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Five UNESCO Sites to Explore in BC

August 16, 2023
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Kootenay National Park in fall with golden larch trees | Kristi Nicholson

Did you know that six out of 20 World Heritage Sites and 19 Biosphere Reserves in Canada are here in BC? These sites represent remarkable natural beauty, historical significance and outstanding universal value to humanity across generations. Showcasing some of the most incredible geology on the planet, those located in BC are vast, diverse, rich in Indigenous culture and of pristine wilderness – absolutely worth making the bucket list of destinations to visit and seek meaningful cultural experiences.

Here are five World Heritage Sites and Biosphere Reserves to visit in BC.

Views of Mount Robson | Thompson Okanagan/Allen Jones

Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks – World Heritage Site

Home to some of the best mountain scenery on the planet, Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks comprises seven parks in the iconic Rockies range. In BC, they are Kootenay National Park, Yoho National Park, Mount Robson Provincial Park, and Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. Why UNESCO? Collectively, Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks are designated a World Heritage Site due to their striking examples of geological processes such as icefields, remnant valley glaciers, and canyons. Thanks in part to its UNESCO designation, over 95 per cent of the area—which sprawls 2,306,884 hectares—is maintained in a completely natural condition to ensure the outstanding features remain unaltered, buffered from activities on adjacent lands. Ways to experience: Whether camping, hiking, or stargazing, there are plenty of amusements in Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks. Soak your muscles at Radium Hot Springs in Kootenay National Park, or join a guided conservation hike at Yoho National Park. At Mount Robson and Mount Assiniboine provincial parks, take to the waters to fish or canoe, join a guided wildlife tour, and pitch a tent to soak in the backcountry by night.

Burgess Shale | Parks Canada

BONUS: Burgess Shale – Part of a World Heritage Site

The Burgess Shale is one of the most significant fossil areas in the world, and the oldest evidence of complex life on Earth. Why UNESCO? Exquisitely preserved, the shale records a diverse, abundant marine community that originated soon after animal life appeared about 540 million years ago. These fossils provide key evidence of the history and early evolution of most animal groups known today and yield a more complete view of life in the sea than any other site for that time period. The Burgess Shale has been recognized as a key element of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site. Ways to experience: Parks Canada leads guided hikes to three Burgess Shale fossil sites in Yoho National Park and Kootenay National Park. Can’t make it to the parks? Visit the Burgess Shale website for digital animations, detailed information, and images curated by Parks Canada and the Royal Ontario Museum.

Totems at SGang Gwaay Llanagaay, Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, Haida Gwaii | Brandon Hartwig

SG̱ang Gwaay – World Heritage Site

Located in the archipelago of Haida Gwaii, on the northwest coast of BC, SG̱ang Gwaay  (formerly Nan Dins) is a 19th-century village that preserves the living culture of the Haida Nation. Why UNESCO? SG̱ang Gwaay was designated a World Heritage Site for offering a visual key to the oral traditions of the Haida people and their relationship to land and sea. The village features cedar longhouses, along with carved mortuary and memorial poles, and lies within the 147,000-hectare Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve. Ways to experience: SG̱ang Gwaay is extremely remote with access by water or aircraft only. Daily tourist numbers are restricted to prevent damage caused by excess foot traffic (also, every visitor must take the Haida Gwaii Pledge prior to arrival). It’s a good idea to join an Indigenous-led tour and enjoy the full interpretive experience; options are offered by Haida Tourism and Haida Style Expeditions, among others.


Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park – World Heritage Site

Tatshenshini-Alsek is considered one of the most magnificent river systems in the world, surrounded by a landscape of glacier-cloaked peaks, fjord-like inlets, and lush plants sprawling nearly one million hectares. Why UNESCO? The largest non-polar icefield in the world, Tatshenshini-Alsek earned World Heritage Site status—together with Kluane, Wrangell-St. Elias, and Glacier Bay parks—for its outstanding examples of geologic and glacial processes. Over 200 glaciers in the ice-covered central plateau combine to form some of the world’s largest and longest glaciers, several of which stretch to the sea. The ecosystem is hospitable to a range of wildlife: populations of bears, wolves, caribou, salmon, Dall sheep, and mountain goats that are endangered elsewhere are self-regulating here. Ways to experience: Tatshenshini-Alsek is heaven on Earth for adventure-seekers. Kayak or canoe along the connected river systems, walk or hike the endless sprawl of trails, or mountain bike along challenging terrain. Fishing and backcountry camping are also allowed within the park.

Clayoquot Sound | Graeme Owsianski

Clayoquot Sound – Biosphere Reserve

Situated on Vancouver Island, Clayoquot Sound is home to a diverse range of ecosystems, including temperate rainforest, ocean, and rocky coastal shores. Why UNESCO? The area was designated BC’s first Biosphere Reserve for its varied ecosystem, which facilitates habitats for a vast array of species—a significant number of which are endangered or rare. The region’s robust wildlife population includes the American black bear, cougar, and grey wolf, as well as gray whales, orcas, humpback whales, and other whale, dolphin, and porpoise species. Given that development is increasingly resulting in the fragmentation of forest and alpine ecosystems and loss of biodiversity in coastal rainforests, this biosphere reserve provides a welcome refuge for the natural dispersion and re-establishment of species. Ways to experience: Within Clayoquot Sound, Pacific Rim National Park Reserve beckons visitors with long sandy beaches and temperate rainforest. Visitors can storm-watch or surf (depending on the time of year); tackle the iconic West Coast Trail, which offers 75 kilometres of backcountry exploration; or spend a night camping on the Broken Group Islands.

Howe Sound from the Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge at the Sea to Sky Gondola in Squamish | Destination BC/@entre2escales

Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound – Biosphere Reserve

Located a short distance from Vancouver, Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound encompasses over 218,723 hectares of mountainous coastal ecosystem. Why UNESCO? Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound is BC’s newest addition to UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserve list, added in 2021. The area is home to some 721 native terrestrial animal species, such as grizzlies, wolverines, and bald eagles; it also sustains thousands of marine species, including living glass sponge reefs, which were thought to have gone extinct 40 million years ago. The area has provided the essentials of life for the Squamish and other Coast and Interior Salish Peoples for the past 10,000 years. Ways to experience: Adventures abound in Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound. Sail aboard BC Ferries to Gambier Island, the largest island in the sound, or Bowen Island, an idyllic escape 20 minutes from the mainland. Drive the scenic Sea-to-Sky Highway to Whistler and visit the Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Centre to learn about the history and culture of the Squamish and Lil’wat nations. Or, ride the Sea to Sky Gondola to a mountain summit for spectacular views of the area, along with hiking and mountaintop yoga.