Approximately 25 global destinations per year are granted World Heritage Site status by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In doing so, these remarkable places receive official recognition and protection, preserving our planet’s most valuable cultural and natural history assets. And while there are more than 1,000 sites scattered across the globe, below are a few places that stand out for their exceptional natural beauty and world-class hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, or rafting opportunities. For adventurous travelers, these UNESCO World Heritage Sites have it all.
1) Gulf of California – Northwestern Mexico
Also known as the Sea of Cortez, this gorgeous area has been dubbed the “Aquarium of the World” and is recognized as a critical area of global marine conservation. It extends from the Colorado River Delta in the north to approximately 167 miles southeast of the tip of the Baja California Peninsula, and includes 244 islands and islets of mostly volcanic origin. The rugged islands and coastal desert, home to the world’s tallest cacti, offer a striking contrast to the surrounding turquoise waters that include over 900 species of fish (around 90 of them endemic), and about one third of the world’s marine mammals.
One of the best ways to explore this nature playground is to sea kayak among the numerous islands of the Sea of Cortez or through one of the many mangrove estuaries. The region is also famous for Pacific Gray whale watching.
2) Cuzco/Machu Picchu – Sacred Valley, Peru
The City of Cuzco (Cusco) at more than 11,000 feet above sea level is located in a stunning fertile valley fed by several rivers, including the raftable Class III Urubamba. Spending time in this area will have guests feeling like they are back in the Incan Empire – Cusco actually reigned as the center of the Tawantinsuyu Inca Empire, which covered much of the Andean region between the 15th and 16th centuries A.D. Archeological remnants can be found scattered throughout the area, and today, this ancient city stands as the main gateway to lost citadel of the Inca—Machu Picchu. Protected separately as a World Heritage Site, Machu Picchu is full of mystery, incredible ancient architecture and mountain scenery, and has been declared one of “New Seven Wonders of the World.”
While just wandering the ancient streets of Cusco or losing oneself in the colorful local markets such as that in Ollantaytambo can be exciting in its own right, a trip to this sacred mountain region beckons adventurers to raft, hike and explore.
3) Ningaloo Coast – Western Australia
Another water wonderland is found on Ningaloo Coast, a remote western coast of Australia, famous for having one of the longest near-shore reefs in the world. In some places, the reef at Ningaloo is a little more than 300 feet from the soft white sand beaches, meaning that anyone with swim fins, a boat or a kayak can easily explore here.
While there is an abundance of marine life to be found in this nearly 1.5 million-acre protected region, it is known mostly for sea turtles and whale sharks. The density of turtles in the Ningaloo Marine Park (including the Loggerhead, Green, Hawkesbill and Leatherback) is higher than the highest density of turtles that have ever been recorded in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park area. This has partially been attributed to the incredibly clear waters of the area. November through March visitors can see the nesting and hatching of turtles. There are also annual gatherings of 300-500 whale sharks that guests can swim with. Divers will also appreciate the extensive network of underground caves here.
4) Yosemite National Park – California
Only three U.S. National Parks have made the UNESCO list. Along with Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, Yosemite (the world’s first national park) is UNESCO protected so that hikers, climbers and bikers can enjoy the natural wonders for years to come. Known for its giant Sequoia groves, one of the highest waterfalls in North America, and iconic landmarks such as El Capitan and Half Dome, visitors to Yosemite are constantly rewarded with incredible sights no matter where they are in the park.
More than four million visitors flock to Yosemite National Park every year, but most come in summer. A spring trip, when California’s wildflowers begin put on a show and Yosemite waterfalls are at their best, can be an ideal time for a visit. Not to mention, visitors can take advantage of spring snowmelt and raft the nearby Merced and Tuolumne Rivers, which barrel down from the peaks within Yosemite to offer exciting Class III-IV whitewater just outside of the park.
5) Pirin National Park – Bulgaria
While many tourists flock to the Alps for hiking or mountaineering, Pirin National Park in southwest Bulgaria is still somehow overlooked by many serious outdoor lovers. The park is home to brown bears, wolves, the always-entertaining pine martin and around 160 bird species. It is a picturesque highland of powerful and towering marble and limestone peaks, filled with forests of Macedonian and Bosnian Pine (including one evergreen that’s over 1,300 years old), more than 70 glacial lakes, lots of waterfalls, wildflower meadows, and nearby skiing in Bankso and Dobrinishte. It is mostly known for the intimidating 1,300-foot-long Koncheto, which is a ridge that connects the peaks Kutelo and Banksi Suhodol. This adrenaline-inducing ridge at times is less than two feet wide and drops on both sides to an abyss, making it a challenge for even the most experienced climbers. For the ultimate high-altitude adventure, there is a small shelter at the end where climbers can choose to stay in order to experience an epic sunrise come morning.
6) Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord – Norway
The iconic Geirangerfjord located northeast of Bergen is thought to be one of the most gorgeous fjords in the world and, along with nearby Nærøyfjord, are two of Norway’s most popular natural attractions. Of the 200 fjords along the west coast of the country, Nærøyfjord and Geirangerfjord are the least affected by human activity such as hydroelectric dams and infrastructure. Geirangerfjord is 853 feet deep while the surrounding mountain cliffs are a breathtaking 5,000-plus feet high, with many cliff parts polished beautifully by ice and waves. The fjords are also known for spectacular waterfalls, including the Seven Sisters and the Storseterfossen, as well as remote and picturesque fjord farms high up on the steep cliffsides. Adding to the area’s beauty are free-flowing rivers meandering through deciduous and coniferous forests that spill out into stunning glacial lakes.
Slowly traveling through the fjords by boat is definitely on the list of must-do adventures for anyone who wants to be in sheer awe of Mother Nature’s beauty. There are also many opportunities to hike to lookout points in order to get a birds-eye view of the landscape.
7) Galápagos Islands – Ecuador
It’s really no wonder that the Galápagos Islands were chosen to be protected as a World Heritage Site. At the center of a confluence of three different ocean currents, these 19 islands formed by volcanic activity offer an abundance of wildlife and marine life. The extreme isolation of the area, being over 600 miles from the South America continent, supports the sort of unusual animal life such as the giant tortoise that sparked Charles Darwin to come up with his theory of evolution.
Today, visitors to the islands can snorkel with penguins and curious sea lions, whale and dolphin watch, kayak, and hike to see masses of stoic marine iguanas that have no fear of humans. It’s a wonderous and exotic place.
8) Tatshensini-Alsek Provincial Park – Canada
Located in northwestern Canada where British Columbia, Alaska and the Yukon converge, the Tatshenshini-Alsek is considered to be one of the most majestic river systems on Earth. Tatshenshini-Alsek Park, a UNESCO site since 2004, contains more than 2 million acres of glacial peaks, wild rivers, and Canada’s highest year-round densities of grizzly bear (plus, it’s the only place in Canada to find the rare glacier blue-grey color phase of the black bear). In addition, high numbers of mountain goat, moose, wolves, bald and golden eagles, and falcons can be spotted here.
The rugged Tatshenshini-Alsek region attracts kayakers and rafters to the two stunning river systems; hikers and mountaineers can explore pristine wilderness that includes everything from alpine meadows to Mt. Fairweather at 15,200 feet, and mountain bikers can play around on old mining roads.
Photos: Sea of Cortez kayaking – Cari Morgan; Inca trail trek to Machu Picchu – James Kaiser; Ningaloo Coast – W. Bulach/WikiCommons; Yosemite National Park – Wanderlove World; Pirin National Park – Elitsa Popova/WikiCommons; Geirangerfjord Norway – Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz/WikiCommons; Galápagos Islands – James Kaiser; Tatshenshini rafting – Justin Bailie