Traveling North America

with UNESCO as Your Guide

written by Ellen Freudenheim, MPH

For fun, ask your best-educated friends to try to list the 20 places in the US deemed most worthy of preservation by UNESCO’s World Heritage program. They’ll be surprised to learn what’s on the list. Some famous sights are obvious: the Statue of Liberty and Grand Canyon. But what and where is Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site? And why is Waterton Glacier International Peace Park so important?

The United States is home to 20 UNESCO sites. Eight are designated of cultural value. A dozen are natural wonders: canyons, parks, glades and volcanic areas. Here is the entire list:

US East Coast Sites Include Natural, Historical Destinations

If you live on the East Coast, do yourself a favor and make a quick trip by car or train to Philadelphia to visit Independence Hall and New York’s Statue of Liberty. (Curiously, Ellis Island is not on UNESCO’s list.) In the same historical vein, a visit to Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia, sheds light on the fascinating, complex character of philosopher- inventor-politician-slave-and-plantation-owner Thomas Jefferson.

Heading south, explore the spectacular Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (It straddles two sta.tes and can be entered from either North Carolina or Tennessee.) If you’re visiting relatives in Florida, check out Everglades National Park. If you’re getting sun in Puerto Rico or Hawaii, don’t miss La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site in Puerto Rico or Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The Largest Earthwork in North America, near St. Louis

The Midwest boasts an unusual site just 15 minutes east of St. Louis, Missouri, but located in Illinois, called Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. It’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1982. Cahokia Mounds is an archaeological site documenting the existence here of a prehistoric native civilization. You can see literally mounds, where evidence has been found of habitation of up to 10,000 people dating from the 12th century. There are tourist facilities, too: galleries, an orientation show, and self-guided and guided tours along trails and up to the 100 ft high Monks Mound. Check their website for more information.

In Kentucky, Mammoth Cave National Park has nearly 350 miles of explored passageways. It is the longest known cave system in the world.

Nature’s Wonders in Far and South West

But it’s in the far western states that the bulk of the UNESCO sites in the US are located. Everyone’s heard about the wonders of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite. Less well known are the vistas in Colorado’s Mesa Verde, the stuff of which fantastical dreams are made. In Montana, Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, spanning both Canada and Montana’s Glacier National Park, offers outstanding scenery, along with prairie, forest, and alpine and glacial features. And of course, you can visit Yellowstone National Park from either Idaho, Wyoming or the Montana side.

Olympic National Park is Washington State’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is famous for the stunning diversity of its ecosystems, from glacier-topped peaks to mountain meadows and ancient forests. California’s twin must-sees, Redwood and Yosemite National Parks, are also on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list.

New Mexico wins the prize for being the state with the most UNESCO sites. There are three. Best known is Carlsbad Caverns, with 80 caves filled with decorative rock formations. At Chaco National Park you can see Aztec ruins and the remains of monumental and ceremonial buildings from Pueblo culture dating between 850 and 1250. Pueblo de Taos, located near a tributary of the Rio Grande, is an adobe Pueblo Indian settlement dating to the late 13th and early 14th centuries.

Further afield, it’s almost impossible to visit Alaska as a tourist and not take a trip on breathtaking Glacier Bay area. This too, is considered a World Heritage Site.

Americans traveling abroad are accustomed to seeking out the “highlights” of a foreign city or country, and sometimes rely on the UNESCO World Heritage listings as a way to prioritize what they choose to see and do. Right here at home are twenty fascinating destinations. Put them on your must-see list.