Exploring the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Right next to a bustling highway east of St. Louis in Illinois is one of the 24 UNESCO sites within the continental United States. The Cahokia Mounds is the largest prehistoric Native American Indian site north of Mexico. Amazingly, this magnificent place is right in St. Louis’s back yard, and not many people know about it, let alone visit this historic site. Here is everything you need to know to make the most of your visit to the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

History of the Cahokia Mounds

Cahokia Mounds Civilization

Cahokia was the center of Mississippian Indian culture from 1050 to 1350 A.D. This village spread over 6 square miles and had over 120 earthen mounds with approximately 20,000 inhabitants. Comparatively, it was bigger than London. The Indians built a thriving community by planting corn, squash, and other plants that survived along the Mississippi River and by hunting, fishing, and trading with other communities.

I find humor that the Cahokia Mounds were given the name from a tribe that didn’t even build the mounds. Reminds me of Montezuma’s Castle. The Cahokia tribe of the Illiniwek tribe didn’t arrive in this area until the French arrived in the 1600s.

The Cahokia Mounds logo was chosen from a Birdman tablet found in the Monks Mound from 1300 A.D. The birdman was a common symbol for the Mississippian Indians.

The Birdman Tablet - Cahokia Mounds Logo

However, no one knows for sure why the Cahokia civilization disappeared after 300 years. Was it from depleted resources in the area, climate change, war with other tribes? I’m not sure we will ever know the real reason for this village’s abandonment by 1400 A.D. Today, the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is only 3.5 square miles (2,200 acres) with approximately 80 mounds protected and preserved by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. It became a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1965 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.

Cahokia Mounds Interpretive Center

Cahokia Interpretive Center

The Interpretive Center is the first place you should stop in on your visit to the Cahokia Mounds. The museum is where you can learn about the Native American Indians that lived in this area through the artifacts found in and around the mounds. You can read up about the Mississippi River Valley and explore the exhibits showcasing how the Indians lived and survived along the Mighty Mississippi. Plus, informative displays describe all the types of mounds (conical, round-top, ridge-top, and platform) found on the site.

The museum’s entrance fee is free, but there is a suggested donation box at the entrance. The open hours are Thursday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Make sure to check the website to see the latest hours and visitor information. The grounds are open daily from dawn to dusk.

Cahokia Mounds are eight miles from downtown St. Louis near Collinsville, Illinois, off Interstates 55-70 and 255, and Illinois 111, on Collinsville road.

Cahokia canoe filled with gathered food

Cahokia Village

Recreated Cahokia Village

In the Interpretive Center center, you have the opportunity to walk through a recreated Cahokia village. At one end, you can see how they constructed a sweat lodge and the rest of the thatched structures, and throughout the exhibit, you can see aspects of everyday life. From preparing the meals, cooking, to children playing within the village, it is really fascinating to see how life would have been like back then.

Walking Trails Tour the Mounds

On a beautiful sunny fall day, I took advantage of the nice weather, and when visiting the Cahokia Mounds, I decided to walk on one of the trails. There are several trails for you to choose from, depending on how far you want to walk. I picked one of the Yellow trails that went around the Twin Mounds in the Grand Plaza. The other two Yellow trails I followed later are at the Monks Mound and Woodhenge. All the Yellow trails take 30-45 minutes to walk the trail completely. The other trails you can choose are the 2-mile Stockade Wall Trail, the 5.4-mile Blue Nature Culture Hike, or the 10-mile Red Trail that takes you through more remote areas on the grounds. Each trail has colored markers to help you navigate the connecting trails.

Markers on the Cahokia Trails

Twin Mounds

Fox Mound at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

The mounds in the Cahokia village were used for religious, ceremonial, burial, and elite residential purposes. The Twin Mounds on this Yellow Trail are considered important as they were built on a shared platform at the end of the Grand Plaza opposite the Monks Mound and were most likely a mortuary complex. A charnel building would have been on top of the flat-topped mound where bodies of important people were prepared for burial; then, they would have been buried in the adjacent conical mound.

Roundtop Mound at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Stockades

Stockade by the Twin Mounds at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Only a few of the Stockade examples are left of the two-mile log wall built for defense around the central ceremonial area. The wall separated the elite and more sacred areas from the rest of the village. Excavations in 1968 and 1988 found sections like these of the Stockade wall that you can see and walk by on the trails. It is estimated it was built at least four times during 1175 and 1275 A.D. Each wall took approximately 15-20,000 logs to be built.

Stockade at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Monks Mound

Side view of the Monks Mound at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

With the base covering over 14 acres, 100 feet high, and four terraces, the Monks Mound is the largest prehistoric earthen construction in the Americas. It is named for the Trappist monks who resided nearby and farmed on the terraces. You can see evidence of a large building/temple at the Monks Mound’s top at the North end.

The 156 modern steps have been built in the same location as the Prehistoric Indians would have used to reach the top. It does take a bit of effort to climb up them, but the good news is there are terraces with benches for you to take breaks if needed. If you drive over from the Interpretive Center, there is a parking lot to the East of the Monks Mound with a sidewalk taking you directly to the stairs.

The steps for the Monks Mound at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
View from the top of the Monks Mound
The view of the St. Louis skyline and Woodhenge from the top of the Monks Mound

Woodhenge

Woodhenge at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Woodhenge is a half-mile west of the Monks Mound on Collinsville Road with a parking lot. The huge circle of red cedar posts was discovered in 1961 arranged to form the solar horizon calendar. Today, it is a 1985 reconstruction of “American Woodhenge” built directly on the original location. It is believed that the circle was built between 900 and 1100 A.D. The Illinois Historic Preservation Division hosts public sunrise observations at the spring and fall equinoxes and the winter and summer solstices. However, out of respect for Native American beliefs, these events do not feature ceremonies or rituals.

The wood poles at Woodhenge at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Summary

Skyline of St. Louis from the Monks Mound at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

If you have driven to St. Louis and wondered what those giant mounds were next to the highway, now you know that they are the UNESCO Cahokia Mounds. Visiting the mounds is a wonderful day out from the St. Louis area for a little education on Prehistoric Native Americans or a hike outdoors. Surprisingly, only 250,000 visitors make their way out here to visit this magnificent historical site yearly. So, if you are looking for a new place to explore without crowds, Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site might be the spot for you!

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Further Reading

If you are coming to Illinois for a visit, check out these posts for extra travel inspiration:

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