National monuments honor America's history — from the obscure to the iconic, from Native Americans to pioneers. Some, like Scotts Bluff (pictured), are both natural wonder and American milestone.
Here are eight Midwest areas that the National Park Service has designated as national monuments for their importance to American history. Click ahead to learn more — then make plans to see them!
Walking inside the world's second-largest cave—160 miles mapped so far—is like walking into a geode: rough on the outside, lined with white crystals and full of sparkly surprises. Nailhead calcite gives the Custer, South Dakota, cave its nubby walls that can look like coral; dogtooth spar provides the pockets of pretty crystals. Feel the cut-glass texture on a "sacrificial rock" at the beginning of one of four tours (discovery, scenic, historic lantern and wild caving). Aboveground, three trails illustrate how surface and subsurface interact (605/673-8300; nps.gov/jeca).
Daniel Freeman is credited with being the first American to get his 160 acres under the Homestead Act of 1862. Learn about the challenges of homesteading and its impact on Native Americans at this Beatrice, Nebraska, monument's cabin, museum and old schoolhouse. Walk a trail through 1 acre of prairie land. The path is exactly the width of the plows originally used to break up the land, giving a sense of how difficult it must have been for homesteaders to break the acres. Freeman's grave, and that of his wife, is also on the site (402/223-3514; nps.gov/home)
George Washington Carver, the great educator, agronomist and champion of African-Americans, was born a slave on this Diamond, Missouri, farm in the early 1860s. Trails wind past the Carver birthplace, his boyhood home and the family cemetery at this parklike monument. In a one-room schoolhouse, experience Carver's struggles for education. See how Confederate soldiers lived and make old-fashioned corn-husk dolls (417/325-4151; nps.gov/gwca).
This southeast Minnesota monument preserves traditional catlinite (red clay) quarries used to make ceremonial pipes important to Plains tribes' culture. The quarries are sacred to the tribes—many still hand quarry here—and were neutral territory where all tribes could quarry the stone. Watch a film and see local American Indians carving pipestone in the visitors center, where you can also view examples of tools, pipes, stems and more. Take a nature walk to see rock formations and a waterfall (507/825-5464; nps.gov/pipe).
The geologic formation Scotts Bluff was an important landmark for Native Americans and pioneers on the Oregon, California and Mormon trails. Rising more than 800 feet above the North Platte River in Nebraska, Scotts Bluff is just one formation at the site preserving geological history. That history comes alive on hikes, ranger talks and performances (308/436-9700; nps.gov/scbl).
Grand Portage is an 8.5-mile footpath bypassing a set of waterfalls on the Pigeon River near Lake Superior in northeast Minnesota. In the 1700s, the depot bustled with the Ojibwe and voyageur fur traders. Tour the reconstructed Great Hall, kitchen, lookout tower, warehouse (all built from white cedar) and gardens. Two aged birchbark canoes recall the area's first visitors (218/475-0123; nps.gov/grpo).
On the grassy plains of western Nebraska, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is best known for its fossils dating from the early Miocene age about 20 million years ago. A visitor center showcases ancient mammals (including dwarf rhinos and beardogs) as well as a collection of Native American artifacts. Trails leading out from the center take visitors to the sites where fossils have been found (308/668-2211; nps.gov/agfo).
Theories abound as to why effigy mounds were built. No matter the reason, Iowa's effigy mounds were sacred to 12 American Indian tribes. This Harpers Ferry spot preserves three sites featuring 206 prehistoric mounds, 31 shaped as mammals, birds or reptiles. Located in a picturesque section of the Upper Mississippi River Valley, the site offers trails past mounds, wetlands and prairies. Rangers lead hikes to Fire Point and give tool and weapon talks (563/873-3491; nps.gov/efmo).