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Researching a potential destination to find it’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site is always a perk. That said, do any of us really know what it means? UNESCO stands for “United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization” and while there are many criteria for being named a World Heritage Site, the two easiest identifiers are that a site “represents a masterpiece of human creative genius” or “areas of exceptional natural beauty”.
Aside from highlighting sites around the world that represent either human or natural achievement, UNESCO also works on worldwide projects to improve female education, raise understanding around catastrophes like the Holocaust, and defend free media, among other things. Notably and unfortunately, in the last year, the United States of America withdrew their official membership from UNESCO, citing anti-Israeli bias. However, that doesn’t take away the already-existing 23 USA UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Below, we count down the US sites and highlight a few of our favorites.
Sites of Breathtaking Natural Beauty
Yosemite National Park
Arguably the most beautiful place in the world, Yosemite was once proclaimed by famed conservationist John Muir as “by far the grandest of all the special of temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” Recognized by UNESCO primarily because of its iconic valley, the organization treasures the unique rock formations created millions of years ago by glacial erosion. The sharp granite cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and Giant Sequoias also are among the features that make Yosemite a more than deserving member of this list.
Yellowstone National Park
A member of the United States’ first class of UNESCO World Heritage Site inductions, Yellowstone was also the first official National Park in the world, signed into existence by Ulysses Grant in 1872. Tourists and the committee both recognize Yellowstone as one of the best places to see geothermal activity, including the spectacular Old Faithful geyser. Plus, with the discovery of some 150 species of fossilized plants, Yellowstone is not just beautiful but also a site of natural history. Looking to get your heart pounding at Yellowstone? This two-hour rafting tour on the Yellowstone River is an incredible experience.
Everglades National Park
Of all the 23 UNESCO sites in the United States, Everglades National Park is the only one listed as officially “in danger.” The danger is due to the encroachment of human dwellings, which has resulted in the loss of much of the Everglades’ marine habitat and animal life. Regardless of the impending threats to the Everglades, the largest national park in Florida remains the biggest tropical wilderness in North America and home to mangrove forests, the Florida panther, and manatees.
Olympic National Park
The only national park in Washington State to be recognized, Olympic National Park is a striking blend of coniferous rainforest intersecting with rugged coastline. Originally named an International Biosphere Reserve, the UN added the UNESCO title in 1981. Olympic National Park is unusual in the sense that it contains three distinct ecosystems, subalpine forest and meadow, temperate forest, and Pacific coast.
Grand Canyon National Park
When it comes to breathtaking sights in wild places, there are few more famous than the Grand Canyon. Considering the canyon can, at times, be over 6,000 feet deep and expose around two billion years of geological history, it’s really no wonder why UNESCO would consider the park to be a place of great significance. The beautiful construction of rocky gorges was done entirely by the flowing of the Colorado River and extends for 277 miles and can be as wide as 18 miles. For the best view of the vast beauty, a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon National Park is truly unforgettable.
Sites Representing Significant Human or Historical Achievement
The building of Independence Hall was completed in 1753 and received its UNESCO World Heritage Site moniker 226 years later. Located in the heart of historic Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Independence Hall is best-known as the site where the United States Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. Following the US’s victory over England in the Revolutionary War, it was also the place where American lawmakers created the Constitution. Both papers have held significant influence over the formation of governments since.
La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site
The only representative from Puerto Rico — the island nation is still a territory of the United States and so fits into this list. La Fortaleza, as well as the other onsite buildings Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Castillo de San Cristóbal, El Cañuelo, and the old city wall, all played an important role in the defense and foundation of the Puerto Rican capital city of San Juan. UNESCO also felt it is a prime example of how European military architecture influenced port cities in the Americas.
San Antonio Missions
The San Antonio Missions are the newest addition to the United States UNESCO World Heritage Site family as it was given the honor in 2015. The San Antonio Missions are five missions built in the Texas frontier and San Antonio River Valley with the goal to colonize and spread Christianity across the territory, which was then known as New Spain. Mission Valero, also known as The Alamo, is by far the most recognizable of the group. For stories about Texas’ colonial past you won’t find in guidebooks, this San Antonio Missions tour with a guide is a history lover’s dream.
Statue of Liberty
Unveiled 110 years after the foundation of the United States of America, the Statue of Liberty has always been a beacon of hope welcoming to immigrants arriving in New York looking for a better life. On the base is a plaque with a poem that famously reads “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” Given to the United States by the French, it is also celebrated as a sign of goodwill between two countries.
Monticello and the University of Virginia
Primarily an architectural achievement, Monticello and the University of Virginia was designed by the third president and author of American Independence, Thomas Jefferson. Monticello was originally his plantation home whereas the connecting University of Virginia at Charlottesville was built in his new image of university planning. The Rotunda on the UVA campus is notably a half-scale of the Roman Pantheon.
Located in New Mexico, many people are surprised that New Mexico actually has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other state (three). The Taos Pueblo, built by the Pueblo people, sometime during the 13th and 14th centuries, represented the finest preserved example of Native American life and development during the Pre-Columbian era. To this day, over one hundred people call the village home — for an authentic insight into the pueblo, this Taos highlights private tour is a fantastic way to learn about the day to day life.
Combining Human Achievement & Natural Splendor
Mesa Verde National Park
Imagine the history and construction of Taos Pueblo intertwined with the stunning environs of Yellowstone or Yosemite, and you get Mesa Verde. Located in Montezuma County in Colorado, Mesa Verde is the first ever site in the United States given the UNESCO title. Built by another faction of the Pueblo tribe, the cliff dwellings constructed into the rockface of the mountains are some of the most impressive homes built by indigenous peoples in the world. The national park itself encompasses not just the dwellings but also 52,485 acres of wilderness.