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Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site: What to Know

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When visiting the Midwest, you must check out Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site – a fascinating and underrated archaeological site offering a unique glimpse into America’s past.

Cahokia Mounds is just a short drive from downtown St. Louis, Missouri, and it’s well worth a visit if you’re in the area. The site includes more than 80 mounds built by the Mississippian people between 1050 and 1250 AD.

The largest of these mounds is the Monks Mound, which is the size of three football fields and taller than a 10-story building. You can climb to the top of the Monks Mound for a stunning view of the site.

An on-site museum provides visitors with an overview of the Mississippian people and their way of life. The museum is small but well done, and it’s worth a visit if you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating culture.

What is Cahokia Mounds?

View of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Park from Monk's Mound

The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is a state-owned archaeological site that includes the remains of the Cahokia Mounds. The site also has a museum and interpretive Center, which offer visitors information about the Mississippian people and the Cahokia Mounds.

It’s the 11th century. Imagine a city as big as any other civilized city of its time, even more significant than London at this same time in history, stretching across the Midwest of the United States from the Mississippi River. It is also the most technologically advanced city of its time in its region, with nearly 20,000 people living there at any time.

Situated along the Mississippi River, across from St. Louis, the ancient city of Cahokia once stood proudly for an estimated 150 years of glory. The purpose of the Cahokia Mounds is still largely unknown. Some theories suggest they were used for religious or ceremonial purposes, while others believe they may have served as an ancient city center or capital.

Monks Mound

Today, there is the most modern development over the ancient Cahok site. However, you can still visit this ancient civilization by taking a trip to Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and National Historic Landmark.

How big are the Cahokia Mounds?

Panoramic View from Cahokia Mounds
Zack Frank / Adobe Stock

The Cahokia Mounds covers an area of approximately 2,200 acres (890 hectares), making them one of the most significant archaeological sites in North America.

The Cahokia Mounds site has over 100 earthen mounds. The largest of these mounds, the Monk Mound, is approximately 100 feet (30 meters) high and covers an area of 14 acres (5.6 hectares).

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See Related: Top Places to Visit in Missouri

Monk’s Mound Reaches 100 Feet Tall

Panorama of the Monk's Mound
Panorama View of Monk’s Mound

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is also home to the “Monk’s Mound,” a 100-foot-tall mound that was given its name not because monks are buried within it but because they lived near it centuries ago. This specific mound is known to be the giant prehistoric earthen mound in the Americas.

Unlike other ancient burial grounds for the native peoples of North America, Monk’s Mound appears to be primarily a temple site instead of a burial site.

Investigators have found postholes dug in the mound’s top terrace, which supports the theory that a temple once adorned the mound’s top.

Aerial view of Cahokia Mounds Native American burial grounds
Kent / Adobe Stock

Monk’s mound has four terraces and is considered the giant artificial mound in the United States. Projections on Monk’s Mound, leading to the top throughout the four levels of terracing, are thought to have been ancient stairwells, thus fortifying the theory that this was a temple site.

Though a modern roadway was built through this mound in the 1800s because a gentleman decided he wanted to live on top of it, much of the mound is still intact and helps visitors see what Cahokia used to be like.

Did Cahokia Have Its Version of Stonehenge?

Monk's Mound at Cahokia
Monk’s Mound at Cahokia Mounds

In the early 1960s, excavations in the area to create the interstate accidentally uncovered several large oval-shaped pits that seemed to be in concentric circular patterns.

The theory is that large wooden stakes were used inside these pits to help track the sun’s motion following the calendar year. With further study, it was determined that red cedar was likely used in these patterns. Thus the name “Woodhenge” was born.

As the sun tracks throughout the seasons, it is also interesting to note that the wooden posts marking the important dates of the year, such as the sunrise of the two equinoxes, point toward the critical locations of Cahokia Mounds.

The 7-foot posts are also thought to point toward offertory pits within the city, which would have been utilized on other essential calendar days.

A Stockade Once Protected Over 80 Different Mound Sites

View of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Zack Frank / Adobe Stock

Cahokia also had a two-mile stockade that archaeologists believe was rebuilt at least three times by mound builders. Though there is no evidence that the city was ever attacked because the wall cuts through what are considered residential areas, it is thought that attacks were often regarded as imminent.

This is backed up by the fact that the fence also contained bastions, first round and then square, where archers could help defend the city. Some believe the wall may have also served as a social barrier.

Looking at the remains, scientists have determined that at least two different social classes lived in Cahokia. Some people ate lots of meat, while others seemed to have a scavenger’s diet. There were likely three social classes: priests, the wealthy/leadership, and everyone else.

You Can Visit Places Where Human Sacrifice Took Place

Native American Burial Grounds of Cahokia Mounds
Kent / Adobe Stock

Two mounds in Cahokia, particularly Mounds 52 & 72, are burial locations of ritual human sa orifice. Some think that the mound location is where the surrender occurred, though, with wooden stretchers in the mounds, it may have also taken place at Monks Mound.

Over 300 people are thought to have been sacrificed over the years of Cahokia’s existence, with many of them being offered at the death of a significant person within the city.

Guided Tours

Cahokia pyramid at Cahokia Mounds Native American burial grounds
pop_gino / Adobe Stock

The National Historic Landmark and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cahokia cover over two hundred acres. The general public is welcome to explore 800 acres at this location if you prefer self-guided tours.

The journey cannot be completed without seeing the region or climbing the 100-foot-high mound. Monk’s mound, the giant mound, and Woodhenge, which has been restored, are worth seeing.

A guided tour of the entire site takes about an hour. In the summer, guides will give excursions to the area during peak periods in April, September, and October: tours and other resources, including nature walking trails and culture hiking trails.

Interpretive Center

Figurine from Cahokia State Historic Site

The Interpretive Center is closed for renovations that started in March 2022. If you want to learn more about the area you’re visiting, the Interpretive Center is an excellent resource. Self-guided and with plenty of volunteers to answer questions, the Interpretive Center Gallery is perfect for travelers who want to get the most out of their trip.

The Interpretive Center is the best place to learn about the old Native American culture. The Interpretive Center houses museum exhibit galleries, a museum shop, a gift shop, and an orientation show theater where they play games and tell stories about Mississippian culture and ancient people who lived before French explorers arrived.

There’s also a public programming auditorium that provides educational programs on Cahokian history all year long. The main building is your guide through this fascinating continent-wide story (it even includes interactive ex-bits). However, don’t forget about its five acres of outdoor space either: we know summertime can be hot here in the Midwest.

If you want to learn while exploring, consider going on one of the interpretive trails to learn about the mounds of the ancient peoples, including the rattlesnake mound, Monk’s Mound, and the rattlesnake causeway.

The Interpretive Center Exhibits offer informative guides and information about the area’s natural and human history. Admission is free, but a contribution is appreciated ($7 for adults, $5 for seniors, $2 for children, and $15 for families).

You may also make a group visit or school field trip by contacting the Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau. So, if you want to learn more about the region’s natural or human history, visit them.

Visitor Information

The site features many artifacts recovered from this ancient city with a visit to the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. In addition, an interpretive center offers more tours and historical artifacts found at the earthen mounds when they were first discovered.

Directions to Cahokia Mounds

It is located in Collinsville, Illinois, off Interstates 55/70 and 255. Cahokia Mounds is just fifteen minutes east of St. Louis, Missouri. 

Admission & Fees

Entrance to Cahokia Mounds is free, although a donation of $7 for adults, $5 for seniors, $2 for children, or $15 for families is suggested.

Hours of Operation

The grounds are open from 8 a.m. to sunset every day except for seven holidays yearly. The interpretive Center, where many artifacts can be seen, is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. throughout most of the year, except May through October, when it is open every day.

Guided tours and audio tours are available. The audio tours charge an additional fee for the suggested donation. For more information, be sure to check the official Cahokia Mounds website.

Best Places to Stay Near Cahokia Mounds

Hampton Inn St. Louis/Collinsville building
Hampton Inn St. Louis/Collinsville / Booking.com

There are a few great hotels near the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. If you’re looking for a place close to the action, the Hampton Inn Collinsville/St. Louis is a great option, as it’s only minutes from the site.

If you’re looking for something more rustic, the Beall Mansion, An Elegant Bed & Breakfast Inn, is a great choice. This bed and breakfast is in a beautiful, historic mansion just a short drive from Cahokia Mounds. If you want more options, check the lowest prices for accommodation on Booking.com near Cahokia Mounds.

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is a great place to learn about the history of this ancient city and see some of the artifacts that have been recovered from the site. Be sure to schedule a visit when you’re in the area.

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FAQ

How did the Cahokia Mounds get their name?

The Cahokia Mounds were named after the historic Native American tribe that once inhabited the area. The name “Cahokia” is thought to be derived from a native word meaning “city of the sun.”

When were the Cahokia Mounds built?

The Cahokia Mounds were built between approximately 950 and 1400 AD, making them one of the oldest archaeological sites in North America.

Who built the Cahokia Mounds?

The Cahokia Mounds were built by the Mississippian people, a Native American culture prevalent in the southeastern United States at the time.

How Long is Needed at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site?

It takes about 2 hours to see everything at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

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