The Grand Canyon. Devils Tower. Canyon of the Ancients. These icons of the American landscape would look much different today if not for a president’s pen. Sixteen U.S. presidents have used their authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect places of unique natural, cultural, and historical importance.
President Obama has made his own mark by creating or expanding 19 national monuments, shielding more than 260 million acres of public lands and waters—and the wildlife that calls those areas home—from industrial and commercial development. Here are a few of the most stunning places he’s saved and the best ways to enjoy them.
1. Basin and Range, Nevada
What it is: As otherworldly as it is beautiful, this area, named a national monument in 2015, features more than 700,000 acres of relatively untouched valleys, the sheer limestone ridges of the Worthington Mountains, and the Leviathan Cave’s stalactites and stalagmites. One of the largest ecologically intact landscapes in the Great Basin region, the area also offers habitat and migration corridors for a variety of animals.
Don’t miss: Campers, wildlife watchers, and cyclists who visit the area can enjoy a plethora of natural—and man-made—art. Perhaps the monument’s most unique feature is contemporary artist Michael Heizer’s ongoing work, City. Begun in 1972 and made of earth, rocks, and concrete, City will be one of the largest sculptures ever created upon completion at more than a mile long and a quarter mile wide.
2. Berryessa Snow Mountain, California
What it is: With outdoor recreation and natural splendor from sea level to 7,000 feet, Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument is a playground for residents of the Bay Area, about 100 miles away. The 2015 national monument designation means additional protection for wildlife, which thrives in one of California’s most diverse landscapes of streams, wetlands, hot springs, and old-growth forests.
Don’t miss: Amid the monument’s 300,000-plus acres of diverse flora and fauna, you might see red-legged frogs, bald eagles, black bears, wild tule elk, or mountain lions in action. Visitors can also hike up chaparral-covered Fiske Peak, cool off in Cache Creek’s white waters, or summit the mountain for panoramic vistas.
3. Waco Mammoth, Texas
What it is: In 1978, two Waco-area men were seeking arrowheads along Texas’s Bosque River when they came upon an unusually large bone. Staff from Baylor University’s Strecker Museum identified it as a mammoth bone, and further digging led to the discovery of a Columbian mammoth nursery herd—North America’s largest known concentration of mammoths to have died in a single event, presumably drowned between 65,000 and 72,000 years ago.
Don’t miss: Located amid oak, mesquite, and cedar trees, this 2015 monument includes a life-size mural of a Columbian mammoth and a dig shelter that visitors can tour. The Bosque River, which runs nearby, is a quiet reminder of the power of water and earth.
4. San Gabriel Mountains, California
What it is: Close to 350,000 acres of forests, creeks, and chaparral provide natural therapy for stressed Los Angelenos—and bighorn sheep—as well as more than 600 archaeological sites. There are hundreds of miles of hiking, motorized, and equestrian trails, including 87 miles of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail and a path that climbs up the 10,064-foot Mount Baldy. The San Gabriels were named a national monument in 2014.
Don’t miss: The mountains’ oak woodlands and 1,000-year-old limber pines are real treasures. Established in 1933, the San Dimas Experimental Forest is a living research site for local ecosystems and is recognized by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve. There, you can spot more than 180 species of birds.
5. Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks, New Mexico
What it is: Granted monument status in 2014, the nearly 500,000-acre wonderland includes the Organ Mountains, the Sierra de Las Uvas mountain complex, and the Greater Potrillo Mountains. Las Cruces residents love to hike and photograph the 9,000-acre landscape’s red rhyolite cliffs, volcanic tuff ridges, and desert grasslands. Petroglyphs adorn rock walls, and the ruins of a 10-room pueblo still stand; for at least 10,000 years, native peoples have lived in the area—among them the 19th-century gunslinger Billy the Kid (his outlaw rock is here).
Don’t miss: The Organ Mountains offer incredible inspiration for photographers. Their cluster of quartz monzonite spires looks, from a distance, much like an organ’s pipes. Sunsets paint orange and purple hues upon Sierra de Las Uvas’s mesas and mountaintops, where golden eagles and hawks nest and javelinas, mountain lions, and pronghorn roam.
6. Rio Grande del Norte, New Mexico
What it is: Cougars, bobcats, and bears prowl the sagebrush plains and pinyon pine forests of this 2013 quarter-million-acre monument just 28 miles north of Taos. It’s home to the mesmerizing Ute Mountain—once an impressive volcano—and other cinder-cone peaks that surround the Rio Grande River’s 150-foot-wide, 200-foot-deep canyon.
Don’t miss: The Taos Box, an 18-mile stretch of Rio Grande white water, passes through scenic 900-foot cliffs; calmer areas offer rafting and fishing for trout and pike. Bring binoculars: The Rio Grande Migratory Flyway runs through the area, so you might spot ospreys, merlins, and sandhill cranes.
7. San Juan Islands, Washington
What it is: In 2013, a wild Salish Sea archipelago became the San Juan Islands National Monument, a collection of more than 75 small and curious rocks, pinnacles, and islands topped with twisting Garry oak, red-bodied madrone trees, and historic lighthouses. The sandy beaches offer views of river otters and soaring eagles as well as the nearby white-capped Olympic Mountains.
Don’t miss: Many of the islands’ resplendent landscapes are accessible only by boat. Fescue grasslands, wildlife-inhabited wetlands, and lichen-kissed outcroppings reward kayakers who make the trek. Target the 200-acre Patos Island, the northwestern-most point in the Lower 48 states, for wildflower hikes and primitive campsites.
8. Browns Canyon, Colorado
What it is: Cathedral-like canyon walls, 10,000-foot mountaintops, groves of aspen, and rushing rivers congregate in this paradise just 130 miles southwest of Denver, designated a national monument in 2015. The area’s rugged topography provides homes to black bear, mule deer, and mountain lions, among other wildlife.
Don’t miss: Mountain drainages lead to the Arkansas River, where white-water rafters flock to exhilarating rapids with names like Zoom Flume. The river’s fresh, rushing waters also provide a variety of fish for anglers. Visitors can ride horses along Browns Canyon’s spectacular trails by day, and stargaze by night.
9. Point Arena–Stornetta, California
What it is: Building upon the California Coastal National Monument, established by President Clinton in 2000, President Obama created the Point Arena–Stornetta Unit enlargement in 2014, adding 1,665 acres of Northern California coastal bluffs and dunes to the monument’s existing 1,100 miles of islands, reefs, and pinnacles. The enlargement also preserved the lush estuary home for breeding seabirds and marine mammals on the Garcia River, where restoration efforts have brought back dwindling coho salmon and steelhead trout populations.
Don’t miss: Point Arena’s visitors can now explore fascinating tide pools, hike and picnic along striking coastline, or look for birds on nearby islands and intertidal rocks or in nearshore waters. Keep an eye out for the common loon, black oystercatcher, and red-necked phalarope.
10. Tule Springs Fossil Beds, Nevada
What it is: About a half-hour drive from the Las Vegas Strip, this 2014 national monument’s yellow earth and gray limestone hills hold countless discoveries. In 2002, researchers found more than 10,000 fossils here, some dating back 250,000 years and two ice ages. Paleontologists are still digging up evidence of mammoths, camels, and lions that once roamed the dry, yucca-dotted desert land.
Don’t miss: No formal trails have yet been created on the Mojave Desert’s largest open-air paleontological site, known as “mammoth central.” But visitors can still view the 1962 “big dig” trench, where scientists first discovered camel, mammoth, and sloth fossils. Keep a watchful eye: Stumbling upon a fossil should come as no surprise.