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7 Lesser-Known UNESCO Sites to Visit in the United States

United States Insider Guides Culture
by Alex Wittman Apr 15, 2019

Of the 1,092 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the world, there are 24 in the United States. The big ones — the Statue of Liberty, Grand Canyon National Park, and Independence Hall — draw millions of visitors every year. While these places certainly deserve all the hype they get, they’re not the only UNESCO sites worthy of your travel plans.

From the deserts of New Mexico to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, these World Heritage sites showcase the human creative genius and natural beauty of the US. And chances are, you’ll be able to enjoy them without crowds.

1. Taos Pueblo — New Mexico

Taos Pueblo, New Mexico

Photo: Gimas/Shutterstock

Just a mile north of Taos, New Mexico, you can visit the ancient Taos Pueblo. Between 1000 and 1450 AD, the Taos Indians built homes using reddish-brown adobe, and despite the whipping winds of the southwest, many of the multi-storied residential complexes still stand today. In fact, some Puebloans still live in the historic complex full time, which adds to Taos Pueblo’s status as one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States. The Native American tribe inhabiting the area is known for being one of the most secretive communities in the region.

Their entirely oral language — called Tiwa — and highly private religious practices help to cultivate the mystique of Taos Pueblo. The Taos-speaking Puebloans rarely talk about their customs to anyone outside the tribe, though they remain an active voice for their traditional way of life. After more than 60 years, the US government returned 48,000 acres of land including Blue Lake and the surrounding mountains to the tribe in 1970 after its leaders fought for it on spiritual and cultural grounds. Today, approximately 4,500 people live in the area around this lesser-known UNESCO site.

2. San Antonio Missions — Texas

San Jose Mission in San Antonio, Texas

Photo: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Plan a trip to southern Texas to check out the impressive San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. Receiving UNESCO status in 2015, this collection of five Spanish colonial missions represents a formative time in both the state and country’s history. During the 18th century, Franciscan missionaries erected five frontier missions to illustrate and pay tribute to Spain’s power in the region. At the time, the missionaries were at the forefront of an effort to evangelize the indigenous people as part of Spain’s larger plan to colonize New Spain.

Situated along the San Antonio River basin, the Spanish intended the missions to be powerful Catholic symbols. However, as two cultures intermixed, the resulting features reflected both the Spanish and Coahuiltecan cultures. When you visit the San Antonio Missions, you’ll see firsthand the interesting combination of Catholicism’s impact on the area — the missions were the site where thousands of indigenous people, with nowhere left to turn after suffering disease brought from the south and violent attacks from the Apache Indians to the north, swore loyalty to the king and religion of the Spaniards, in return for protection. The park highlights the nature-inspired indigenous designs, as well as the iconic missions themselves.

3. Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park — Montana/Alberta

Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada seen from the Hump Bears

Photo: Jason Patrick Ross/Shutterstock

If sharing is caring, then there’s some serious brotherly love happening between the United States and its neighbor to the north. Stretching across the border between Montana and Alberta, Canada, UNESCO named Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park a World Heritage site for its unique climate and distinctive landforms. The site forms the meeting point between Waterton Lakes National Park on the north side of the border and Glacier National Park to the south. Can’t decide between prairies and mountains? At this UNESCO site, you don’t have to choose. In part due to their joint UNESCO status, crossing the border to visit both sides of the park is actually fairly straightforward. The Chief Mountain Border Crossing connects the town of Babb, Montana, with Pincher Creek, Alberta. It’s the only road border crossing within Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

4. Papahānaumokuākea — Hawaii

The only thing more difficult than pronouncing Papahānaumokuākea is visiting it. It’s not easy to get to this UNESCO site (which probably has something to do with its under-the-radar status), but this marine national monument in Hawaii is well worth the extra effort. When most people hear Hawaii, they understandably think of the eight main islands. However, there are also a number of uninhabited coral atolls, and these distinct oceanic landforms make up Papahānaumokuākea. In Hawaiian culture, this vast site represents the kinship between humans and their natural surroundings.

Encompassing more than 583,000 square miles, it’s the largest marine conservation area in the world, made up of lagoons, deep-water marine habitats, and some of the last thriving coral reefs on the planet, this park is intentionally not well-traveled. Since no regular ships travel to these islands (and government regulations are super strict), visiting Papahānaumokuākea isn’t for your average tourist. If you want to visit this sequestered UNESCO site, you’ll need to sweet talk your way onto a chartered flight to Midway Island, the westernmost island in the group.

5. Carlsbad Caverns National Park — New Mexico

Walkway through the Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Photo: Doug Meek/Shutterstock

The sky above New Mexico’s wide-open spaces delivers some of the most impressive sunsets you’ll ever see in your life. Carlsbad Caverns National Park is the perfect place to contrast the setting sun with the awe-inspiring natural beauty of stalactite-lined caves deep underground. With its 117 caves, Carlsbad Caverns is one of the southwest’s most fascinating and underappreciated attractions. The largest chamber in the park embodies this UNESCO site’s magic, right down to the names of the stalactites. Who wouldn’t want to plan a trip to New Mexico to see “Witch’s Finger?”

Making it happen requires a few precautionary steps, however. Before entering the caves, you’ll need to be decontaminated by using a disinfectant on your clothes, shoes, and any gear you bring with you to prevent the spread of White Nose Syndrome, which can infect that bats that live in the caves. We promise this isn’t as scary as it sounds. Humans can inadvertently spread a deadly fungal disease, and because bats are such a vital part of a healthy ecosystem, Carlsbad instilled decontamination procedures that went into effect last year. The process is a small price to pay to explore what’s been called the “Grand Canyon with a roof over it.”

6. Monticello – Charlottesville, Virginia

Yellow tulips with Monticello Home in background

Photo: N8Allen/Shutterstock

Make up for that time you fell asleep in history class with a trip to Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. The site is a popular day trip from Washington DC but much lesser-known throughout the rest of the country. Thomas Jefferson designed his plantation home — which eventually became the UNESCO-protected site that you can visit today — and oversaw its construction between 1769 and 1809. A visit to Monticello also offers a sobering look at Jefferson’s history as a slave owner and his relationship with slave Sally Hemmings, through several exhibits. After touring Jefferson’s home and wandering the surrounding gardens, make your way into Charlottesville to check out the University of Virginia, where Jefferson also designed several buildings. The Rotunda, which is a half-scale model of the Pantheon in Rome, is perhaps the most impressive.

7. Cahokia Mounds — Cahokia, Illinois

Prehistoric Mound, Cahokia, Illinois

Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock

One of the world’s most popular UNESCO sites is Chichen Itza in Mexico. But you don’t need to travel abroad to explore impressive archaeological sites. In fact, you don’t even have to leave the Midwest. Across the river from St. Louis in Illinois’ St. Clair Country, you can tour the largest and most complex archaeological site north of Mexico’s Pre-Columbian cities: Cahokia Mounds. Between the seventh and 15th centuries, Cahokia Mounds’ 4,000 acres was home to one of the continent’s largest and most influential urban settlements, and experts have traced these advanced societies back to more than 1,000 years before European contact. The mounds you see at the site today are the remnants of the settlement. Over the course of multiple decades, thousands of workers moved an estimated 55 million cubic feet earth, somehow managing this incredible feat using only woven baskets. The largest structure is Monks Mound, reaching 10 stories tall. Of the 120 original mounds, you can see the 80 that remain at this UNESCO site.

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