Tour the U.S. World Heritage Sites

Take the Seven Wonders of the World, expand the list and you get the World Heritage sites. A United Nations creation from the 1960s, there are now over 1,000 of these sites all over the world. In the United States there have been 23 locations ratified since the 1970s, all shown on the map below.

View World Heritage Sites in the United States in a full screen map

An impressive 21 states are represented amongst the 23 locations, taking into account that some are shared among multiple states. Yellowstone, for example, covers areas of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Great Smoky Mountains are in both Tennessee and North Carolina. New Mexico has the most of any state with three: Chaco Culture National Historic Park, Taos Pueblo, and Carlsbad Caverns.

World Heritage sites are chosen by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The US spurred the process originally, calling for a “World Heritage Trust” in 1965. The project became a reality in 1972, with the first US sites chosen in the late 1970s. Worldwide, there are 962 sites, including cultural sites like the Taj Mahal and natural sites like the Serengeti National Park.

Cultural vs Natural

The broad criteria for inclusion as a World Heritage site is that a place must have natural or cultural significance. A site must meet at least one of ten criteria, and nations nominate from their own tentative lists. Interestingly, a site may be considered both cultural and natural. These “mixed” sites account for a very small number (just 29) worldwide. Most sites are cultural (745), which indicates they’re likely man-made. Only 19% (188 sites) are natural.

In the US, the split is much more even—in fact, there are more natural than cultural. You can use BatchGeo’s grouping feature on the map above to display the 12 natural and 10 cultural sites. That just covers 22 of the 23. The other one, Papahānaumokuākea, is a mixed site in Hawaii and minor outlying islands.

The earliest World Heritage sites in the US to join the list were Yellowstone (Natural) and Mesa Verde (Cultural). Four others followed the next year, including the Grand Canyon. The most recent, the San Antonio Missions, was added in 2015. More are likely coming: there are still 11 sites on the US tentative list, including Petrified Forest National Park and Mount Vernon, the plantation home of the much-homaged George Washington.