There is a national park out there for everybody. Whether you think you belong in the mountains or desert, underwater or in a town, there is a park for you. Well, this one is for all the history buffs out there. From east to west, park to monument to historic site, we’ve got you covered, now start planning that historic road trip!
My friend Jonathan from The Royal Tour will be helping me with this one. We each chose our five favorite historic parks to share with you today.
Keep a few things in mind while you read this.
- We limited this to parks and sites that we have been to.
- I wanted to mix the list up a bit and not just include historic sites because those are the obvious choice.
- This is all personal opinion and there is no scientific definitive ranking here.
Where: Hot springs, AR
How much: Free
Why it’s good for history buffs: The park is half nature, half history with over 30 miles of trails and the preserved bathhouses in the actual town of Hot Springs. The eight bathhouses have been converted into a visitor center, a brewery, a spa, a gift shop, and an art gallery.
What not to miss: Drive up to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower and check out the views. Walk around town and enjoy some of the best breakfast ever at The Colonial. Explore the bathhouses and have a beer (or root beer) in the Superior Bathhouse Brewery. If you really want to splurge (it’s not actually horribly expensive) try out the spa services in Quapaw Baths or Buckstaff Baths. If you enjoy hiking, the Goat Rock Trail is a great hike that isn’t super long.
Where: Cortez, CO
How much: $20 May 1 – October 31, $15 November 1 – April 30
Why it’s good for history buffs: While it may not be typical American History, it is incredibly fascinating. Mesa Verde and the four corners region (Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona) is home to some of the most amazing cliff dwellings. They were built by ancestral Puebloans and have survived thousands of years and remain standing today. There are more than 2000 ruin sites at Mesa Verde alone.
What not to miss: Definitely check out all of the mesas. Drive the six-mile Mesa Top Loop and the Cliff Palace/Balcony House Loop on Chapin Mesa. If you have time, take one of the tours to Cliff Palace, Balcony House, or Long House. You need tickets for those and can get them at the visitor center. Check out Step House, Spruce Tree House, and the Far View Sites complex, too.
Castille de San Marcos National Monument
Where: St. Augustine, FL
How much: $15
Why it’s good for history buffs: Well, to start, the city of St. Augustine was founded in 1565 making it the oldest continuously inhabited European established settlement in the continental United States. Now, the fort itself is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States. It was built between 1672–1695.
What not to miss: There isn’t a ton of stuff to do at the fort, but you can do a self-tour. There are brochures available to guide you through the fort. Join a ranger program to learn about the culture and history of the park. While you’re here, wander around historic St. Augustines cobblestone streets.
Where: Torrey, UT
How much: $15
Why it’s good for history buffs: While at first glance it may not scream history, it has a surprising amount. You can find petroglyphs scattered around the park and a strong Mormon Pioneer presence. The main area of the park is the Fruita Historic District, which is home to the Historic Gifford Homestead, the Fruita Schoolhouse, and the Merin-Smith Implement Shed. It may not be the typical history you would expect, but it is still very cool to see.
What not to miss: Of course, if you have time and enjoy hiking, make sure to do some of that. Depending on the time of year that you visit, definitely, stop in the orchards to pick some of the best fruit you’ll ever have. But you’re here for the history, so stop in the Gifford House Store and Museum and make sure you try some pie, ice cream, and cinnamon rolls. The salsa is also really good and I always get some when I’m there. Next, head down to Capitol Gorge and hike to the Pioneer Register. It’s an easy, flat walk, partially in a wash. Finally, make sure you stop at the boardwalk on the main highway to see the petroglyphs. You can see some on the way to the Pioneer Register, too.
Where: Honolulu, HI
How much: Free for the visitor center and USS Arizona Memorial, it is $7.50 for the USS Arizona audio tour
Why it’s good for history buffs: Well, because it’s Pearl Harbor. The US naval base was established here in 1899 and on December 7, 1941, the base was attacked by the Imperial Japanese Navy airplanes and midget submarines. The US was now part of WWII. All eight US Navy battleships were damaged, while four sank. All were raised except the USS Arizona. The USS Arizona Memorial now stands, well floats, in its place.
What not to miss: The must-do is to go out to the USS Arizona Memorial. Tickets are free for this, but they only give out 1700 per day. Go early, especially during busy times if you want to see it. Check out the visitor center, learn about the other Pearl Harbor Historic Sites, read around the exhibit galleries, and tour the nearby USS Bowfin Submarine.
Where: San Diego, CA
How much: $15
Why it’s good for history buffs: This is the site of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s first landing in California, making him the first European explorer to set foot in what is now the western United States. A wonderfully done video at the Visitors Center tells the story of his voyage.
What not to miss: The Old Point Loma Lighthouse offers a glimpse into what life in a lighthouse was once like. But the highlight is the Bayside Trail, a short but fairly steep well-maintained trail with sweeping ocean views!
Where: Los Alamos, NM, though parking in peak season is in White Rock, NM
How much: $20
Why: Ancestral Pueblo peoples have lived in this valley for centuries, and the park has both cliff dwellings (including some caveats that you can enter) and ruins of a fairly large town, all accessible just off paved trails. The location of Bandelier makes for an easy day trip from Santa Fe!
What: Admire the stunning rock cliffs, reminiscent of Bryce Canyon. If you are able to climb up some long ladders, make the climb to Alcove House for a stunning view of the valley. Flat trails from the Visitors Center stretch along the creek, making for wonderful strolls through the peaceful scenery.
Where: Independence, CA
How much: Free
Why: Manzanar is the first – and best known – camp where Japanese-Americans were kept during World War Two. While much of the camp is no longer standing, some buildings are, holding exhibits that speak to the lives and hardships endured by Americans due to hate and fear of their race. This is a chapter of US history many would prefer to forget, which is why it is so important to visit and remember.
What: There is a self-guided driving tour, but make sure you get out of your car and walk around. The cemetery on the far north end of the camp is especially beautiful and haunting. At some times of the year, survivors of the camp welcome people at the Visitors Center. Meet them, see the video, and explore the museum as well as the exhibits throughout the site.
Where: Shiloh, TN
How much: Free
Why: Of all the Civil War battlefield sites, Shiloh is the best done. Color-coded signs track the progress of every unit that fought here, making it possible to truly experience the battle from the standpoint of any individual soldier. There were more casualties here (nearly 24,000) than in all of America’s previous wars combined. The site is beautiful, belying the horrible bloodshed that took place.
What: Take the self-guided driving tour, which traces all actions in the battle. Pay tribute to the Americans who lost their lives here. Then head south to nearby Corinth, MS to view the museum there. Corinth was an important strategic town and the battle continued there.
Boston National Historical Park
Where: Boston, MA
How much: Free
Why: Boston has the best collection of Colonial buildings and other points of interest for fans of early American history. Boston NHP is the overarching site, but it is more commonly referred to as the Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile path through downtown Boston that shows off many of the points of interest, like Paul Revere’s grave and the Massachusetts State House.
What: Walk the Freedom Trail, beginning in Boston Commons. Marvel at the new and old of Boston sitting side by side. Make sure to explore the old cemeteries along the route, as you’ll discover the graves of many famous early Americans. A few sites along the way, such as the Paul Revere House, do have modest fees, but most are free. If you have more time, visit the Bunker Hill Monument, a beautiful obelisk memorializing this key battle of the Revolutionary War.
Now that you know the best historic sites to visit, I hope you can get out to see them if you haven’t already. If you do plan to visit any of these or others, I would recommend getting the America the Beautiful national park pass. It’s $80 and will get you into the NPS sites. Now get out there and enjoy!
Jonathan Berg is a freelance writer and blogger. His blog, The Royal Tour, focuses on the “deeper” side of travel, exploring issues of politics, religion, history, and culture through the lens of unique travel experiences.
Have you been to any of these parks? Which is your favorite park for history?