I’ve written a couple of posts about little-known UNESCO Sites that I think everyone should visit because of how important I believe them to be when we travel. In case you’re not familiar with them, in 1972 the UN, through the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, began recognizing important sites around the world that they consider vital in order to maintain the cultural and natural heritage we have all inherited. We all know the big ones, but why I especially love visiting these sites is because most of them I wouldn’t know about if it weren’t for their UNESCO designation. I’ve discovered a lot of little known, off the beaten path sites that turned out to be fascinating, fun places to explore. Not only are the UNESCO cultural and historic sites interesting, but so are the many natural ones inscribed on the list. I don’t think these wonders of Mother Nature get enough attention as UNESCO sites, which is why today I’m sharing a few of the ones I’ve most enjoyed visiting. Obviously there are many more out there but of the more than 1,000 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List, I’ve only been to 142 of them. I have a lot more traveling to do, but in the meantime I thought I’d share my favorite natural UNESCO sites I’ve had the great fortune of visiting over the years.
Gondwana Rainforests of Australia
It’s hard not to enjoy yourself no matter where you are in Queensland, but I particularly enjoyed my time exploring the Tropical North – including Port Douglas and the surrounding areas. A big part of any travel experience in this lush part of Queensland is the remarkable Daintree Rainforest. The Daintree Rainforest is part of the UNESCO recognized wet tropics and is one of the oldest rainforests in the world. It’s a lush and adventurous place, where plants and animals found nowhere else in the world exist here in abundance, just as they have for millions of years. The forest has somehow survived for more than 135 million years, containing plant life that exists nowhere else on the planet; snacks once enjoyed by the dinosaurs. Australia is a continent of superlatives, a place of extremes and the Gondwana rainforests are one of the most beautiful examples of those extremes, a veritable walk back through time.
Wachau Cultural Landscape, Austria
I first experienced the Wachau Valley while on a river cruise a couple of years ago and even in the middle of December, the landscapes through which the Danube snaked seemed too good to be true. Picturesque little villages and a rolling valley where it seemed that every inch of available space was taken up by a vineyard. I have since returned to this postcard-perfect spot in Austria, recognized by UNESCO for both its architectural and agricultural history. It’s not large though, only about 25-miles in length, but it’s amazing what has been packed into this compact space. One of the best ways to explore the Wachau is by hiking some or all of the Wachau World Heritage Trail. The entire trail is 180 kilometers and formally links the best trails through the Wachau Valley and wine country. The trail meanders through the 13 communities of the valley and is divided into 14 legs, making it easy to do as little or as much of it as you like. It can be hiked in both directions and the entire trail is exceptionally well marked making it nearly impossible to get lost. This trail though was designed with visitors in mind and it offers the best views of the valley but better yet, it also offers immersive experiences along the way.
Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks
One of my favorite places on the planet to visit, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks possess a kind of natural beauty that’s both rare and intensely special. I always love every second of visiting these parks, not only thanks to the sweeping mountain views and unexpected moments of travel joy, but for how very accessible they are. One of the best experiences I have enjoyed was driving on the Icefields Parkways through Jasper National Park and making my own little personal discovery. The 75-year old Icefields Parkway that runs through both Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, Canada, is one of the most scenic drives you’ll find anywhere in the world. Along this scenic drive through the Rockies are any number of stop-offs for great day hikes, but what must be the best of these walks through the woods is the Valley of the Five Lakes. To really do it justice takes about 2-3 hours, but tight on time I managed to essentially run the trail in just an hour and a half, marveling at the sights along the way. There are indeed five different lakes featured, each as brilliant a shade of greenish-blue as you’ll ever find in nature. These emerald colored lakes, while all slightly different from each other, get their unique coloring from the rock dust fed by the nearby glaciers. The total effect is a hike through wonderland and a private, solitary experience that I know I’ll treasure for years to come.
Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries, China
Who doesn’t love pandas? Well, I’m sure there are some horrible people out there but I, like millions of others, have always loved pandas. In fact, I love them so much that I made it my mission while in China to visit the world capital of all things panda, Chengdu. There I visited the Dujiangyan research center; just one of many in the region devoted to protecting and preserving this oddly fragile species. I didn’t just get to watch the pandas though, this is also where I had the very unique opportunity to hug one of these teddy bears come to life. For a donation to the center, visitors can either spend an entire day volunteering at the center, or just spend a few moments hugging a panda. I was short on time, so I opted for the panda hug but even this brief encounter was an extraordinary moment. A small group of us excitedly waited for the panda to be brought out, a younger one who immediately hopped up on a nearby bench, clearly used to the activity. The hug itself only lasted about 30-seconds, but it was a special moment and for all of us there truly was the culmination of a lifetime of waiting.
Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
So what makes Plitvice so special in the first place? Well, it’s a series of lakes arranged in cascades. The lakes are the result of several small rivers originally formed from mountain runoff. The lakes flow into one another, separated by natural travertine dams and all following the same general water flow. To stand in the middle of the park is to experience water and its power in a way you may not have before. Throughout Plitvice you are followed by the constant sound of water gurgling, either slowly dripping or in a massive cascading waterfall. You can’t escape the moistness of the park and the verdant green plants surrounding the lakes are a testament to the life force found here. The lakes are also famous for their constantly changing colors, from green to light grey and even pale blue. Connecting the paths and lakes are miles and miles of walkways, allowing intimate access to this natural wonderland.
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Although I’ve spent precious little time in South America, the experiences I have had there are meaningful and special to me. In particular, a trip to the Galapagos several years ago had the unintended consequence of forever changing my life. Made famous by Darwin onboard the Beagle, the Galapagos is mecca for those of us with a passion for wildlife and natural exploration. There is nothing quite like walking through a field dotted with giant tortoises, or swimming practically nose-to-nose with playful sea lions. When I returned home a new spirit of wanderlust was reawakened, I realized how much I enjoyed adventure travel and wanted to share my experiences with as many people as I could. A few months later I started this web site; I firmly believe that trip to the Galapagos was the intellectual impetus for Adlabyrinthempire. Without it, I still might be stuck in a cubicle not living the life I was meant to live.
Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and the Ancient Beech Forests of Germany
A lot of attention is paid to the many cultural wonders in Germany, which are indeed amazing. But so many first-time visitors are, I think, surprised by how many outdoorsy experiences the country has to offer as well. While driving through the German countryside, I unwittingly passed through this UNESCO World Heritage Site and since I knew I’d probably never be back, I had to stop. These particular forests aren’t unique to Germany, they can also be found in several other places around central and eastern Europe, but they’re important because they represent what most of Europe once looked like. These incredible forests truly were the first inhabitants of the continent, and to explore them on a day hike isn’t just fun and romantic, it’s one of the best outdoors experiences you’ll enjoy anywhere in the country. I found myself in the Kellerwald-Edersee National Park in Hessen, which marks the natural border of the beech forests. Bizarre forest formations and mysterious, gnarled trees are what I encountered and while my stop was brief, it was one of those unexpected moments I know I’ll remember for years to come.
Wadi Rum Protected Area, Jordan
One of the highlights of any trip to Jordan in my opinion is spending time in the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage recognized desert of Wadi Rum. This area has been used for thousands of years, from ancient traders to Lawrence of Arabia. Today tourists are the ones following the ancient paths through the bright orange sand, to marvel at the bizarrely beautiful landscapes found around the region. Wadi Rum is often used in movies as a stand in for the moon or Mars and with good reason, the landscape is decidedly alien. The best way to experience Wadi Rum is by staying at one of the luxury tented Bedouin camps and then joining them for daily activities in the desert. The camp is a big part of the experience and there’s nothing like sitting by the fire, enjoying a delicious meal and listening to beautiful Bedouin ballads being played by expert musicians. With a canopy of stars overhead, there’s nothing better.
Cape Floral Region Protected Area, South Africa
One of my favorite countries in the world, the beauty of South Africa is diverse and even opulent at times. The areas near Cape Town though have a secret, the rich floral region is amongst the most diverse in the world. From the scraggly fynbos to the yearly explosion of wildflowers, the ecology here is unlike anything else on the planet. A fact to consider, this area accounts for just 0.5% of the area of Africa but is home to nearly 20% of the continent’s flora. That’s an amazing level of diversity and makes exploring this region a beautiful experience. One of the best ways to get out amongst the fields is by taking a wildflower safari like the one offered at the Grootbos Resort in Hermanus. Expert naturalists take guests out in a safari truck to experience the natural side of the area for a once in a lifetime experience. Even if you’re like me and have a marginal interest in such things, the shocking beauty of the region simply can’t be denied.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania
The 12-mile wide Ngorongoro Crater is not your normal place. Usually referred to as a real-life Garden of Eden, unique conditions in the crater mean that many different kinds of wildlife call this pristine area home all year. While there were some individual moments I know I’ll always remember, the entire day spent there exploring was one of those experiences that define not just a trip, but a lifetime of traveling. It’s a one-stop-shop for African wildlife, from elephants wandering through the lush if not small forests to countless zebra and wildebeests, birds like the flamingo and more fearsome animals like Cape buffalo, hippos and multiple prides of lion. To experience the Ngorongoro is to experience the beauty of Africa in miniature and is natural exploration at its finest.
Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast, Northern Ireland
This is a natural wonder that I’ve wanted to see in person for decades, and even as I stood there amongst the basalt columns I couldn’t believe that I was actually there. Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Giant’s Causeway attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world every year, and with good reason. Formed over 60 million years ago when molten lava cooled suddenly on with water, the Giant’s Causeway is an otherworldly landscape of bizarrely shaped columns that have played an important part in local folklore for as long as people have called the coast home. It’s a gorgeous area, and walking down to the columns themselves was a fantastic way to appreciate the beauty surrounding this natural wonder.
What are your favorite natural UNESCO World Heritage Sites?