The 12 (Other) National Park Units in the Great Plains
Fossils, missiles, and wagon trails – oh my! The Great Plains are full of history, dating back millions of years to as recent as the past century. Many of these sites are preserved as National Park Units in the Great Plains – but they often get overlooked for their bigger brethren, the National Parks.
Recently, I shared a guide to the five National Parks in the Great Plains; I’ve also posted separate posts about the National Park units in Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. Today I’m covering the remaining National Park units in the Great Plains (specifically Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Wyoming). These sites run the gamut within the National Park system: there are National Monuments (which typically protect natural wonders similar to National Parks), National Historic Sites (which protect manmade places of historic importance), National Recreation Areas, National Historic Trails, and National Memorials.
If you’re planning to visit the Great Plains and want to visit the many wonders of this region, go beyond the National Parks, this list will help. You can explore the National Park Units in the Great Plains along your route, and choose to add a few others to your itinerary. Taken together, they create a patchwork of unforgettable experiences across the Great Plains states.
In this post, I promote travel to destinations that are the traditional lands of the Nʉmʉnʉʉ (Comanche), [Gáuigú (Kiowa), Ndé Kónitsąąíí Gokíyaa (Lipan Apache), Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute), Jicarilla Apache, Mescalero Apache, Piro, Sumas, Mescalero Apache, Tampachoa (Mansos), Apsaalooké (Crow), Cheyenne, Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, Pueblos, Jumanos, Arapaho peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument, Texas
Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument has been in existence for over 13,000 years. This location was used by mammoth hunters as an unending source of flint. The colorful flint found in this location has been useful over the years and has become an important tool for culture, commerce, and survival in the Great Plains. Plan a visit to Alibates Flint Quarries and learn about the different colors of the unique Alibates Flint.
Details ofAlibates Flint Quarries National Monument:
- Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument is open year-round from 9am to 4pm daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas.
- Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument has no admission fees.
- Click here to visit the NPS page for Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument.
Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, Colorado
This is another National Monument in the Great Plains. The historic site features an 1840 adobe fur trading post that was used by trappers, travelers, and traders from the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes.
Visitors who choose to go on a self-guided tour get to experience the original sounds, sights and smells of this location which historians have recreated. You can take a guided tour or attend demonstrations that offer a more immersive experience.
Details of Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site:
- Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site is open year-round.
- The admission fee for Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site is $3 for adults and $2 for children. (The America the Beautiful Pass cannot be used here.)
- Click here to visit the NPS page for Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site.
Capulin Volcano National Monument, New Mexico
Located in New Mexico, this U.S. National Monument in the Great Plains is a part of the 8,000 square mile Raton Clayton Volcanic Field. This unique site features hiking trails and a path around the volcano where visitors can drive around to have better views of the cinder cone volcano.
Enjoy the spectacular views, whether at day or night, and learn about the history of Capulin and its dynamic landscape, which allows several species of plants and animals to live and thrive around the volcano.
Details of Capulin Volcano National Monument:
- Capulin Volcano National Monument is open year-round.
- Admission to Capulin Volcano National Monument is $20 per car (or you can use the America the Beautiful Pass).
- Click here to visit the NPS page for Capulin Volcano National Monument.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Located on the far western edge of the Great Plains, Carlsbad Caverns National Park neighbors Guadeloupe Mountains National Park – the two straddle the New Mexico-Texas state line. Until late 2019, Carlsbad Caverns was the only national park in New Mexico. (This changed in 2019 when White Sands became a national park.)
Like Wind Cave, Carlsbad Caverns is a national park that’s focused more on the natural wonders underground instead of those on top of it. The national park includes a system of 119 caves; the best thing to do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park is obviously exploring these!
You can do a self-guided exploration of two main parts of the caverns, with different formations and difficulty levels. Or, if you want to explore even more, ranger-led programs take you into other parts of the cave system. (These tours are currently suspended due to the pandemic, but the self-guided parts of the caves are still open.)
Carlsbad Caverns also has great programs at sunset and sunrise – focused on the local bat populations – and for stargazing once the sun is gone each day.
Details of Carlsbad Caverns National Park:
- The caverns are open from 8am to 5pm daily all year, with the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s days.
- Admission to Carlsbad Caverns is $15 for adults (free for kids under 15), and the pass is good for three days. (You can also use an America the Beautiful Pass instead.)
- There are no formal campgrounds at Carlsbad Cavern National Park, but you can go backcountry camping with a free permit you can get at the visitor center.
- The nearest hotel is White’s City Cavern Inn in White’s City, NM, seven miles from the caverns. There are numerous options in Carlsbad, NM which is 20 miles from the caverns.
Chamizal National Memorial, New Mexico
Step into an urban park specifically set to create a reminder of the settlement of a boundary dispute between Mexico and the United States over 100 years ago. Chamizal National Memorial was established solely to promote mutual respect and celebrate the cultures of both the US and Mexico.
Currently, this location features a full performance theatre that seats up to 500 people. These stages host plays and shows that share the park’s history and culture. There is also a cultural center where paintings and exhibits of Mexico’s traditional dress are displayed.
Details ofChamizal National Memorial:
- Chamizal National Memorial is open year-round from 10am to 7pm, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
- There is no admission fee to visit Chamizal National Memorial.
- Click here to visit the NPS page for Chamizal National Memorial.
Devil’s Tower National Monument, Wyoming
Housing one of the most famous rock climbing locations in North America, the Devil Tower National Monument is another unique national monument in the Great Plains. This tower is an absolute wonder of nature, a geological feature that shoots out of the Black Hills’ prairie.
Northern Plains Indians consider the Devil’s Tower sacred, and visitors are excited to learn all about the cultural history and modern implications of this grand edifice.
Details of Devil’s Tower National Monument:
- Devil’s Tower National Monument is open year-round but hours vary by season.
- Admission to Devil’s Tower National Monument is $25 per car (or you can use the America the Beautiful Pass).
- Click here to visit the NPS page for Devil’s Tower National Monument.
Fort Davis National Historic Site, Texas
Fort Davis National Historic Site in the Great Plains is one of the surviving military posts of the Indian Wars in the southwest. This Fort was used to protect emigrants during the war. It also served as a secure location for mail coaches and freight wagons on the Chihuahua Trail.
Details ofFort Davis National Historic Site:
- Fort Davis National Historic Site is open year-round from 8am to 5pm, with the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, and MLK Jr. Day.
- Admission to Fort Davis National Historic Site is $10 per person or $20 per vehicle, good for 7 days.
- Click here to visit the NPS page for Fort Davis National Historic Site.
Fort Laramie National Historic Site, Wyoming
Originally built as a fur trading fort in 1834, this historic site later became the largest military post on the Northern Plains. It features a restored 1884 Commissary Storehouse where visitors can view a short orientation film at the beginning of their tour.
If you love exploring ancient sites and ruins, this is the best National Monuments in the Great Plains for you. Walk through the grounds or take a hike on the trail leading through the Old Iron Bridge to the Laramie Rivers.
Details of Fort Laramie National Historic Site:
- Fort Laramie National Historic Site is open year-round but hours vary by season.
- Admission to Fort Laramie National Historic Site is free.
- Click here to visit the NPS page for Fort Laramie National Historic Site.
Fort Union National Monument, New Mexico
This is the largest 19th-century military fort in this region. Running from 1851 to 1891, this Fort was used to foster cultural and political change in New Mexico and beyond.
Fort Union sits on a sweeping valley of short grass prairie along the Santa Fe Trail and is open to visitors of all ages. You can enjoy a self-guided walk through the entire trail or join any of the daily group tours where you will learn about the history of this national monument in the Great Plains.
Details of Fort Union National Monument:
- Fort Union National Monument is open year-round but hours vary by season.
- Admission to Fort Union National Monument is free.
- Click here to visit the NPS page for Fort Union National Monument.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
The final national park in the Great Plains is Guadalupe Mountains National Park, located at the southern end of the same Guadalupe Mountains that contain Carlsbad Caverns. Similarly, this national park is on the edge of the Great Plains; the landscape is somewhat different than you’ll find further north in the Great Plains region.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park offers a lot of diversity to explore: a Permian fossil reef that dates back over 250 million years, four of Texas’ tallest mountain peeks, and a combination of deserts, dunes, and canyons.
Hiking is the most popular activity in Guadalupe Mountains; be sure to keep your eyes peeled for wildlife (javalinas! tons of birds!). The park also draws lots of visitors each fall for the fantastic leaf colors you can see in the park. There are also a number of historic ranches in the park for those more interested in “modern” history (compared with fossils!).
Detalis of Guadalupe Mountains National Park:
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park is open year-round.
- The admission fee is $10 per person to enter the national park. (You can also use an America the Beautiful Pass instead.)
- There are two campgrounds in Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Pine Springs and Dog Canyon campgrounds. Both are first-come, first-served for sites.
- Accommodation is limited near the park; the nearest hotel is White’s City Cavern Inn in White’s City, NM. (This makes it logical to combine a trip to Carlsbad Caverns and the Guadalupe Mountains and stay the whole time there!)
Lake Meredith National Recreation Area, Texas
One of the major National Park units in the Great Plains, Lake Meredith National Recreation Monument, features a 10,000-acre human-made reservoir where tourists and locals enjoy swimming, fishing, camping, hiking, boating, and hunting. This hidden oasis is home to several unique wildlife, migratory birds, and humans.
Visitors also have access to the five boat launch ramps and one marina, which provides direct access to the lake.
Details of Lake Meredith National Recreation Area:
- Lake Meredith National Recreation Area is open year-round.
- Admission to Lake Meredith National Recreation Area is free.
- Click here to visit the NPS page for Lake Meredith National Recreation Area.
Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, Colorado
Built to commemorate the bloody 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, this historic site has become a major stopover site for many travelers. Covering over 80 miles towards Denver and 125 miles east of Pueblo, this site is symbolic, profound and spiritual. This site features a small visitor’s center, monuments placed on a hilltop over the massacre site, two walking trails and several interpretive plaques and signage.
Details of Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site:
- Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site is open year-round, Thursday through Monday each week (closed Tuesday and Wednesday).
- Admission to Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site is free.
- Click here to visit the NPS page for Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.
Now you know about all of the other National Park Units in the Great Plains – including the historic sites, trails, and memorials that help protect our national history and heritage.
Which of these national park units in the Great Plains do you want to visit? Let me know in the comments!