The USA is a country with a fascinating past, which, thankfully, the government has been careful to preserve-- more likely than not, there's a National Monument or Memorial that's a few hour's drive or less from most people. Whether you're looking to entertain kids, or you're just looking to spend a few hours doing something a little different, these historic sites, monuments, and memorials are each like a little puzzle piece that help tell the (sometimes somber) story of America, and why it's such a unique place. Pro tip: these are great day trips or stops on a Memorial Day road trip!
Designed as a sundial, the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial contains the names of the 1,103 Kentuckians who were killed in the Vietnam War. The names are arranged so that the shadow of the dial falls on each person’s name on the date of their death, creating a personal memorial day.
The Liberty Memorial, a tribute to the men and women who served in World War I, has been around since the 1920s, but President Obama recently had it designated as the National WWI Museum and Memorial, upping its status to an official National U.S. Memorial. A 217-foot Egyptian Revival-style tower, which emits steam lit by colored lights to mimic a massive memorial flame each night, is the centerpiece of a site that also includes a museum dedicated to WWI history.
A lot of really important history has happened in the humble Independence Hall. It's where our Founding Fathers met during the Second Continental Congress and made George Washington Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, committed treason by signing the Declaration of Independence, and drafted the framework of our country during the Constitutional Convention. It's kind of unbelievable that you can stand where these legendary historical figures stood as they created America as we know it.
In Independence Hall, you can also find the Liberty Bell, a famous symbol of freedom, thanks to a story that it was rung by an old bellringer upon hearing of the Continental Congress's decision to declare independence (which, even though the story is largely unfounded, is at least nice to imagine.)
"Oh, say can you see..."
Fort McHenry has been an important military base during times of trouble, from the Civil War to WWI, but it's best known for the role it played during the War of 1812. The fort successfully defended Baltimore Harbor against an attack from the powerful British Navy. Francis Scott Key, a lawyer who was in town negotiating the release of prisoners of war, saw a storm flag being raised above the fort as the battle drew to a close, signifying an American victory. He was so inspired by the sight that he wrote a poem called "Defence of Fort M'Henry", which would later be turned into our National Anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner".
The National Mall is home to countless museums and memorials, all wrapped up into one totally awesome historic site. Within the Mall and around its immediate perimeter, you'll find major icons like the the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the National WWII Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, the US Capitol Building, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
But wait... there's more! Along the edges of the Mall, you can find many Smithsonian Museums, which are all free and open to the public. Pop into the National Museum of American History, National Museum of Natural History, National Museum of the American Indian, and National Air and Space Museum, among others.
People gather here to witness Presidential inaugurations, hold rallies (MLK Jr. gave his famed "I Have A Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial), attend festivals, and more.
Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most inspirational and influential figures in all of American history. See the home where he grew up, the church where he got his start, and learn about the forces that shaped him into the icon he became at this comprehensive historic site. Explore the preserved buildings, tour the museum in the visitor center, and reflect on the past and future in the beautiful rose garden.
Larger-than-life leader Abraham Lincoln came from very humble beginnings: he was born and spent much of his childhood on farms in Kentucky. The Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park preserves two of the home where he spent his youth, until about age 7. You can see historic log cabins similar to the ones Lincoln lived in, and learn about the hardships he endured growing up on the frontier before he went on to become the leader who managed to guide our country through its most difficult tragedy: the Civil War.
The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is home to St. Louis's famed Gateway Arch, which symbolizes America's expansion westward across the Mississippi. Head into the visitor center, located underground below the Arch, to learn about America's expansion and about the history and architecture of the iconic monument. Then, make the journey to the top of the Arch and take in the views of the Mighty Mississippi and the country's Heartland.
Mount Rushmore is definitely one of America's more... random monuments. Who knows what inspired Danish immigrant Gutzon Borglum to carve massive busts of a random assortment of Presidents into the side of a South Dakota Mountain? Whatever the reason, he did it, creating one of the most iconic monuments in the country, and an interesting tribute to American pride, passion, and dedication.
The site of Custer's Last Stand, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is a somber reminder of a time when the country was at war with Native Americans. Unpack the complicated story of the conflict between American settlers and native peoples at this monument, and pay tribute to all of those who lost their lives during this battle and others.
People have occupied the land set aside in Hovenweep National Monument since 8000 BC. Pueblos, castles, towers, and petroglyphs left behind by these Native Americans can still be seen. Although there are multiple archaeological ruins left behind by the Pueblo Indians across the Southwest, Hovenweep is distinctive for the amount of time it was occupied, and for its designation as an International Dark Sky Park with outstanding stargazing.
White Sands National Monument is notable for its strikingly white gypsum sand dunes, but its location near the White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base add an extra layer of interest as well. After exploring the White Sands Missile Range Museum, trying sledding or sandboarding down the dunes for a fun way to end your adventure!
Remember the Alamo! The Alamo Mission is most well-known for its role in the Texas Revolution. A small band of Texans held out against a raid by the Mexican Army here for 13 days before falling to the siege. Even though that battle was lost, the loss bolstered the rest of the revolutionaries, and Texas eventually gained its independence. You can still tour the mission today-- it's a great place to learn about Texas's unique history.
Reflect on America's more natural beauty at a spot like Muir Woods National Monument. Set aside and dedicated to famed naturalist John Muir, the woodland's popularity speaks to our country's love for its own gorgeous scenery and wilderness. If you visit, be prepared for some world-class hiking and natural serenity!
A trip to a National Monument might seem more like a field trip than a fun weekend activity, but monuments and memorials provide historical insight, unique entertainment, and lovely views unlike any other place in the country!