Most likely, you have been to a UNESCO World Heritage site in the United States without knowing it. Remember that Griswoldian summer vacation to the Grand Canyon? The high school field trip to Independence Hall in Philadelphia? The college tour of the University of Virginia? Congratulations! That’s three in your pocket. But don’t stop now. You can collect all 23, intentionally or accidentally.
For more than 40 years, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and its nearly 200 member states have been preserving, protecting and promoting the most valuable heritage places in the world. At last count, the organization has crowned 1,073 sites in more than 170 countries. Of those, 832 are cultural, 206 are natural and 35 are a mix of both categories. The chosen ones vary tremendously: The Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino in Mexico; the Villages with Fortified Churches in Transylvania; and the Engelsberg Ironworks in Sweden were all part of the class of 1993, for instance. But the diverse sites also meet the convention’s strict criterion of possessing outstanding universal value.
“It’s a beautiful thing — the shared heritage of the world,” said Mechtild Rössler, the Paris-based director of the Division for Heritage and the UNESCO World Heritage Center. “We are transmitting these sites for future generations.”
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Italy claims the highest number of sites (53), but the United States isn’t too far behind. And not to rub it in, but we do have two more than Japan, despite the Land of the Rising Sun’s cultural head start by several centuries.
The United States supported the World Heritage Convention in its development and adoption in 1972, and was one of 193 countries to have ratified the treaty. However, the relationship has frayed over the years. In 2011, the Obama administration stopped contributing payments after the organization admitted the Palestinian territories. Then, late last year, President Trump announced that the United States will withdraw from UNESCO by this December; although, as an original signer (the first, in fact), the country will maintain its state party status with the convention.
“This means the U.S. has all the responsibilities and benefits associated with being a state party” member, explained George C. Papagiannis, UNESCO’s chief of media services. “World Heritage sites in the U.S. remain World Heritage, and the U.S. can submit nominations for consideration of new sites in the coming years.”
Fortunately, UNESCO’s obligation to safeguard precious landmarks transcends politics. Even without America’s participation, the international community will continue to advocate for the protection of World Heritage sites on U.S. soil. To show our gratitude, we should give the gift of going.
Monticello and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville
Est. 1987 | Virginia
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: The plantation home and Academical Village complex (an alias for the University of Virginia) flaunt the architectural genius of Thomas Jefferson, the third president and man of many trades. The neoclassical designs are more than just aesthetic fireworks; they embody his ambitions for the budding new nation.
How to reach it: Drive or catch a train or bus to Charlottesville, about 70 miles from Richmond.
Best time to visit: Late April, when the 8,000 tulip bulbs planted in the fall bloom. Pay special attention to the striped variety, which was the all the rage during Jefferson’s time.
Insider tip: No paws allowed on the original artifacts, but feel free to touch the reproductions in the Griffin Discovery Room in the David M. Rubenstein Visitor Center and Smith Education Center at Monticello. Here, you can channel Jefferson and write on a polygraph duplicating machine, for instance, and create a secret code on a wheel cipher.
Yellowstone National Park
Est. 1978 | Wyoming, Montana and Idaho
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: Yellowstone corners the market on geothermal features, with more than 10,000 examples, plus the world’s largest concentration of geysers (more than 500). The park also excels in the fossilized plants department, with nearly 150 species, and accommodates robust populations of burly animals, including bison and bears.
How to reach it: The park has five entrances. The North Entrance at Gardiner, Mont., is the only portal open year-round.
Best time to visit: Spring, when visitation numbers are low, the bears are stirring awake and the wildflowers are starting to bloom. Babies also abound in April and May, when several species — including bison, elk, moose and pronghorn — calve.
Insider tip: Take a dip in the Boiling River, a swimming hole a-swish with cold water from the Gardner River and hot water from a spring. Make sure you are soaking in the river and not the hot spring, which the park bans.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Est. 1982 | Illinois
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: Considered America’s first city, the largest prehistoric Native American settlement north of Mexico once covered 3,500 acres and numbered 10,000 to 20,000 residents. Today, 80 out of 120 earthen mounds dating from A.D. 1050 to 1200 still exist, including the 100-foot-tall Monks Mound, the largest earthwork in North America and the only mound visitors can climb.
How to reach it: The site is a few miles from Collinsville, Ill., eight miles east of downtown St. Louis.
Best time to visit: Weekdays in June and July, when archaeologists are up to their elbows in excavations.
Insider tip: For independent and interactive exploration, rent an iPod Touch ($3 at the gift shop) and time travel back to the Mississippian civilization.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Est. 1995 | New Mexico
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: More than 119 limestone caves beneath the Chihuahuan Desert, including Carlsbad Cavern and Lechuguilla Cave, dazzle and delight with speleothems (for example, stalagmites and stalactites), sculptural reef and rock formations, gypsum chandeliers and geologic features partly shaped by bacteria. The park also contains a section of the Capitan Reef from the Permian Age (299 to 251 million years ago), one of the world’s best-preserved and most accessible fossilized reefs. Approximately 400,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats vacation in Carlsbad Cavern from late May through late October.
How to reach it: El Paso is about 2 1/2 hours away by car.
Best time to visit: September, when the bats are still hanging around but the crowds aren’t.
Insider tip: Starting on May 26, park rangers lead free evening bat talks before the winged creatures set out for mealtime. To watch their return, and their acrobatic high dives, roost outside the bat cave between 4 and 6 a.m.
Est. 1987 | New Mexico
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: The potpourri of archaeological destinations here — Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Aztec Ruins National Monument and five Chaco Culture Archaeological Protection Sites — illustrates the architectural and engineering smarts of the Chacoan people, who inhabited the region from the middle 9th to the early 13th century. Many of the structures and artworks have endured, including ceremonial buildings, great houses, kivas and petroglyphs.
How to reach it: The closest major city to Chaco Culture National Historical Park is Farmington, N.M., about 90 minutes away by car. (Albuquerque lies 180 miles to the southeast.) Aztec Ruins is in Aztec, N.M., 20 minutes from Farmington.
Best time to visit: Spring or fall, when the weather is halfway between scorching and freezing.
Insider tip: The Chaco Culture park, which was certified as an International Dark Sky Park in 2013, holds telescope-peering events from April through October. At Aztec Ruins, go semi-deep inside the only reconstructed kiva in the Southwest.
Everglades National Park
Est. 1979 | Florida
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: Let us list the ways: The park is the largest subtropical wilderness reserve (1,509,000 acres, if we’re talking numbers) with the most significant breeding ground for wading birds and the biggest continuous stand of saw grass prairie in North America. It also earns crowing rights for having the largest mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere and for being the preferred Zip code for such rare and endangered wildlife as the Florida panther, American alligator and manatee.
How to reach it: The park has three entrances in three cities: Homestead, Miami and Everglades City. Visitors can access all entry points by car and the Flamingo and Gulf Coast districts by boat.
Best time to visit: Spring, fall and winter — when the weather is bearable and the birds are out and about.
Insider tip: At the former Nike Hercules Missile Site, relive a chilling period in U.S. history, when our country aimed missiles at Cuba during the Cold War. Rangers lead walks from December through April.
Grand Canyon National Park
Est. 1979 | Arizona
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: At 18 miles wide and a mile deep, the gorge is a history book writ in rock. Its geologic layers tell a tale that goes back more than 1.8 billion years, including the period 6 million years ago when the Colorado River first raised its carving knives. The landscape is a study in maximalism, with a frozen lava flow, waterfalls and a white-water river rushing through its veins.
How to reach it: The South Rim, which is open year-round, is about 80 miles from Flagstaff, Ariz., and 212 miles from the North Rim. Shuttles run between Flagstaff or Las Vegas and Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim, and between the rims, depending on the season. The Grand Canyon Railway offers daily train service between Williams, Ariz., and the park.
Best time to visit: Spring or fall, when the heat won’t melt your inner thermostat and the facilities on both rims are open.
Insider tip: Give your legs a break and your brain a workout at the Desert View Watchtower, which hosts cultural demonstrations by 11 tribes on the weekends.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Est. 1983 | Tennessee and North Carolina
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: The lush temperate zone is home to a wildly diverse assortment of plants, bugs and animals, including 130 tree species, 65 mammal species, synchronous fireflies and 30 salamander species. (Hence, the park’s nickname, “Salamander Capital of the World.”) The park extols the virtues of age: Many of the rocks were formed hundreds of millions of years ago.
How to reach it: The park straddles two states. Drive times from Knoxville, Tenn., and Asheville, N.C., are about 45 minutes and 70 minutes, respectively.
Best time to visit: Fall, for its firework display of autumnal color, or spring, for its heavy dusting of wildflowers.
Insider tip: Help break in the new road along a 16-mile section of the Foothills Parkway. What is dubbed the “missing link” — between Wears Valley and Walland in Tennessee — is scheduled to open later this year.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Est. 1987 | Hawaii
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: The park, which climbs from sea level to 13,677 feet, contains two of the world’s most active volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Kilauea. The latter volcano has been continuously erupting since 1983 and is spurting from its 4,000-foot-high summit and the flanks of its East Rift Zone. The hot effusions are continually retouching the tropical landscape, a haven for native birds and endemic species such as a meat-eating caterpillar, a lava-loving cricket and the world’s rarest goose.
How to reach it: The park is about a 45-minute drive from Hilo, on the island of Hawaii.
Best time to visit: Whenever the lava is flowing, especially at night, when the lava lake inside Halemaumau Crater casts its orange glow into the night sky.
Insider tip: To experience the summit eruption of Kilauea, rise with the sun and head to the Jaggar Museum Overlook, the lava lake’s closest viewing point.
Est. 1979 | Pennsylvania
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were debated, adopted and signed here, setting in ink the founding principles of the new republic.
How to reach it: The Georgian-style building resides in Center City Philadelphia and is accessible by car, bus or public transportation.
Best time to visit: January and February, when tickets are not required, or on a federal holiday that pushes your patriotic buttons.
Insider tip: Not to sound like your mother but . . . spit out the gum, use the bathroom and stash your water bottle before entering the secured area.
Kluane/Wrangell-St. Elias/Glacier Bay/Tatshenshini-Alsek
Est. 1979, 1992, 1994 | Alaska and the Yukon Territory and British Columbia, Canada
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: Canada (Kluane and Tatshenshini-Alsek) and the United States (Wrangell-St. Elias and Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve) share the site, which is recognized for having the largest nonpolar ice field and some of the longest glaciers in the world. The blue-green-white space checks off several ecosystem boxes, including marine, coastal forest, montane, subalpine and alpine tundra environments. Inhabitants include bears, wolves, caribou, salmon, Dall sheep and mountain goats.
How to reach it: The Wrangell-St. Elias Visitor Center is near Copper Center, about 200 miles east of Anchorage. Only two roads, Nabesna and the McCarthy, venture into the park. To explore the Yakutat coastline and more remote sections of the park, hitch a ride on a bush plane or ferry. Glacier Bay sits west of Juneau — plane or boat required.
Best time to visit: June and July, for the warm weather, pervasive park access and riot of wildflowers. One downside: mosquitoes.
Insider tip: From the Kennecott Visitor Center in Wrangell-St. Elias, slip on your crampons and hike the two-mile Root Glacier Trail, which ends with a legit glacier that you can walk on.
La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site in Puerto Rico
Est. 1983 | Puerto Rico
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: Spanish engineers constructed the four forts and 20-foot-thick defensive wall to protect the city and San Juan Bay from invaders. Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro), Castillo San Cristobal, Fort San Juan de la Cruz and La Fortaleza exemplify European military architecture, with a Caribbean twist. In addition, La Fortaleza (1533) was the first defensive structure erected in Old San Juan and is the oldest governor’s mansion still in use in the Western Hemisphere.
How to reach it: Three of the forts are in Old San Juan and are reachable by foot or free tram. Fort San Juan de la Cruz sits in Isla de Cabras Recreational Park, in the nearby town of Toa Baja.
Best time to visit: May through October, the calm before the storming of the cruise ships.
Insider tip: Follow that wall: The 1 1/2-mile Paseo del Morro trail runs from the San Juan Gate to El Morro and back.
Mammoth Cave National Park
Est. 1981 | Kentucky
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: Formed more than 100 million years ago, the world’s most extensive cave network offers more than 400 miles of mapped channels and nearly every variety of cave formation, including stalagmites, stalactites, gypsum needles and mirabilite flowers. The 52,830-acre park is also a natural obstacle course of sinkholes, cracks, fissures, and underground rivers and springs.
How to reach it: Drive about an hour south of Louisville.
Best time to visit: The temperature inside the caves remains at a constant 54 degrees, so you can visit during winter and not feel chilled or crowded.
Insider tip: If you don’t suffer from a fear of the dark or claustrophobic spaces, sign up for the Wild Cave Tour, which takes visitors into more extreme and less traveled subterranean sections.
Mesa Verde National Park
Est. 1978 | Colorado
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: The ancestral Pueblo people left their mark on the Mesa Verde plateau with more than 5,000 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings dating from A.D. 450 to 1300. The park is also a canvas for petroglyphs, which are visible along the Petroglyph Point Trail.
How to reach it: The park entrance is about 15 minutes by car from Cortez, Colo., and 45 minutes from Durango, Colo.
Best time to visit: Late May through mid-October, when four of the cliff dwellings invite the public to come up (7,000 feet) for a visit.
Insider tip: Reserve a coveted spot on the Cliff Palace Twilight Tour, held during the enchanting sunset hour from May 25 through Sept. 8.
Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point
Est. 2014 | Louisiana
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: Hunters, fishers and gatherers constructed the ancient settlement 3,400 years ago on Macon Ridge, which overlooks the Mississippi River flood plain. Native Americans moved the soil by hand to construct mounds, C-shape ridges and a large central plaza. The “cultural capital” was a center of trade, commerce, ceremonies and catching up with friends.
How to reach it: The site is in Pioneer, La., about 100 miles west of Jackson, Miss.
Best time to visit: The seasons bookending Louisiana’s sauna summer.
Insider tip: Scale the 72-foot-tall Mound A, known as the Bird Mound, the second-largest mound by volume in North America.
Olympic National Park
Est. 1981 | Washington state
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: The park spreads its wings from ocean coast to temperate rain forest, alpine meadows to glaciated mountain peaks. It boasts one of the world’s largest stands of virgin temperate rain forest, some of the biggest coniferous tree species on the planet and nearly 75 miles of Pacific coastline — for the beachgoer who can go and go and go.
How to reach it: Depending on the entrance used, Olympia is 60 to 190 miles to the east.
Best time to visit: April and May, when the gray whales are cruising by on their way to Alaska.
Insider tip: Ski, snowboard or tube down Hurricane Ridge Ski and Snowboard Area, the most western ski resort in the Lower 48 and only one of three inside a national park.
Est. 2010 | Hawaii
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: The Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument makes some noise for its natural and cultural attractions, which are spread out — and under — 582,578 square miles in the Pacific Ocean. The largest fully-protected conservation area in the world throws a protective blanket over an underwater volcanic range (part of the Hawaii-Emperor seamount chain), 3.5 million acres of coral reefs, habitats for flora and fauna unique to the Hawaiian islands, and rookeries that provide a landing and breeding pad for 14 million seabirds. On land, the islands of Nihoa and Mokumanamana archive Polynesian and Hawaiian artifacts and traditions, such as heiau shrines and stone carvings.
How to reach it: You can’t, without a permit for conservation, management, education, research and cultural pursuits.
Best time to visit: 24/7, if you are a fish or spinner dolphin.
Insider tip: You can sample Papahanaumokuakea elsewhere in the Hawaiian islands. At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Mokupapapa Discovery Center on the Big Island, fish from the monument call the 3,500-gallon aquarium home sweet home. The Waikiki Aquarium’s Northwestern Hawaiian Islands exhibition presents an interactive kiosk dedicated to the protected area, and the Maui Ocean Center created a new Papahanaumokuakea exhibit with a topographic map, photos of the inhabitants and an explanation of its name. In Honolulu, the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum displays stone figurines from Mokumanamana. Kaena Point, on Oahu’s North Shore, bears a close resemblance to the national monument’s coastal shorelines, including lounging monk seals and nesting albatross.
Redwood National and State Parks
Est. 1980 | California
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: The 131,983-acre sanctuary for coast redwoods protects nearly half of the tallest trees in the world. The Pacific coastline and coastal mountains round out the surf-and-turf landscape, which attracts Roosevelt elk, sea lions, gray whales and salmon when the fish are running.
How to reach it: Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center, on the southern boundary, is 312 miles from San Francisco and 40 miles from Eureka, Calif. On the opposite end, the Crescent City Information Center is 112 miles south of Medford, Ore.
Best time to visit: Unless you are waterproof, avoid November through April 15, the rainy season.
Insider tip: During the summer, sign up at the Hiouchi Visitor Center for a free ranger-led inflatable kayak tour on the Smith River.
San Antonio Missions
Est. 2015 | Texas
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: In the early 1700s, Franciscan priests built Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo), their first, to help Spain and the Catholic Church colonize, convert and defend New Spain. Over the next 13 years, four more missions (Concepcion, San Juan, San Jose and Espada) sprouted up along a 10-mile stretch of the San Antonio River. The missions stir up the melting pot of influences from the colonial settlers, nomadic Coahuiltecans and other indigenous hunter-and-gatherer groups who were integral to the early Texas settlement. The site also encompasses two acequia systems (irrigation ditches), laborers (farm fields) and Rancho de las Cabras, the estate in Floresville that supplied goats to Mission Espada.
How to reach it: The Alamo squats in the center of San Antonio; the other four missions are spaced about 2 1/2 miles apart along Mission Road. Visitors can also access the sites by bike or foot on the Mission Hike and Bike Trail, or partially by kayak on the San Antonio River.
Best time to visit: This year, to celebrate San Antonio’s tricentennial, or in the Texas spring (January to March), for pleasant temperatures and shag carpets of bluebonnets.
Insider tip: Praise the music at mariachi Mass, celebrated Sundays at Concepcion and San Jose.
Statue of Liberty
Est. 1984 | New York
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: Lady Liberty has been greeting newcomers at the entrance of New York Harbor since 1886. However, the Statue of Liberty is more than just a symbol of freedom; she’s also a work of art by French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi and engineer Gustave Eiffel. UNESCO describes the landmark as a “masterpiece of the human spirit.”
How to reach it: Catch the ferry from Battery Park in Lower Manhattan or Liberty State Park in Jersey City.
Best time to visit: The first boat out on weekdays, to avoid the mash of crowds.
Insider tip: Get your steps in (377, to be exact) and reserve a ticket to the highest point of her head, the crown.
Est. 1992 | New Mexico
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: The Native American settlement at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains demonstrates the vibrant culture and traditions of the Pueblo people, starting from its establishment 1,000 years ago to today. The adobe-walled village is the largest pueblo still in existence (full-time population: about 150) and contains seven kivas; a footrace track; ruins of the San Geronim Chapel, which was built in 1619; and its replacement, which dates to 1850. The Blue Lake is one of the community’s most sacred sites, owing to its natural resources and spiritual significance.
How to reach it: Taos Pueblo is about 70 miles north of Santa Fe and less than three miles from downtown Taos.
Best time to visit: On Feast Days, when tribal members honor Catholic patron saints and Pueblo tradition. The pueblo closes for special religious events and for 10 weeks from late winter to early spring.
Insider tip: Shop local. Purchase bread baked in a pueblo oven called a horno and handmade crafts, including silver jewelry, mica-flecked pottery, and moccasins and drums made of animal hides.
Waterton Glacier International Peace Park
Est. 1995 | Montana and Alberta, Canada
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: The marriage of Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta and Glacier National Park in Montana created the world’s first international peace park and a very biodiverse baby. The monumental terrain sweeps across prairie grasslands and forests, over steep canyons and up towering mountains. Unlike human visitors, the binational elk don’t need a passport to cross the border.
How to reach it: Kalispell, Mont., is 33 miles from West Glacier, at the West Entrance, and Missoula is 125 miles to the south. Browning is adjacent to the three entrances east of the Continental Divide: St. Mary, Two Medicine and Many Glacier. Amtrak serves East and West Glacier, depending on the season. Several shuttle companies transport visitors from nearby towns to the park.
Best time to visit: July and August, when all of the park’s lodging and food establishments are open as well as the roads, including the alpine section of Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Insider tip: If you’re hungry like a grizzly bear, pick some wild huckleberries. Glacier National Park allows a quart per person per day.
Yosemite National Park
Est. 1984 | California
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: The park is best-known for its double Gs: glaciated granite. The eons-old erosion resulted in a wonderland of waterfalls, including five of the world’s tallest; polished domes; toothy peaks; and precipitous cliffs. Giant sequoia groves and alpine meadows soften all the hard stuff.
How to reach it: San Francisco is four to five hours away by car. Even closer: Mariposa, Calif., which is less than 45 miles from the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center. Amtrak offers rail-and-bus service to Yosemite Valley.
Best time to visit: April and May, when the snow melts and the waterfalls roar to life.
Insider tip: View Yosemite through the lens of Ansel Adams on a free Camera Walk led by the staff of the Ansel Adams Gallery during the summer.