Celebrate a golden anniversary with national parks, Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and an underwater monument
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which was founded a year after the end of World War II, has many anniversaries. This year is a big one: On Nov. 16, 1972, the World Heritage Convention established the master plan for its mission to preserve, protect and promote the world’s most valuable natural and cultural sites.
“This anniversary is important because it gives us the opportunity to take stock of all that has been achieved in the past 50 years. It lets us see what has been successful with the convention and what has not been successful,” Lazare Eloundou Assomo, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center, said from the organization’s Paris office.
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 is in the middle of the pack.
“What still remains challenging is that the World Heritage list remains imbalanced. It does not represent the diversity of all the regions in the world,” Assomo said. “Almost 50 percent of the sites are located in Europe and North America. This imbalance needs to be addressed in the future, like in Africa and the Arab states.”
The United States supported the World Heritage Convention in its development and adoption a half-century ago and was one of 194 countries that ratified the treaty. However, the relationship has frayed over the years. In 2011, President Barack Obama’s administration stopped contributing payments after the organization admitted the Palestinian territories. In 2017, President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from UNESCO. Two years later, the country severed ties, but not fully: As an original signer, the United States maintains its state party status. This means that it can still nominate new sites and that U.S. landmarks can keep their World Heritage status.
The current administration has taken small steps toward restoring the relationship. According to a State Department spokesman, the agency is working with Congress to rejoin UNESCO and once again play a prominent role in safeguarding the world’s irreplaceable treasures.
On this golden anniversary, the best gift you can give is to go. Here are 24 UNESCO sites surprisingly close to home.
Monticello and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville
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 the train to Charlottesville, which is about 70 miles west of Richmond.
Best time to visit: Late April, when thousands of tulip bulbs that are planted in the fall bloom. Pay special attention to the striped variety, which was the all the rage during Jefferson’s time.
Insider tip: Slavery, unfortunately, is part of Jefferson and Monticello’s story. Hear the voices of the enslaved people who lived and worked at the estate on a tour or with the free mobile guide, “Slavery at Monticello: Life and Work on Mulberry Row.”
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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 entrance stations. The thru-park road from the North Entrance at Gardiner, Mont., to Cooke City, Mont., is 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, May and June, when several species — including bison, elk, moose and pronghorn — calve.
Insider tip: Take a cool dip in the canyon-walled swimming area at Firehole River in Wyoming. (Note: The park’s other swimming hole at Boiling River is closed for the foreseeable future because of damage caused by the June floods.)
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Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
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 in Collinsville, Ill., eight miles east of downtown St. Louis.
Best time to visit: Though the Interpretive Center is closed for renovations through next year, the grounds are open from dawn to dusk, so go whenever the mood for mounds strikes.
Insider tip: Download the Back to the City of the Sun app for a 90-minute augmented reality tour that time-travels back to the Mississippian civilization.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
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.
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: 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.
A visitor’s guide to the country’s 63 spectacular national parks
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 during the equinoxes and solstices. At Aztec Ruins, pick up centuries-old gardening tips at the Heritage Garden, which grows corn, bean and squash varieties similar to the veggies planted by the ancestral Pueblo people.
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: Let us list the ways: Everglades 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. Double down on wildlife at Flamingo Marina, the park’s only marina, where manatees and crocodiles lurk.
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Grand Canyon National Park
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.
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. Buses 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 wildlife is abundant, the crowds are thin and the facilities on both rims are open. (Specifically, May 15-Oct. 15 for the North Rim and year-round for the South Rim.)
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
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.
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: 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.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
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 Kīlauea’s lava is flowing or glowing.
Insider tip: The park never closes, so you can spend every delirious moment watching the summit eruption. If you notice ash on your hiking boots, you’ve been kissed by Kilauea.
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were debated, adopted and signed at Independence Hall, 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 federal holidays that push your patriotic buttons.
Insider tip: The original Rising Sun chair is off limits to everyone but the ghost of George Washington. However, visitors can preside over an imaginary Constitutional Convention in a replica chair at the Independence Visitor Center in Independence National Historical Park.
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 sit, 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, access 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, numerous park access options 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
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: Wedged between the fort’s brawny walls and San Juan Bay, the 1 1/2-mile Paseo del Morro boardwalk transports visitors from the San Juan Gate to El Morro.
Mammoth Cave National Park
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 fear darkness or claustrophobic spaces, sign up for the Wild Cave Tour, which ventures into the more extreme and less traveled sections of the underground network. The crawling cave tours were suspended this year but should resume next summer.
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: May through mid-October, when five cliff dwellings welcome guests inside their rock penthouses. Tour months vary by site, so plan strategically.
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.
Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point
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.
Est. 1981 | Washington state
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: The park spreads its wings from ocean coast to temperate rainforest, Alpine meadows to glaciated mountain peaks. It boasts one of the world’s largest stands of virgin temperate rainforest, 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: Olympia, Wash., is 60 to 190 miles to the east, depending on the entrance.
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 the Hurricane Ridge Ski and Snowboard Area, the most western ski resort in the Lower 48 and one of only three chair-lift operations inside a national park. (Badger Pass Ski Area is in Yosemite, also a UNESCO site.)
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 spotted knifejaw or spinner dolphin.
Insider tip: You can sample Papahanaumokuakea elsewhere in the Hawaiian islands. At the Mokupapapa Discovery Center on the Big Island, fish from the national monument call the 3,500-gallon aquarium home. The Waikiki Aquarium’s Northwestern Hawaiian Islands exhibition has an interactive kiosk dedicated to the protected area, and the Maui Ocean Center has a Papahanaumokuakea exhibit with a topographic map, photos of the inhabitants and an explanation of its name. On Nov. 19, the Bishop Museum in Honolulu will unveil the exhibit, “LALO: Science and Conservation in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands,” which delves into the natural and cultural significance of Papahanaumokuakea. Kaena Point, on Oahu’s North Shore, bears a close resemblance to the site’s coastal shorelines, including lounging monk seals and nesting albatross.
Redwood National and State Parks
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: If the water level is high enough, the Hiouchi Visitor Center offers free ranger-led inflatable kayak tours on the Smith River in the spring and summer.
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: In the Texas spring (January to March), noted for its pleasant temperatures and shag carpets of bluebonnets.
Insider tip: Praise the music at mariachi Mass, celebrated Sundays at San Jose.
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: To get your steps in (377, to be exact), climb up to Lady Liberty’s crown, which reopened in October after being closed for more than two years because of the pandemic.
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” as well as 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 as hungry as a grizzly bear, pick some wild huckleberries. Glacier National Park allows a quart per person per day.
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 with a Yosemite Valley photography class led by the Ansel Adams Gallery, which holds the course three times a week.
20th-century architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright
Est. 2019 |New York City, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin, Arizona and California
Why it’s UNESCO-worthy: Frank Lloyd Wright, the father of the Prairie Style, permanently altered the architectural landscape with his then-outrageous ideas, which included the open plan; the integration of materials such as steel and concrete; and the blending of the outdoors and indoors. The eight structures represent a highlights reel of his portfolio and showcase his mastery in nearly every sector of life, from art (Guggenheim Museum) to religion (Unity Temple) to domestic bliss (Fallingwater, Frederick C. Robie House, Hollyhock House, Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House). Taliesin and Taliesin West, his homes and studios in Wisconsin and Arizona, respectively, are microcosms of modern designs.
How to reach it: The eight structures are scattered around the country, in the Upper East Side of Manhattan; Chicago and Oak Park, Ill.; Mill Run, Pa.; Spring Green and Madison, Wis.; Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Los Angeles.
Best time to visit: There is no wrong time; only Wright time. However, because the buildings are primarily inside, visit during inclement weather. This way, you can be steeped in nature without getting cold, wet or overheated.
Insider tip: Don’t stop at eight. The Frank Lloyd Wright Trail features 13 architectural sites in Illinois, including the two UNESCO sites. Wisconsin’s FLW route has nine, with Taliesin as one of the UNESCO-certified stops.
Editing by Nicole Arthur and Amanda Finnegan;Graphics by Tim Meko; Design by Katty Huertas and Eddie Alvarez; Design editing by Christine Ashack; Photo editing by Lauren Bulbin and Mark Gail; Copy editing by Wayne Lockwood and Emily Morman.