well preserved), Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (do the boat ride, loved Sleeping Bear Dunes too), Assateague National Seashore (so beautiful and LOVED the ponies), Fords Theater (the museum in the basement is great), and my home favorite Cape Cod National Seashore. Saw Devils Tower last Summer, was very cool, it really is in the middle of nowhere lol. We are slowly checking them off our list each year but we’ve only hit about 38 so far including parks so a work in progress.

      Some of those you mentioned are high on my list to visit (especially Pictured Rocks and Assateague)!

    So many great places, so little time! Arizona is full of National Monuments but I think my favorites are Sunset Crater and Wupatki, both near Flagstaff. Definitely worth a stop if you’re at Grand Canyon or Sedona. And if you’re driving from the east, you can also make a stop to stand on the corner in Winslow Arizona?

      “So many great places, so little time” is basically my life motto! Haha.

    Hi Amanda!

    This is such a great post because it’s near and dear to us this year. We’re exploring the park system with our 4th grader and her Every Kid In A Park Pass. We just visited WWII Valor in the Pacific which is a great one for sure. As far as ‘non-parks’ go, we also like Independence Historic Park in PA (Liberty Bell and Independence Hall) and also San Antonio Mission Historical Park (Alamo) which is also a Unesco site. Westward Expanision was fantastic as well!

    I’m ashamed to say that we have not visited OKC yet and we live in Tulsa. We’ll be sure to get there soon.

    Thanks for the post – I really enjoyed it!


      Sounds awesome! And yes, definitely get to OKC when you can!

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