Each April, during National Park Week the National Park Service joins with the National Park Foundation, the official charity of America’s national parks, in celebrating America’s treasures. National Park Week is a time to explore amazing places, discover stories of history and culture, help out, and find your park!
Did you know that while Idaho doesn’t have any national parks, it does have three national monuments? What’s the difference, you ask? According to the National Park Service, national parks are areas set apart by Congress for the use of the people because of some outstanding scenic feature or natural phenomena. “National monuments, on the other hand, are areas reserved by the National Government because they contain objects of historic, prehistoric, or scientific interest. Ordinarily established by presidential proclamation under authority of Congress, occasionally these areas also are established by direct action of Congress. Size is unimportant in the case of the national monuments.” Examples of the latter include fossil sites, military forts, and buildings such as Ford’s Theatre where President Lincoln was assassinated. As of March of this year, there are 419 official National Park Service units in the United States, the District of Columbia, and US Territories, managed by the National Park System (NPS). Of those units, 61 have a national park designation. Not included are federal sites managed by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or Fish and Wildlife Service.
In recognition of National Park week, here’s a 2017 blog post by the National Park Foundation with suggestions on how to enjoy the three national monuments in Idaho. These might make a nice getaway while we’re waiting for the snow to melt around McCall.
Places to Visit in Idaho: Three National Parks in Three Days
City of Rocks National Reserve
Just across the state line from Utah, City of Rocks National Reserve offers a spectacular jumble of towering granite rock formations that barely seem to belong to this world. Not surprisingly, rock climbing is one of the park’s biggest draws, with numerous established routes ranging from 30 to 600 feet. Explore on your own or join the park’s Climbing Experience Program to learn more about rock climbing under the supervision of an experienced guide.
Spend the night at one of the 64 campsites scattered among the rock formations, including both drive-in and walk-in sites. Water is available in the camping area, and most sites includes a tent pad, fire grill, and picnic table. The historic village of Almo offers shopping and dining nearby.
Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument
A little less than two hours from City of Rocks, Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument lies along the meandering course of the Snake River, where some of America’s richest fossil deposits have been found. More than 200 species were discovered here, including Equus simplicidens, the earliest true horse ever discovered in North America.
As you spend some time viewing the fossil displays at the visitor center, try to imagine the landscape as it appeared during the Pliocene Epoch – inhabited by saber-toothed cats, Mastondons, and prehistoric sloths. A variety of seasonal programs are also offered at the visitor center depending of the timing of your visit, and visitors are encouraged to try uncovering fossils for themselves in a simulated dig. You’ll find a variety of accommodation and dining options in the town of Hagerman, just a few miles away.
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is a remarkable place with a tumultuous volcanic history. About three hours northeast of Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, this Idaho national park encompasses ancient volcanoes and vast lava flows that today harbor a stunning diversity of plant and animal life.
A great place for wildlife viewing and nature photography, the park is most easily explored along the 7-mile Loop Road, which leads to some of the park’s most remarkable landmarks. Take the time to hike the Broken Top Loop and explore Buffalo Cave before venturing out into the designated Craters of the Moon Wilderness Area, which includes the Lava Trees and Echo Crater.
Camping is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Most sites are for tents only, and each includes a charcoal grills, picnic tables, and access to water and restrooms. The nearest services – food, groceries, and camping gear – are available about 18 miles away in the town of Arco.
The spectacular landscape of Idaho’s national parks is best discovered at a leisurely pace. Whether you have a weekend, a week, or even longer, you can be sure that you won’t run out of areas to explore. If you find yourself looking for more places to visit in Idaho, be sure to check out some of the state’s other National Park Service sites, such as Nez Perce National Historical Park and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.
Cover photo: Craters of the Moon, Shutterstock.