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The world is home to some pretty amazing places. While it's fun to jet off to an exotic destination and explore a new culture, it's also important to check out the stunning scenery in your own backyard. The next time you want to visit somewhere worthy of world recognition, check out one of these overlooked UNESCO World Heritage Sites located right here in the United States!
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Although the Rockies get a lot of attention in Colorado, it's worth making the trip south to Mesa Verde National Park to experience ancient history instead. The area is the former home of the ancestral Pueblo people who lived there from 450 to 1300 A.D. and over 4,000 archaeological sites preserve that indigenous heritage within the park. The most impressive sites are the 600-foot cliffside dwellings constructed of sandstone, mortar, and wooden beams. While most of these dwellings contain fewer than five rooms, there are a few like the 150-room Cliff Palace that were originally much larger. These larger sites are only accessible by ranger-led tour groups, while others like the Step House are open to all visitors in the park.
Cahokia Mounds, Illinois
The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site has been recognized by UNESCO as the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico and a "pre-eminent example of the cultural, religious, and economic center of Mississippian culture." In case you were wondering, the Mississippian culture refers to a number of different agricultural peoples that lived throughout the southeastern United States for several centuries beginning in 700 A.D.
For a sense of the scale of the Cahokia Mounds settlement, know that in 1250 A.D., it was larger than London was at the time. There are still over 100 mounds in total and the largest of them, which is known as Monks Mound, is over 1,000 feet long and 100 feet tall in spite of erosion in recent centuries.
Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, Montana
The United States isn't the only country that gets to claim this UNESCO Site. The Waterton Glacier International Peace Park spans the border between Montana and Canada — combining Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta with Glacier National Park in Montana to form the world's first bi-national peace park.
Unlike the previous two UNESCO Sites on this list recognized for their unique preservation of human culture, the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park represents an area of significant ecological value and natural beauty. Its location and topography allow for a stunning diversity of plant and animal species alongside alpine views and glacial formations, which makes the park an unforgettable destination for any nature lover.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
If you're surprised to hear that the longest known cave system on Earth is in Kentucky, don't feel alone. Many people don't know even this park exists! With over 400 miles of caves, Mammoth Cave National Park certainly earns its name. In 1981, UNESCO recognized the park for the insight the caves provide into Earth's evolutionary past as well as for the sheer variety of formations, flora, and fauna throughout the entire cave system.
Take one of the many cave tours offered at the park to learn about the various geological formations and ecosystems. Explore the karsts, stalactites, and stalagmites and get a glimpse of the unique 130 animal species that thrive in this subterranean labyrinth.
Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, Hawaii
The final place on our list is an example of a mixed heritage site, which means UNESCO recognizes it for both cultural and natural purposes. Spend time at Papahānaumokuākea and it's easy to see why.
This UNESCO Site includes a group of small islands and atolls as well as the surrounding ocean territory that lies northwest of the main Hawaiian islands. The area has played a significant role in native Hawaiian culture and is believed locally to be the place where life originates. Various shrines and other archaeological remains can be found on two of the islands including Mokumanamana.
The site is also one of the largest marine protected areas in the world. It's larger than all of the national parks in the United States combined! The islands, reefs, shoals, and open water support a number of rare and endangered species and the region includes a number of unique habitats that have been largely isolated from the rest of the world. If you have the opportunity to visit, expect to see creatures unlike any you've ever seen before!