UNESCO Celebrates 50 Years of Protecting the World’s Natural and Cultural Sites

You may have been to a UNESCO World Heritage site in the United States or Canada without knowing it. Remember that Griswoldian summer vacation to the Grand Canyon?

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, better known by the acronym UNESCO, was founded in 1945. Twenty-seven years later, on November 16, 1972, the organization’s World Heritage Convention rolled out a plan to protect the globe’s most valuable natural and cultural sites. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the milestone, UNESCO recently held a gathering in Delphi, Greece to discuss the next half-century of conservation and promotion of the essential properties.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since 1978, when UNESCO anointed its first dozen, 1,154 attractions in 167 countries have earned the distinction. Of those, 897 are cultural, 218 are natural, and 39 are a hybrid of both categories. Italy boasts the most with 58 and several countries claim one such as Fiji, Mozambique, and the United Arab Emirates. The United States and Canada are in the middle of the pack.

Related article: Plan Your Travels around a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Twenty-four sites are in the United States including Yellowstone National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, the Statue of Liberty, and various buildings showcasing the iconic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Canada has 20 designated sites including Wood Buffalo National Park, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks, Historic District of Old Quebec, and Head-Smashed-in-Buffalo Jump.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

World Heritage in numbers

There are currently 1,154 sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List:

  • 897 cultural sites
  • 218 natural sites
  • 39 mixed sites (both cultural and natural)
  • 43 transboundary sites (straddling the territories of two or more countries
  • 52 sites are currently listed as being in danger
  • In 50 years, three sites have been removed from the World Heritage List
  • World Heritage sites are to be found in 167 countries
  • The World Heritage Convention has been ratified by 194 countries

UNESCO at 50: World Heritage sites to see across North America

On this golden anniversary, the best gift you can give is to go. Here are five UNESCO sites in the United States and two in Canada.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. From April through mid-October, hundreds of thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats hang out in Carlsbad Cavern.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to reach it: The park entrance is 20 miles south of Carlsbad, New Mexico and 150 miles eat of El Paso, Texas.

Related article: Get Immersed in Caves: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Best time to visit: September, when the bats are still hanging around but the crowds aren’t.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Insider tip: Between mid-April and late May stake out a spot at the Bat Flight Amphitheater and watch the winged creatures stream out of the cave in search of dinner. On the third Saturday in July, join other crack-of-dawn risers to witness their flight in reverse as they return home for a nap. From Memorial Day weekend through October, park rangers lead nightly bat programs at the outdoor venue.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park

Est. 1979 | Arizona

Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: At 18 miles wide and a mile deep the Grand Canyon 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.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to reach it: The South Rim which is open year-round is about 80 miles from Flagstaff, Arizona and 212 miles from the North Rim. The Grand Canyon Railway offers daily train service between Williams, Arizona and the park.

Best time to visit: Spring or fall when the wildlife is abundant, the crowds are thin, and the facilities on both rims are open. (Specifically, May 15-October 15 for the North Rim and year-round for the South Rim.)

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Insider tip: Native American artists such as Zuni stone carvers and a Hopi silversmith demonstrate their crafts and share their traditions at the Desert View Watchtower or South Rim Visitor Center depending on the season.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 (1,500 American black bears alone), more than 200 bird types, 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.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to reach it: The park straddles two states. Drive times from Knoxville, Tennessee and Asheville, North Carolina are about 45 minutes (35 miles) and 50 minutes (37 miles), respectively.

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Best time to visit: Fall for its firework display of autumnal color or spring for its heavy dusting of wildflowers.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Insider tip: The park contains one of the finest collections of log buildings in the East with more than 90 barns, churches, schools, gristmills, and other historic structures. Pick up an auto tour guidebook because these old walls aren’t talking.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 site, 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.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to reach it: The park entrance is 10 miles east of Cortez, Colorado and 35 miles west of Durango, Colorado

Best time to visit: May through mid-October when five cliff dwellings welcome guests inside their rock penthouses. Tour months vary by site, so plan strategically.

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Mesa Verde National Park

Insider tip: If you are more of a hermit than a pack animal, hike up to Step House, the rare dwelling that does not require a guide.

San Antonio Missions © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

San Antonio Missions © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to reach it: The Alamo squats in the center of San Antonio; the other four missions are spaced about 2½ 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: In the Texas spring (January to March) noted for its pleasant temperatures and shag carpets of bluebonnets.

Related article: Exploring What Is Old and Discovering What’s New along San Antonio Missions Trail

Insider tip: Praise the music at mariachi Mass, celebrated Sundays at San Jose.

Canadian Rocky Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks

Est. 1984 | Alberta and British Columbia

Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: The contiguous national parks of Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, and Yoho as well as the Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine, and Hamber provincial parks studded with mountain peaks, glaciers, lakes, waterfalls, canyons, and limestone caves form a striking mountain landscape. The Burgess Shale fossil site well known for its fossil remains of soft-bodied marine animals is also found there.

Canadian Rocky Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to reach it: The Canadian Rockies more or less form the border between British Columbia and Alberta. The roads here are amongst the most beautiful in the world. Much of the Rocky Mountains of Canada lie within various national and provincial parks.

Related article: Doctors Can Prescribe Year-Long Pass to Canada’s National Parks

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Writing-on-Stone / Áísínai’pi

Est. 2019 | Alberta

Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: A provincial park, Writing-on-Stone is located on the northern edge of the semi-arid Great Plains on the border between Canada and the U. S. Dominated by the Milk River Valley the landscape is characterized by a concentration of pillars or hoodoos—columns of rock sculpted by erosion into spectacular shapes. The Blackfoot Confederacy (Siksikáíítsitapi) left engravings and paintings on the sandstone walls of the Milk River Valley. This landscape is considered sacred to the Blackfoot people.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to reach it: Writing-on-Stone is 25 miles east of Milk River which is 12 miles north of the U.S. border and 50 miles southeast of Lethbridge, Alberta.

Related article: Summer 2022: 11 Best Things to Do in Western Canada

Worth Pondering…

The journey is difficult, immense. We will travel as far as we can, but we cannot in one lifetime see all that we would like to see or to learn all that we hunger to know.

—Loren Eiseley