It is an amazing fact that thirteen of the 962 UNESCO World Heritage Sites listed in 2012 are located in the western United States, ten in the continental United States, one in Alaska, and two in Hawaii. Each of these sites is wonderfully unique, and was chosen either for its stunning natural beauty, its crucial environmental importance, or its priceless cultural value.
Olympic National Park, Washington State
Olympic National Park became a World Heritage Site in 1981 because of its spectacular natural beauty and its environmental riches. The park contains about 60 active glaciers, and the longest undeveloped coast in the contiguous United States. It also has one of the world’s largest stands of virgin temperate rainforest, which is home to endangered species such as the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet.
Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, Mont.
Straddling the United States/Canadian border, Waterton-Glacier became the world’s first International Peace Park in 1932, and was chosen as a World Heritage Site for its scenic beauty, unique ecology, and abundant of plants and wildlife. Because it is located between two major migration routes, the Central and Pacific flyways, the park’s marsh and lake areas are major staging areas for flocks of migrating birds, and bald eagles and peregrine falcons are frequent visitors.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyo., Mont. and Idaho
Yellowstone Park’s unique combination of volcanic activity, natural beauty and frequent wildlife sightings cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Situated on the most thermally active region of the Rocky Mountains, Yellowstone contains the world’s largest caldera, and more geysers and hot springs than any other place in the world. Yellowstone is also home to a rich variety of wildlife, including one of the largest herds of elk in the U.S and North America’s only surviving herd of wild bison.
Redwood National and State Parks, Calif.
Situated on the Pacific coast, just north of San Francisco, Redwood National Park’s magnificent old growth forest is home to enormous giant redwoods which include some of the largest and oldest trees in the world, as well as a wealth of wildlife, including sea lions, bald eagles and endangered California brown pelicans.
Yosemite National Park, Calif.
Yosemite, on the western slope of the central Sierra Nevada Mountains, was designated as a World Heritage site in 1984 because of its geology, its natural beauty, its wilderness value and the variety of its wildlife. Yosemite’s distinctive landscape of glacially eroded granite domes, soaring cliffs and sheer-walled valleys boasts five of the world’s highest waterfalls, and three groves of giant sequoia trees. The park also contains 569 designated archaeological sites which provide evidence of Indian settlement since prehistoric times.
Carlsbad Cavern National Park, N.M.
Carlsbad’s 100 plus limestone caves, which includes some of the largest caves in the world, are known for their beautiful and unusual rock formations. The caves are also home to species of migratory bats, and communities of fungi and bacteria which have attracted scientific and medical interest. Carlsbad Cavern Park lies on the Capitan Reef complex, one of the best-preserved fossil reefs in the world.
Chaco Culture, N.M.
This World Heritage site includes Chaco Culture National Historical Park, the Aztec Ruins National Monument, and several smaller Chaco sites. Chaco Canyon was the major ceremonial and trade center of the ancient Anasazi people between 850 and 1250. Massively constructed of stone, Chaco’s great houses and ceremonial buildings include a one-of-a-kind ceremonial center. The sites are part of the history of the Hopi and Navajo people of New Mexico, and bear silent testimony to the architectural and engineering achievements of the ancient Pueblo people who occupied the southwestern U.S. for over 2,000 years
Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz.
Accepted as a World Heritage Site in 1979, the Grand Canyon’s vast and awe inspiring landscape contains an invaluable geological and fossil record of the earth’s two billion years of evolutionary history.
Over the course of millennia, the Colorado River eroded into the earth from 2.5 km above sea level to form a 1500 meter deep ravine, and five ecological zones are found at various altitudes as the climate changes from hot desert at the bottom of the canyon to cool mountain conditions at the top. The park’s wealth of plants and animals includes over 1,000 plant species, 11 of which are listed as threatened, 76 mammals, 299 birds, and 41 reptile and amphibians The park also contains over 2,600 archaeological remains of various native American cultures, both within the canyon and above its rim.
Mesa Verde National Park, Colo.
Mesa Verde was a site of ancestral Puebloan culture from 450 A.D. to a “golden age”, which lasted from 1100 until its sudden and mysterious disappearance at the end of the 13th century. Archaeological remains include a sophisticated irrigation system, villages built on top of the plateau at an altitude of more than 2,600 meters, and spectacular multistory stone cliff dwellings such as the “Cliff Palace” and the 181 room “Long House”.
Taos Pueblo, N.M.
The traditional dwellings and ceremonial centers or kivas of Taos Pueblo are part of the Pueblo heritage which originated in the traditions of the ancient Anasazi. Taos is the only living Native American community designated as a World Heritage Site. While sites like Mesa Verde and Chaco were long since abandoned, the traditionally constructed, multistoried adobe buildings of Taos have been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years.
Kluane/Wrangell-St. Elias/Glacier Bay/Tatshenshini-Alsek, Alaska
Canada and the Unites States share this spectacular wilderness landscape of glaciers and mountains which contains the world’s largest non-polar icefield, as well as healthy populations of grizzly bears, caribou and Dall’s sheep.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
The landscape of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is continually formed and reformed by two of the world’s most active volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Kilauea. The park is also home to flora and fauna unique to Hawaii, including rare birds and forests of giant ferns.
Less well-known than Volcanoes National Park, Papahnaumokukea is an almost 2000 kilometer long string of Pacific islands and coral atolls lies 250 kilometers northwest of the main Hawaiian islands. It is both one of the world’s largest Marine Protected Areas and a significant cultural site for native Hawaiians.
From high mountains and glaciers to tropical oceans and coral atolls, these world heritage sites are places of wonder, stunning natural beauty and unique cultural significance.