At the end of July, my mom and littler brother and I went on a road trip to visit my youngest sister in St. Louis. While we were there, I dragged them out to Cahokia Mounds, a UNESCO site in the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis. Despite the fact that we managed to get ourself lost on the grounds (don’t ask), it was a lovely way to spend a Saturday morning. I was surprised when they even got more into it than I did, climbing Monk’s Mound while I sat in the shade under a beautiful tree and watched. It was a billion degrees after all (probably 90 degrees Fahrenheit) and getting lost had meant an hour wandering in the woods.
Cahokia Mounds are the remains of the largest Native American settlement in the United States from before Europeans began to colonize the Americas. I remember seeing a picture of the mounds in one of my high school text books, but it’s not covered nearly as much as the Aztecs, Mayans, or Incans in terms of pre-Columbian American history.
According to their website:
One of the greatest cities of the world, Cahokia was larger than London was in AD 1250. The Mississippians who lived here were accomplished builders who erected a wide variety of structures from practical homes for everyday living to monumental public works that have maintained their grandeur for centuries.
From UNESCO’s description:
[Cahokia] is the pre-eminent example of a cultural, religious, and economic centre of the Mississippian culture (800–1350), which extended throughout the Mississippi Valley and the south-eastern United States. This agricultural society may have had a population of 10,000–20,000 at its peak between 1050 and 1150, which was equivalent to the population of many European cities at that time. It once…included some 120 mounds.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site includes 51 platform, ridgetop, and conical mounds; residential, public, and specialized activity areas; and a section of reconstructed palisade, all of which together defined the limits and internal symmetry of the settlement. Dominating the community was Monks Mound, the largest prehistoric earthen structure in the New World. …The mounds served variously as construction foundations for public buildings and as funerary tumuli. There was also an astronomical observatory (“Woodhenge”), consisting of a circle of wooden posts.
We drove from St. Louis to Collinsville, Il, which is right over the border. It took about 20 minutes, and the drive came with great views of the Arch over the river.
At Cahokia, there were parking lots easily accessible to the two locations we went to, and we drove the car from the first lot to the second to make getting to Monk’s Mound a breeze. (Like I said, it was crazy hot). But you could easily walk between the sites if you didn’t want to drive in between.
According to their website, there are some public transportation options available for getting there as well.
Cahokia does not have an entrance fee. My mother found this Groupon that saved us money on 4 audio tours (and came with a book and tote bag). The audio tour is on iPod minis that they give you while you’re there, and provide information and instructions on how to do the walks around the site. I was really glad we had the audioguide. You can also download the tour directly to your phone or iPod for $1.99 here.
Things to Do While You’re There
You can start in the Interpretive Center (we skipped this), which has exhibits about the Mounds to give background before you get out there.
Once you’re ready to hit the mounds, there are 3 walks. The first goes through the Twin Mounds and the Grand Plaza. This is the one we did first. Tip-don’t go off the paved sidewalks trail, even if you think you’re on the right path. We saw an awesome buck with full antlers running through the woods, but we burned a lot of time lost in the middle of the woods.
The second walk is Monk’s Mound, which is the iconic mound and the largest prehistoric earthen construction in the Americas. My family climbed it while I looked at it in awe, photographed it, meditated about it under a tree (literally), and avoided climbing it in the heat. I hear the view from the top is cool though.
The third walk is through the recreated Woodhenge. Like Stonehenge in England, there are special events held around the equinoxes and solstices here.
- The mounds are 99% outside, so dress appropriately for the weather and bring water.
- Prepare to walk between 1-3 hours depending on how many of the three walks you want to do.
- If you’re off the sidewalk, you’re off the trail.
- The Interpretive Center is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but you can still do the walks.
- UNESCO Entry
- Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
- Tips on Virtual Tourist
- Cahokia America’s Forgotten City on National Geographic
- Gary Ardnt’s visit on Everything Everywhere
- Cool aerial tour on Chickasaw.tv
- More on the Mississippian Culture
- Travel Native America’s entry on Cahokia