By Melissa Hart on January 25, 2022 in Travel
America’s cities aren’t as old as those in many parts of the world, but you don’t have to trek to another country to glimpse the distant past. People have lived in the land that makes up the U.S. for more than 20,000 years, and parts of their ancient civilizations remain across the country.
In this article, we’ll feature some of the most magnificent road-trip-worthy ancient sites, including ancient cliff palaces, prehistoric towns, and mysterious animal-shaped mounds. We’ll explain the historical significance of each and provide travel tips for visitors so you can plan a day or several weeks of historical adventures.
A Few Sites to Get You Started
Ready to learn about the country’s ancient past? Plan a trip to one or more of these historical sites.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Park
Eight miles northeast of St. Louis, Missouri, this park encompasses the archaeological remains of a sophisticated prehistoric native civilization, the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico. Between 800 and 1400 A.D., the residents constructed approximately 120 mounds, along with many hamlets and villages. The agricultural chiefdom society was larger than London in 1250 A.D. Visit to see Monks Mound, a prehistoric earthwork that stands almost 100 feet. Stop at the interpretive center to see artifacts from the area, explore the mounds with a trail map, and attend an archaeological demonstration or lecture. In nearby Collinsville, Illinois, stay in a hotel or take advantage of numerous RV and tent-camping options.
Mesa Verde National Park
In Southwest Colorado, this national park protects the cultural heritage of 26 tribes, including approximately 5,000 archaeological sites which include 600 cliff dwellings. Visit to learn about the Puebloan people who lived in pueblos built beneath overhanging cliffs in this region from 600 to 1300. See one-room storage areas and villages with more than 150 rooms. Take an audio tour narrated by a Laguna Pueblo park ranger or attend an evening educational program under the stars. Sign up for a cliff-dwelling tour which provides ranger-led access to many of the cliff dwellings, or hike down to the Step House dwelling for a self-guided tour. Stay in the park lodge or camp inside the park. A full-service village offers a market, restaurant, gas station, and free showers.
Mastodon State Historic Site
In Imperial, Missouri, this paleontological and archaeological site is home to the Kimmiswick Bone Bed where scientists found evidence of Paleo-Indians hunting the American mastodon during the Ice Age. A museum includes a documentary film, ancient artifacts, and a replica of a mastodon so visitors get a sense of what the landscape looked like in the prehistoric area. Learn about the Clovis culture, active in the region between 10,000 and 14,000 years ago. Hike a trail that leads to the site where archaeologists found artifacts and bones. Come for the day and enjoy the site’s picnic area and playground or stay at a nearby campground.
Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park
In Manchester, Tennessee, this park protects embankments of earth-covered stone built by Native Americans 1,500 to 2,000 years ago, which were used for approximately 500 years. Hike along a trail with interpretive signage, following the wall of Old Stone Fort. Native Americans gathered in this location for sacred ceremonies. View the fort’s original entrance; it faces the precise location of the sunrise on the summer solstice. Join a guided tour or participate in a lecture on the history and ecology of the region. A museum includes an orientation film and exhibits exploring culture and archaeological excavations. Camp in a tent or RV onsite.
This site in Peebles, Ohio, is an effigy (animal-shaped) mound in the shape of a snake, built by ancient Native Americans beside sacred burial mounds created by the Adena culture active from 800 B.C. to 100 A.D., and by the Fort Ancient people active in 1000-1650 A.D. Visit the museum to watch an interpretive film, and view artifacts and dioramas that illuminate how people built burial and effigy mounds. Walk around the mound on a paved trail with interpretive panels and climb the observation tower which allows visitors to look down on the entire 1,348-foot serpent. Take a one-mile nature trail to explore the Ohio River and surrounding valley.
Chaco Culture National Park
Near Nageezi, New Mexico, this national park allows visitors to view structures created by the Ancestral Puebloan people who lived in this region between 850 and 1250 A.D. Take guided tours to learn about fascinating ruins including Casa Rinconada and surrounding villages. Guides interpret Chacoan architecture and the significance of each building’s location. On your own, explore the area while biking and hiking on trails, and participate in ranger talks and night sky programs. Visit the Chaco Museum Collection of objects and archives that document Chaco Canyon’s long, rich cultural heritage, and take the Petroglyph Trail to view ancient carvings on stone through binoculars.
At this historical and cultural site 15 miles north of Blythe, California, visitors can see geoglyphs — or ground drawings — in the shapes of humans and animals representative of Native American creation myths. Sacred ceremonial dances on the site honored creation. These geoglyphs are between 450 and 2,000 years old, and archaeologists believe Quechan and Mohave tribes created them. Take marked trails to view the geoglyphs. The largest, the figure of a human, is 170 feet long. Bring water and sunscreen, as temperatures in this desert region can soar over 100 degrees.
Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark
In Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest south of the Montana border, visit this landmark, which is home to culturally significant natural formations and sacred archaeological sites, including a large stone medicine wheel at 9,640 feet in elevation. The Wheel — a circular pattern of stones approximately 82 feet in diameter — surrounds a stone cairn with radial lines. Numerous tribes used this area, and archaeological evidence shows that Native Americans have visited this area for 7,000 years. On-site interpreters are available to answer questions. Walk the 1.5-mile trail to the Medicine Wheel or drive to a small parking area to view this site. Be aware that the site may be closed for an hour for Native American ceremonies that are not open to the public.
Montezuma Castle National Monument
In Camp Verde, Arizona, visit a 20-room high-rise apartment built by the Sinagua people into a limestone cliff. At the related museum, view ancient tools and jewelry, basketry, and pottery. Visit cliff dwellings around the Montezuma Well, in which prehistoric groups resided as early as 11,000 A.D. Take a ranger-led tour to learn more about the history and culture of the Sinagua people, as well as the wildlife and geology of the Verde Valley. See a historic irrigation ditch system, as well as cave ruins, pueblos, and rock shelters with masonry rooms.
As with travel to any location, keep in mind a few considerations that will help to make your trip a pleasure — both for yourself and the people around you. Here are a few general etiquette tips for visiting archaeological sites, especially those that have significance to Native Americans.
- Take the time to learn about the site and the Native Americans identified with it before you visit. A documentary series such as Ancient Civilizations of North America may help you prepare for your trip. With a little research, you’ll uncover fascinating facts to enhance your enjoyment and understanding once you’re on the road. For instance, the Calusa people once occupied the Western region of Everglades National Park, and visitors can still see the remains of large oyster shell mounds with sunken plazas, walls, ramps, and other archaeological features indicative of the villages of the past.
- Even if you’re visiting a national or state park, be respectful of the Native American cultures and practices associated with the site. For instance, by law, members of Native American tribes may gather plants and plant parts in some national parks for traditional, cultural purposes.
- Don’t enter sacred sites or burial grounds.
- Don’t pick up or remove artifacts. Once an ancient archeological site sustains damage, there’s no way to return it to its original appearance. Stay on designated trails, and camp and build fires only in approved sites.
- Always ask permission before taking photographs of any individual or group.
- Respect the privacy of residents near the sites. When visiting an urban location, park only in designated public parking spots, and never block driveways. Keep pets leashed and children with you so you don’t disturb neighbors.
- Don’t bring pets to archaeological sites. Dogs, in particular, destroy fragile objects by digging and urinating on them. If you bring pets to nearby areas, keep them leashed, and bag and dispose of waste properly.
- Don’t touch anything without permission. For example, the parks of Southeast Utah include ancestral homelands for many Native American tribes. Only visit areas designated as public, and never sit or lean on walls or rearrange rocks in native structures.
- Follow leave-no-trace principles to preserve the sites. Pack your waste out, avoid feeding wildlife, and resist the urge to build structures including rock cairns.
With a little research beforehand, as well as mindful exploration during your visit, you’ll unlock marvelous secrets about the ancient ruins you view. You’ll return home with a vivid sense of the cultures that once inhabited the lands you’ve seen, and perhaps you’ll even be inspired to plan another archaeological road trip!