Utah Stories from the Beehive Archive

National Monuments to National Parks


Dublin Core


National Monuments to National Parks


Utah is home to five national parks that protect stunning red-rock landscapes. All but one of them began as a national monument. What's the difference, you may ask? Learn all about it.

Zion National Park is a world-famous destination, and its annual visitorship puts it in the country’s top three parks. But even before Zion Canyon was attracting tourists in droves, it was protected as part of Mukuntuweap National Monument. In that way, Zion is not unique. National Monument designation was a stepping stone to National Park status for four of Utah's "Mighty Five" parks. While both designations exist to protect natural wonders on public land, the large numbers of tourists who visit national parks mean that these sites must balance recreation with preservation.

National monument designations date back to the early 1900s. At the time, the Conservation Movement promoted the management of the nation's resources for public use. The preservation of awe-inspiring natural landscapes and priceless cultural heritage was another prominent theme, and the Antiquities Act of 1906 became the cornerstone of these efforts. Enacted in response to the looting of archaeological sites, the law gave the US president power to create national monuments by executive order to protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” on federal lands.

In practice, presidents beginning with Theodore Roosevelt used the law expansively to protect natural landscapes. Roosevelt made Devil’s Tower in Wyoming the first National Monument in 1906, and proclaimed Utah’s firstNatural Bridgestwo years later. Ten more national monument designations followed in Utah in the next few decades. 

National parks tend to be larger than monuments and must be created with an act of Congress. While monuments and parks both offer educational experiences and preserve historic and scenic sites, the parks’ recreational opportunities attract large numbers of visitors. After World War II, more people were driving automobiles, and new highways made these remote places accessible. The National Park Service responded to this demand with “Mission 66," which was a ten-year plan launched in 1956 to double visitor capacity. With the creation of Canyonlands and the National Parks designation of Arches and Capitol Reef in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Utah’s Mighty Five were complete. These parks have become the cornerstone of Utah’s tourism economy.


By Gregory E. Smoak for Utah Humanities © 2024


Image: Tourists stop inside the Mount Carmel Tunnel, Zion National Park, c 1940. As roads were constructed and automobiles rose in popularity, visitors flooded to Utah’s beautiful and recently-established national parks. Courtesy Utah Historical Society.

See Gregory E. Smoak, Nate Housley, and Megan Weiss, Rural Utah at a Crossroads(Salt Lake City: Utah Humanities, 2023); “History & Culture of Zion National Park,” National Park Service; “Difference Between a National Park and a National Monument,” National Park Service.


The Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities. Find sources and the whole collection of past episodes at www.utahhumanities.org/stories.