UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the USA

There are 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the USA. Learn about each one and be inspired to visit by travel writers who have been there.

Located in southern Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, are the remnants of a civilization.

Across a different state border, in Kentucky, is a mammoth cave system with over 400 miles of trails, all underground. Further west there’s an active volcano with grizzly bears and bison as its unlikely residents. Out in the ocean is a 1200-mile stretch of coral reef with more than 2,500 unique species, and to the east is a governor’s mansion that’s been occupied for four centuries.

What do all of these have in common? They’re all UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United States of America.

What IS a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

Simply put, UNESCO World Heritage Sites are natural and cultural wonders of the world. UNESCO, which stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, was formed in 1945.

Nearly thirty years later, the “Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage” was adopted in 1972. Its goal is to protect places that had a significant impact on the formation and development of a society.

According to their website, “sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria.”

These criteria include representations of human creative genius; remnants of disappeared civilizations; the interchange of human values via architecture, technology, the arts, or civic planning; exceptional natural beauty; major geological, ecological, or biological developments; and sites that are vital to the preservation of threatened species.

Inclusion on this list is an international agreement that the site will be protected. This designation protects places that are not just important to one specific culture, but to all. To environments that are not just vital to one ecosystem, but to the world. 

It’s a treaty that aims to preserve the uniqueness of each place, and announces to the world that its value goes beyond the claims of one nation.

There are a total of 1,121 World Heritage Sites spread out over 167 countries, with 24 sites in the U.S.

Some of these sites are also Biosphere Reserves. These unique ecosystems receive the designation with the goal to promote sustainable use of natural resources. 

I’ve been to a few of these sites, but I wanted to learn about the others, so I reached out to fellow travel writers to share their favorites. Below is every UNESCO World Heritage Site in the United States, organized by the date each received its designation.

Photos are credited to each author, unless otherwise noted.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites USA

Learn about every UNESCO World Heritage Site in the United States of America, as told by people have been there.

Mesa Verde National Park (Mesa Verde, CO) – 1978

Theresa Goodrich

While UNESCO sites include places with cultural significance, Mesa Verde is the only United States National Park dedicated to preserving something built by humans; the rest focus on protecting the natural environment. This park is unique because the culture that inhabited this area did so for seven hundred years, from around 550 to the late 1270s.

There are over 5,000 archaeological sites in its 80 square miles, 600 of which are cliff dwellings. What’s also noteworthy is that those cliff dwellings weren’t even built until the late 1190s. They were occupied for less than a hundred years before the people who built them headed south to what is now Arizona and New Mexico.

Why did they build their homes in caves on the side of a mountain? Why did they leave? No one knows.

Mesa Verde National Park had been a place I’d wanted to visit for as long as I could remember. I finally got the chance in 2017, but unfortunately, much of it was closed due to snow, and Spruce Tree House (pictured below), was off-limits due to falling rocks. If you plan on visiting this National Park, your best bet is to go late-spring through early-fall. Or you’ll be like me and will have to go back (which is not necessarily a bad thing).

Mesa Verde Spruce Tree House
Mesa Verde Spruce Tree House

Yellowstone National Park (Yellowstone National Park, WY) – 1978

Francesca Mazurkiewicz, The Working Mom’s Travels

Yellowstone National Park is like no other place on Earth. It holds the distinction of being the world’s first national park, so that makes it unique. But the dramatic landscapes, thousands of hydrothermal features, and hundreds of geysers are what make Yellowstone seem so otherworldly. These “superlative natural phenomena” also are part of what qualifies Yellowstone as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Yellowstone has the “exceptional natural beauty” UNESCO requirement covered. Millions of years of geologic activity have sculpted the current Yellowstone landscape that wows millions of visitors each year. It is difficult to realize just how breathtaking the Yellowstone scenery is without ever visiting the park – or without visiting areas of the park other than Old Faithful. While majestic, and so named because the famous geyser faithfully erupts at almost identical intervals, it does not even come close to the exceptional natural beauty found in so many other areas of the park.

To experience Yellowstone at its most dramatic, visit in winter. The park is much less crowded so the layers of snow are virtually undisturbed. The cold temperatures cause steam to rise high into the air from the thermal pools and other geothermal features. It really is like no other place on Earth.

Yellowstone’s continuously evolving ecosystem is also home to hundreds of wild animals. Its resident ungulates probably are the most visible, especially bison and elk. It is not impossible to catch sight of the more elusive mammals, like gray wolves and grizzly bears. To spot them, visitors will need advance knowledge of the best places in the park to find them along with a great deal of patience.

Regardless of the species, it is imperative that visitors DO NOT approach or disturb the animals in any way. The animals in Yellowstone are WILD; it is not a zoo or a trained-animal show. Disturbing the wildlife compromises the human’s safety as well as the animal’s, and can result in the disruption of the ecosystem should the animal need to be removed or euthanized.

Yellowstone sits atop an active volcano and is one of the largest calderas in the world. As such, the terrain can be unstable and unforgiving. Visitors should be respectful of the land and heed posted safety warnings. We all need to do our part to protect the incredibly fragile ecosystem that is Yellowstone, so that it may be preserved for generations and “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people”.

Bison in Yellowstone National Park, photo by Francesca Mazurkiewicz, The Working Mom's Travels
Bison in Yellowstone National Park
photo by Francesca Mazurkiewicz, The Working Mom’s Travels

Kluane/Wrangell-St. Elias/Glacier Bay/Tatshenshini-Alsek (Alaska) – 1979

Gary Arndt, Everything-Everywhere

Gary, a world-renowned travel photographer, writer, and speaker, has the distinction of visiting all but one of the 23 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United States. From his site (with permission):

“This is one of the World Heritage Sites in the United States which is shared with Canada. The park is located along the border of these two countries. The park is best known for having the largest non-polar ice field and longest glaciers in the world. In addition, the park serves as a natural habitat for several wildlife species including Alaskan salmon, grizzly bears, Dall sheep, and caribou.”

Kluane / Wrangell-St. Elias / Glacier Bay / Tatshenshini-Alsek - Gary Arndt of Everything-Everywhere
Kluane / Wrangell-St. Elias / Glacier Bay / Tatshenshini-Alsek
Gary Arndt of Everything-Everywhere


Photo credit: Gary Arndt

Grand Canyon National Park (Grand Canyon, AZ) – 1979

Leigh Wilson, Campfires & Concierges

The Grand Canyon has something for everyone – geology, astronomy, archaeology, photography and so much more! I have taken several trips to the Grand Canyon and each journey offers a unique experience. Backpacking into the canyon allows you to literally walk through history as you descend through the various layers of earth dating back millions of years.

A river rafting trip, my personal favorite Grand Canyon experience, gives you the opportunity to experience the canyon in a very intimate way that not many travelers can claim. For up to 12 days, you will float through geologic history, learn about the sacred sites of the Hopi and Hualapai tribes, see Hopi Salt Mines along the river, explore side canyons full of wildlife and waterfalls and sleep under the darkest sky you’ll ever see.

Grand Canyon river guides are the best of the best, and have so much knowledge about the history of the canyon, plus they are usually amazing cooks, so you’ll start and end each day with delicious meals! A helicopter flight is another great way to experience the Grand Canyon, and a photographer’s dream with all those aerial views! Luckily, my raft trip included a helicopter ride, so I got both experiences in one trip!

Experience the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon, photo by Leigh Wilson, Campfires & Concierges
Grand Canyon
photo by Leigh Wilson, Campfires & Concierges

Everglades National Park (Homestead, FL) – 1979

Lisa Lubin, LL World Tour

I spent every summer as a kid at my grandparent’s house in a retirement community west of Ft Lauderdale. So far west, that we were practically in the Everglades, but we never went! We spent most of our time splashing around in the pool, begging our grandparents to take us to the waterslide park, and eating too much ice cream in front of the television watching Hill Street Blues with grandma and grandpa. It was only recently, that I had the chance to return to the area and visit the amazing Everglades, a stunning contrast to all the suburban sprawl just outside of it. 

The Florida Everglades is the largest subtropical wilderness area in North America and the third-largest national park in the continental U.S. At nearly 1.5 million acres in size, this park is an important habitat and sanctuary for many rare and endangered species like the manatee, American crocodile, and the elusive Florida panther.

Because of its diverse eco-system, it was named a National Park in 1934. It has since been designated as an International Biosphere Reserve, a Wetland of International Importance and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sometimes called the “River of Grass”, the Everglades is part of a complex system of interdependent ecosystems that include cypress swamps, mangrove forests, tropical hardwood forests, and the marine environment of Florida Bay.

Because of its huge size, there are three separate entrances to the park all over south Florida. Also, note, that there are other Everglades “parks” outside of the official national park area of which only a handful still allow the airboat rides.

I was on a tour at one of these parks and while I understand it’s the livelihood of some, I personally think the boat’s extremely loud noise and intrusiveness in such a peaceful place didn’t feel right or good for the fragile environment.

Also, of current note, much of the Everglades was brought into the spotlight as an important place to conserve thanks to a writer, activist, and Miami Herald reporter named Marjory Stoneman Douglas. She began to research the Everglades for an assignment about the Miami River. Douglas studied the land and water for five years, and published The Everglades: River of Grass in 1947, describing the area in great detail, including a chapter on its disappearance.

The book has sold 500,000 copies since its publication, and Douglas’ continued dedication to ecology conservation earned her the nickname “Grand Dame of the Everglades”, for her singular focus at the expense of some political interests. 

The students who attend the high school named in her honor are now valiantly following in her footsteps with their own movement. 

Florida Everglades, photo by Lisa Lubin, LL World Tour
Florida Everglades
photo by Lisa Lubin, LL World Tour

Independence Hall (Philadelphia, PA) – 1979

Michelle Marine, Simplify Live Love

Considered the birthplace of America, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is a must-see historic site for history buffs of all ages and families, especially families with school-age children.

Designated a cultural UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, Independence Hall is where both the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were signed. Located in the heart of downtown Philadelphia, visitors can enjoy not only Independence Hall, but also the Independence Hall Visitors Center, the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross House and more.

My family enjoyed the US Park Ranger-led tour of Independence Hall as well as donning period costumes and playing games in the Visitors Center. Tickets are free, but need to be reserved in advance, especially during the busy season. For more information about visiting Philadelphia with children, read our family’s experience here and find the official information here.

Independence Hall, photo by Michelle Marine of Simplify Live Love
Independence Hall
photo by Michelle Marine of Simplify Live Love

Redwood National and State Parks (Crescent City, CA) – 1980

Tom Bartel, Travel Past 50

Redwood National Park stretches 40 miles along the Pacific coast. Most of the time, the coastal climate is spewing fog into the redwood forest. That keeps the weather moist and cool, which is the climate that the giant redwood trees seem to love.

Highway 101 runs the length of the park. There are many turnoffs along the highway where you can enter hiking trails, or simply stop to take a photo. There is also a scenic route that deviates from Hwy. 101 through the forest. Be sure you take that for the best foggy vistas.

There are two hiking trails that we liked. One you have to drive down eight miles along a very bumpy dirt road called the Davison Road to get to Fern Canyon. There you will get a short up and down trek through, as the name suggests, a canyon dripping with water and ferns. You might want to bring water shoes to ford the occasional stream.

The other is the Coast Path. That’s four miles up the coast, and then four miles back along the same path to your car. A lot of up and down on that one. An alternative is to take the car up the Requa Road and then take a half-mile walk down the hillside to get a stunning view of the mouth of the Klamath river as it empties into the foggy gray Pacific.

Redwood National Park in California, photo by Tom Bartel, Travel Past 50
Redwood National Park in California
photo by Tom Bartel, Travel Past 50

Mammoth Cave National Park (Mammoth Cave, KY) – 1981

Tonya Prater, Travel Inspired Living

Mammoth Cave National Park located in Cave City, Kentucky is the world’s longest known cave system in the world. With over 400 miles of trails to explore, it’s no surprise that cave tours are the biggest draw to this national park. But there’s more to this park then what lies beneath the service. Visitors to the park can also hike, bike, go horseback riding, canoe or kayak on the Green River and camp. There is no shortage of recreational offerings.

My own family has visited the park several times over the years. We’ve enjoyed several cave tours, participating in the Jr. Ranger program and tent camping in the campground.

When our children were very young, my husband and I took them on the Frozen Niagara Tour which is a good option for those that can’t walk long distances, manage long staircases or have never ventured inside a cave and aren’t sure how they’ll handle it.

As our kids grew, we took some of the longer tours. Our favorite is the Historic Tour, partly because we all love history and partly because two memorable features that we encountered on the tour- Fat Man’s Misery and Tall Man’s Agony. This is a section of the cave where it first narrows and then the ceiling drops and floor elevates making an interesting passage for those that are tall. This portion of the tour elicited laughs from my family as my teen boys, both over six-feet-tall traversed the path.

You’ll find several other tours available, each highlighting a different aspect of the cave system. From short tours like the Frozen Niagara Tour, to the Wild Tour, a spelunking tour designed with the adventurous in mind. Participants climb, crawl and squeeze through parts of the cave that are off-limits on other tours.

Keep in mind that Mammoth Cave National Park is a popular destination and tickets for tours frequently sell out, especially during peak travel seasons. To avoid disappointment (yes, it has happened to us), reserve your tours in advance.

Mammoth Cave, credit NPS Photo
Mammoth Cave, credit NPS Photo

Olympic National Park (Port Angeles, WA) – 1981

LeAnna Brown, Well Traveled Nebraskan

One park.  Endless options.  

In the US, if you want several different geographical features then you typically need to travel to separate states, but not at Olympic National Park in Washington State.

The Pacific Ocean opens up to a rainforest that evolves into some of the most magnificent mountains one could lay eyes on (or hike through)….all in one national park.  

What’s amazing about Olympic is that if you want to just pop up to Hurricane Ridge for a few breathtaking selfies and then head back into town, that’s easy.  Want to unplug for a few days backcountry camping through multiple biomes and constantly changing scenery? Have at it!  Or, do you have a full week to create an epic road trip? Well, then I’m jealous!  And whether you are a family just looking to escape the city for a bit of nature or are a full-on mountain man, there is something for every type of traveler looking for a bit of fresh air.

The catch?  There is just so much beauty, too many viewpoints and endless hiking and activity options that you’d be hard-pressed to do it all in one trip.  However, that’s ok, it’s just another excuse to travel again and come back!

Olympic National Park, photo by LeAnna Brown, Well Traveled Nebraskan
Olympic National Park
photo by LeAnna Brown, Well Traveled Nebraskan

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (Collinsville, IL) – 1982

Theresa Goodrich

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site uniquely illustrates America’s past, both pre-Columbian and post- “discovery.” The site preserves the history of a city that existed long before Columbus stumbled onto that Bahamian beach. It tells the tale of those who built it and those who came after, from Trappist monks to a 19th-century mechanic to the archaeologists who preserve their stories. It’s continuing proof that civilization on this continent did not begin with the arrival of Europeans.

At first glance, Cahokia may seem like just a bunch of dirt mounds, but it’s much more than that. This planned city covered six square miles dotted with 120 earthworks, and seventy of them remain on the site’s 2200 acres. The community began around 700AD, about the time the Chinese invented gunpowder, as a cluster of small settlements. Over the next couple of centuries, those merged to become a larger community. By 1050 – 1150 the population had exploded to anywhere from 20,000 in most estimates to as high as 50,000 in others. To put this in perspective, London’s population was around 20,000 and the Tower of London was constructed during this period. About a third of the inhabitants of Cahokia were immigrants, making this city North America’s original melting pot.

Because of this significance, this was our first stop on our epic road trip in 2017. It’s truly a “two lane gem.”

Monks Mound at Cahokia Mounds, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Southern, Illinois
Monks Mound at Cahokia Mounds
photo by Theresa Goodrich

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Gatlinburg, TN) – 1983

Janet Frost, Go! Learn Things

I have a lifetime of memories from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In 1970 I experienced my first bear. In 1982 I honeymooned in these mountains and in 2009 I celebrated a 27th anniversary tackling the switchbacks on a Harley.

The iconic “smoke” is fog created by humidity and rainfall. This humidity is formed by the prolific vegetation “breathing” carbon dioxide up from the valleys. The park is heavily forested with native trees and plant species. The wildlife features hundreds of  bird species, mammals, and fish. It is this  biodiversity that the UN looks for when designating a Biosphere Reserve.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934, designated as a Biosphere Reserve in 1976, and certified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. This park covers 800 square miles in the Appalachian Mountains. It straddles Tennessee and North Carolina with main park entrances in the towns of Gatlinburg, TN, and Cherokee, NC. The park has 10 different campgrounds. There are 800 miles of hiking trails that cross streams, explore waterfalls and scale peaks.

It is the most visited national park in the US., ironically most of those visitors never leave their cars. When you visit, be sure to get OUT and smell the damp green forest, feel the cloying humidity in the valleys and the 30 degree temperature drop on the peaks, feel the misty lifelike fog envelope you. This park is meant to be experienced with all of your senses exposed.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Janet Frost, Go Learn Things
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
photo by Janet Frost, Go Learn Things

La Fortaleza & San Juan National Historical Site (San Juan, Puerto Rico) – 1983

Theresa Goodrich

With three forts and the oldest executive mansion in continuous use in the Americas, La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site is a massive representation of European might in the Caribbean. Shortly after Columbus arrived, the Spaniards began building fortresses to protect their ships.

La Fortaleza, built between 1533 and 1540, was the first defensive fortification for San Juan, followed by Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Castillo San Cristóbal, and San Juan de la Cruz. It’s also been the Governor’s Mansion since it was built, although it wasn’t designated as the official residence until 1822.

You can tell how important San Juan and Puerto Rico were to the Spaniards by the number of forts, but that wasn’t enough. They also built a city wall, and portions of that are within the UNESCO site. A stroll through Old Town San Juan inevitably leads you to these historic fortifications. 

La Fortaleza & San Juan National Historical Site - UNESCO World Heritage Site
La Fortaleza & San Juan National Historical Site
photo by Theresa Goodrich

Yosemite National Park (Yosemite National Park, CA) – 1984

Alice Cardillo, Take Your Bag

Easily reachable from the Bay Area in California, Yosemite National Park is full of amazing flora and wild life. After only spending half a day in the Park during a road trip in Northern California, it became one of my favorite UNESCO World Heritage Sites that I have visited. The landscapes are diverse, and offer possibilities for short and longer stays, beginners or advanced hikers.

Yosemite National Park is indeed a beautiful site where you can easily forget everything from your daily life, as you are being surrounded by nature – beautiful mountains, trees, and falls – and crossing the path of animals you may have never seen before. As a matter of fact, I had only gone for a nice hike in the wild, but it ended up being more than that! 

Yosemite brochures heavily insist on being aware of bears living in the Park, so I have to admit I secretly dreamed to see one from afar – even though I didn’t think it possible. However I had the incredible surprise of spotting one during a hike to the top of Vernal Fall – one of the easiest and most popular hikes in the Park -, fishing for a snack at the bottom of the fall!

The efforts for preservation are outstanding and hopefully its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site will encourage people to visit and learn more about its biological diversity. Visiting Yosemite was a truly unique experience that I am unlikely to forget. 

Yosemite National Park, photo credit Alice Cardillo, Take Your Bag
Yosemite National Park
photo credit Alice Cardillo, Take Your Bag

Statue of Liberty (New York, NY) – 1984

Tracy Collins, Tracy’s Travels in Time

One of the most iconic images in the world is one of the first sights you will see when alighting the plane in New York. The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World was a gift to the people of the USA from France to celebrate the centenary of American Independence in 1886.

It was created by the one and only Gustav Eiffel in conjunction with French sculptor Bartholdi. Yes, the same man who designed and built that other great iconic structure – the Eiffel Tower – was involved with this beautiful statue.

The statue stands on its own island (Liberty Island) at the entrance to New York Harbour. It was the first thing immigrants saw on their arrival in their new home country.

A visit to the Statue should be high on anyone’s to-do list when visiting New York and Is one of my top 10 things to see. There is a museum to visit and visitors can climb to the 377 steps to the crown from the main lobby and will be rewarded with a fantastic view as well as a wonderful experience.

Statue of Liberty, photo by Tracy Collins of Tracy Travels in Time
Statue of Liberty
photo by Tracy Collins of Tracy Travels in Time

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (Hawaii National Park, HI) – 1987

Barbara Ali

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is an excellent example of island building through volcanic activity. There are two active volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Kilauea. Mauna Loa is the greatest volcano on earth, as measured from the ocean floor. It has erupted 39 times. The last time was in 1984.

Kilauea continues to erupt, sometimes forming new land at the sea which can often be observed from the air or by boat. The landscape is ever-changing and one can walk over newly formed lava terrain throughout the park, as well as observe steam coming from below the surface. It is especially dramatic at night. For current conditions, visit the park website at https://www.nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit

Hawaii Volcanoes, photo by Barbara Ali
Hawaii Volcanoes
photo by Barbara Ali

Chaco Culture, including Aztec Ruins (New Mexico) – 1987

Jessica Norah, Independent Travel Cats

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is a park located in northwestern New Mexico that contains the ancient ruins of the pueblo peoples. It is believed that a major community lived here from about 850 to 1250 and that the site was likely abandoned due to climate changes and drought.

It is the most significant pre-Columbian historical area in the United States and the large collection of buildings here represented complex building methods and were the largest buildings in the United States until the 19th century. 

We really enjoyed visiting this interesting, but fragile, site with lots to see such as living complexes, kivas, and petroglyphs. The sites are spread out over a large area but there are concentrated areas where there are information trails that allow you visit some of the most significant structures. We’d recommend first stopping at the Visitor Center and Museum to learn more about the park and the pueblo people, and to plan your visit within the park from there.

There are several backcountry hiking trails and you can purchase a trail guide at the Visitor Center if interested. Chaco is located about a 3 hour drive from both Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and can be a great place to go for a dose of ancient culture if you are visiting New Mexico for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta or other event. As a designated International Dark Sky Park, it is also a great place for stargazing.

Chaco Culture - photo by Jessica Norah, Independent Travel Cats
Chaco Culture
photo by Jessica Norah, Independent Travel Cats

Monticello and the University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA) – 1987

Karen Turner, Wanderlustingk

Monticello is a stunning site only a day trip from Washington D.C.  Visitors to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, can learn about his daily life, his role as a slave owner, and his influences in a well-maintained historical home.  I think that Monticello is important to visit as it explores the reality of many plantations: they were run on slave labor. 

Here, you can tour the slave quarters as well as learn more about their lives.  This is especially interesting in Jefferson’s case as he had children with Elizabeth Hemings, one of his slaves.  I found the emphasis on black history to be one of the most fascinating parts of Monticello.

More generally, the grounds are especially well-maintained and I especially enjoyed browsing his library to see Jefferson’s’ writing influences.  The design itself is quite innovation, designed by Jefferson himself, which gives a more in-depth glimpse to this fascinating founding father who had many interests outside of government.

Monticello is more generally a great example of neo-classical architecture in the United States and anyone interested in history will enjoy browsing the house as well as the grounds.  The greenery is a nice respite from the capital.

Monticello, photo credit Karen Alexis, Wanderlustingk
Monticello
photo credit Karen Alexis, Wanderlustingk

Taos Pueblo (Taos, NM) – 1992

Amanda Williams, A Dangerous Business

A “pueblo” refers to a native settlement in the southwestern United States, usually characterized by multistoried adobe houses and buildings. Taos Pueblo in northern New Mexico is one of these settlements and represents one of the oldest communities in the U.S.

The main part of the adobe buildings at Taos Pueblo was built prior to the year 1400, but people from the Tiwa-speaking tribe have actually called the Taos area home for at least 1,000 years. This is one reason that Taos Pueblo is both a National Historic Landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Taos Pueblo isn’t just ancient history, though – it’s also living history. UNESCO recognizes Taos Pueblo for its traditional architecture, yes, but it also recognizes “the living culture of its community.” I got a taste of this living culture by taking a free walking tour of the pueblo led by a local guide.

Even though very few people live within the pueblo walls today (due to the fact that the governing Tribal Council does not allow modern amenities like electricity and running water, most of them live nearby in modern homes), the pueblo is still used in traditional ways.

Bread is still baked in the humped earthen ovens. Trained hands still spin traditional pottery. And, once a year, the community still holds a ceremony to refinish the walls of each building in the pueblo with a new coat of adobe plaster.

Visiting Taos, therefore, isn’t like visiting a museum or an “historically accurate” recreation of a town. It actually puts you right in the center of the history and stories of the pueblo. And I think that’s what makes it so special and so worth visiting.

Taos Pueblo, photo by Amanda Williams, A Dangerous Business
Taos Pueblo
photo by Amanda Williams, A Dangerous Business

Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (West Glacier, MT) – 1995

Kay Rodriguez, Jetfarer

Located on the United States and Canadian border, the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park boasts some of the most stunning glacial landscapes in the world.

Originally, the two parks were separate entities, with Glacier National Park on the United States side and Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. However, in 1932, the two parks combined to form this renowned UNESCO Heritage site.

This breathtaking park is well deserving of its UNESCO designation because of its unique topography and picturesque landscapes, its abundant plant and animal life, and its unified nature across two neighboring countries.

Waterton Glacier International Peace Park is perfect for outdoor lovers of all kinds. Here, hikers of all levels can tackle a variety of different hiking trails on both the Canadian and American sides of the park.

Alternatively, a drive down Going to the Sun Road boasts amazing panoramic views and photo opportunities for avid photographers. While I was traveling in Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, I enjoyed doing a little bit of everything – hiking to spectacular views, driving through striking landscapes, and enjoying the unique, glacier-formed landscape around me.

Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park, photo by Kay Rodriguez of Jetfarer
Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park
photo by Kay Rodriguez of Jetfarer

Carlsbad Caverns National Park (Carlsbad, NM) – 1995

Laurence Norah, Finding the Universe

Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico is without doubt one of the most spectacular cave systems I’ve ever visited. The scale of the place is just mind boggling – it is truly cavernous, and more than deserving of its UNESCO designation.

There are two main options for visiting – you can take the lift down to the main cave floor, from where you can explore the main 1.25 mile trail through the largest single cave chamber in North America. Alternatively, and my recommendation if you are able and reasonably fit, is the option to enter through the Natural Entrance.

This trail is quite steep, and has you descending the equivalent of seventy five storeys, but really gives you an incredible impression as to the scale of this cave system. That was the entrance we took when we visited, and it was a fantastic experience. 

The caves are absolutely massive, and filled with the sort of formations that you would expect to see, only on a much, much bigger scale than you might previously be used to from other caves. They are also home to a large colony of bats, and staying until dusk to watch these little chaps pour out of the cave entrance in their tens of thousands is another must-do experience.

Carlsbad Caverns White City - photo by Laurence Norah, Finding the Universe
Carlsbad Caverns White City
photo by Laurence Norah, Finding the Universe

Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (Honolulu, HI) – 2010

Theresa Goodrich

Stretching northwest from the Hawaiian islands, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is “the largest contiguous fully protected conservation area under the U.S. flag, and one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world.” This preserve spans 1,200 nautical miles. To put that in perstective, if that area were placed on a map of the continental US, it would stretch from New York City to Omaha.

Within this space, the World Heritage Site is protecting coral reefs that house 7,000 marine species, a quarter of which can be found nowhere else on earth. There’s also cultural significance. The island of Mokumanamana has the highest density of sacred sites in the Hawaiian Archipelago, and the Battle of Midway National Memorial, commemmorating the military action during World War II.

This is the one UNESCO World Heritage Site that is not open to the general public. Because of its location, its delicacy, and reductions in staff, tourism is not allowed. 

Monk Seal at Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument
Monk Seal at Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument
photo Andrew Gray/NOAA, 2017

Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point (West Carroll Parish, LA) – 2014

Before the Mayan pyramids were built, the inhabitants of what is now Louisiana built a complex of earthen mounds. The construction of these earthworks was exception because they were created by a society of hunter-fisher-gatherers. It’s estimated that the site dates to 1,700-1,100 BC.

One of the most significant features of the site is a series of six semi-elliptical earthen ridges, which extend nearly three-quarters of a mile and surround a flat plaza. It took another 2,000 years before similar earthen construction was built in North America, and the later ones were by agrarian societies.

Poverty Point UNESCO World Heritage Site in Louisiana
Poverty Point UNESCO World Heritage Site in Louisiana
photo by Theresa Goodrich

Poverty Point was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962, and it became a Smithsonian Affiliate in 2010. Like Cahokia, a highway runs through the middle of it, but they’re working to minimize the impact it has on the site.

An overview of the Poverty Point Site, built between 1650 to 700 BCE, during the Archaic Period in the Americas. Work by Heironymous Rowe
An overview of the Poverty Point Site
work by Heironymous Rowe

San Antonio Missions (San Antonio, Texas) – 2015

Angela Essington, Dang Travelers

San Antonio’s four historic missions, Mission Concepción, Mission San Jose, Mission San Juan and Mission Espada, are all connected by an eight-mile paved trail along the river. The self-sustaining communities were established to spread the word of Christianity among the natives. 

My husband and I hopped on bikes to take a ride back in time to learn about the lives of the Spanish settlers from the 18th century. The Missions National Historical Park allows visitors to delve into the beginning when explorers first began to colonize Texas. The intermingling between the natives and missionaries forever shaped the culture of that area. 

San Antonio Missions, photo credit Angela Essington, Dang Travelers
San Antonio Missions
photo credit Angela Essington, Dang Travelers

The 20th Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright (Multiple Locations) – 2019

If there was ever any doubt that Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the most influential people of the 20th century, that has been laid to rest.

Eight works by the famed architect have been inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List. These works span the contiguous U.S. from Los Angeles to New York City with a concentration in the Midwest: Fallingwater, Hollyhock House, the Guggenheim Museum, the Jacobs House, the Robie House, Taliesin and Taliesin West, and Unity Temple. 

Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin; a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin

How many of these UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the USA have you visited?

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