Four US UNESCO World Heritage sites that are parks

Alix M Campbell

Senior Contributor

With social distancing and travel restrictions across the world, visiting busy cities has become even more difficult this year. If getting away and experiencing new places is still on your wish list and you happen to be in the US, you could opt for a a break that offers the opportunity to spread out and enjoy nature. Discover one (or all!) of these US parks that made it onto the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

In order to qualify as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the natural or cultural site has to be of ‘outstanding universal value’ and meet at least one of the ten criteria specified by the organisation.

Before planning your trip, please take a look at the website of the respective park for any opening time adjustments due to Covid-19.

Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado

This spectacular park in Montezuma County in southwest Colorado has been a World Heritage site since 1978 thanks to its outstanding archeological relevance. The park is of great cultural value as the Ancestral Puebloan people lived here for hundreds of years.

The several hundred cliff dwellings with names like Cliff Palace, Balcony House or Oak Tree House give Mesa Verde, which is Spanish for ‘green table’, its unique look. The park with a size of 52,485 acres (212.40 km2) offers a campground, hiking trails as well as fuel, lodging and food facilities during peak season. Its entrance can be found along Highway 160 about 14 km east of Cortez and 11 km west of Mancos. 

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

This national park on the Big Island has been a World Heritage site since 1987 and it boasts two of the most active volcanoes in the world, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. Native Hawaiians call it the land where the gods dwell, especially the goddess of fire, Pele, who is said to live in the Halemaumau crater on top of Kilauea.

You can find some of the most unique landscapes dotted with exotic flora and fauna here. The park features incredibly diverse environments ranging from tropical rain forests to the arid Ka’u Desert, and it extends over 323,431 acres (1,308.88 km2) from sea level to an altitude of 13,679 feet (4,169 m).

The main entrance to the park is found along Hawaii Belt Road with a visitor centre just within the entrance, and the Volcano Art Center with an art gallery nearby.

Glacier National Park in Montana

The Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana, a ‘Crown of the Continent Ecosystem’, has been a World Heritage site since 1995. It further holds the titles of International Peace Park and International Dark Sky Park. The peace status comes from the fact that the park, which extends into Canada, shares the longest undefended border in the world between the two neighbouring countries.

With over 1 million acres (4,000 km2) in size, the park has enough space for roaming cougars, moose, grizzly bears and wolverines as well as hundreds of other animal species. There are over 130 lakes, parts of two mountain ranges and over 1,000 different plant species to be found in Glacier National Park. Its diverse ecosystems range from prairie to tundra.

With no major cities in the park’s vicinity, the closest airport is located in Kalispell, Montana. Amtrak has train stops at East and West Glacier as well as Essex, and so-called Red Jammers are busses that tour the major roads in the park. The nearly 700 miles (1,127 km) of hiking trails offer numerous possibilities for day hikes and back-country camping along the paths (with permit). Remember to pack your passport if you cross borders between the United States and Canada.

Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming

One of the most famous and popular national parks in the US, Yellowstone National Park, has been a world heritage site since 1978. Largely located in Wyoming’s northwest corner, it extends into Montana and Idaho. The park spans an area of 2,219,789 acres (8,983 km2) filled with lakes, canyons, rivers, waterfalls, forest, grassland and mountain ranges.

The park is known for its abundant wildlife including grizzly bears, herds of elk and bison, and several endangered and threatened species. Until 1970, the park actually encouraged visitors to feed the bears and take pictures with them, which (surprise, surprise) led to many injuries. Next to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, some of Yellowstone’s most prominent characteristics are its many geothermal features like Old Faithful geyser. In fact, half of the world’s geysers and hydrothermal features are found in this national park.

The numerous paved roads within the park can be accessed from five different entrances with tour companies offering motorised transport inside the park. Visitors have the opportunity to go hiking, camping, boating, fishing and sightseeing. In the summer season, campfire programmes and guided walks are also on the agenda. The closest airports are in Bozeman and Billings, Montana, in Jackson as well as Cody, Wyoming or Idaho Falls, Idaho.

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