America's ancient ruins you probably don't know about



Slide 1 of 27: Certain places are renowned for archaeology and the remains of ancient civilizations. The US isn’t one of them. But perhaps it should be. While city architecture rarely goes back earlier than the 19th century, there are wall paintings, rock carvings and impeccably preserved pre-Columbian dwellings all around the country. So while some sites, including those in state and national parks, are currently closed, why not enjoy our tour of the most exciting spots?
Slide 2 of 27: There’s evidence that humans inhabited this rugged land of canyons and cliffs more than 11,000 years ago, though its striking structures were built by Ancestral Puebloans around AD 1150. The Los Alamos site is home to the remnants of stone walls, petroglyphs, and buildings expertly carved into sheer rock faces.
Slide 3 of 27: A network of ladders and stone steps provides access to Alcove House, a vertiginous clifftop site that was once home to around two-dozen Ancestral Puebloans. The park has an extensive network of hiking trails that weave through forest and connect different villages, plus a visitor center with exhibits of pottery and tools used by the Native inhabitants.
Slide 4 of 27: You’d need a 4WD vehicle or a strong pair of legs to reach River House Ruin, a sandstone cliff dwelling built by Ancestral Puebloans between AD 900 and the late 1200s. The five-mile (8km) route from the highway is characterized by deep sand and rocks. It’s worth the effort, though.

Slide 5 of 27: The early desert dwelling is made up of a series of well-preserved rooms, some arranged over two stories, tucked beneath apricot-hued cliffs. There are hundreds of petroglyphs (carved rock art), including an image of Kokopelli, a fertility deity and trickster god depicted with a flute and feathered headdress.
Slide 6 of 27: Around 30-minutes' from River House Ruin near Bluff is one of the finest surviving examples of Ancestral Puebloan wall art in Bears Ears National Monument. This petroglyph panel stretches for 100 yards (91m) and has rock art spanning more than 2,500 years. Images of fertility deity Kokopelli and a flute-playing bighorn sheep are marked onto the rock above clearer, more recent Ute and Navajo carvings. Discover more about what to see in Southern Utah with our full guide to Bluff and beyond.
Slide 7 of 27: This soapstone boulder was once a sacred site for Cherokee people, who believed an ancient giant creature called Judaculla landed here when jumping from one mountain to another. Carvings of stick figures, claw marks and winged shapes are etched into the rock, which archaeologists have dated to between 2000 and 200 BC.
Slide 8 of 27: Spread across six square miles (16sq km) and with an estimated population of between 10,000 to 20,000, Cahokia was once bigger than London. Or at least, London as it was in AD 1250, when North America’s first-known city reached its peak. The land is dotted with around 80 earthen mounds and their origins are shrouded in mystery.
Slide 9 of 27: An interpretive center and gallery reveals what is known about the site, located a few miles outside Collinsville. It’s thought to have been settled around AD 600, with a series of “Woodhenges” – calendars made with red cedar posts that line up with the rising sun on certain days of the year – built by the Cahokia around AD 1100.

Slide 10 of 27: Archaeological sites are rarely more scenic than Lapakahi State Historical Park on the island of Hawaii’s North Kohala coast. The ancient fishing settlement is set against a backdrop of palm trees and shimmering blue waters and fringed by a striking beach with black and white stones.
Slide 11 of 27: There are a series of trails with information panels explaining the significance of structures such as canoe storage houses, religious shrines and an ancient burial site, revealing the life of the fishing community – Koai'e – that occupied the land in the 1300s.
Slide 12 of 27: Something sinister – and huge – appears to lurk beneath the grass at this site in Peebles. Thankfully there isn’t a snake slithering here. This is actually the world’s largest serpent effigy, a mound that winds across a plateau in the shape of a snake. It’s believed to have been constructed by Native Ohioans, though archaeologists haven’t been able to pinpoint a specific culture or date, with estimates varying wildly from 321 BC to AD 1070.
Slide 13 of 27: Stone circles are so often shrouded in mystery. Bighorn Medicine Wheel, in northern Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest, goes one further and is shrouded in snow through the winter months. In summer, it melts away to reveal limestone rocks scattered in a wheel shape with spokes encased in a large circle.
Slide 14 of 27: Some experts have dated the mountaintop site to at least AD 1300, and it forms part of a chain of American Indian archaeological sites up to 7,000 years old. It’s thought that the pattern was used to predict astronomical events such as the Summer Solstice – though the truth remains something of an enigma.

Slide 15 of 27: National Geographic once described Moundville as “The Big Apple of the 14th Century”. The 29 flat-topped earthen mounds, crafted by Native Mississippians around 800 years ago, may not quite measure up to the skyscrapers of modern New York, but they speak of a sophisticated and advanced civilization.
Slide 16 of 27: Today the archaeological park, on the Black Warrior River near Tuscaloosa, preserves 326 acres of the grounds. There is a nature trail and paths that weave around the mounds, which were once topped with nobles’ homes and ceremonial structures. Now discover the secret wonders hidden in the world's largest deserts.
Slide 17 of 27: Ancestral Puebloans built what was effectively a huge trade center in the heart of the New Mexican desert. Chaco Culture is made up of a series of huge stone buildings, constructed around AD 850, and it’s believed it was used as a ceremonial and administrative center despite the arid landscape and long winters.
Slide 18 of 27: Typically, visitors can take ranger-led tours to view the remains of the impressive multi-story “great houses” close up and to learn about the spiritual significance of the surrounding mountains and mesas. An International Dark Sky Park, it's an atmospheric place to view the stars too.
Slide 19 of 27: Locations don’t come much more impressive than the perch occupied by this high-rise building, tucked into limestone cliffs in the desert of Camp Verde. Montezuma Castle was built and occupied by the Sinagua people between AD 1100 and 1425, and used as an abode with 20 rooms.
Slide 20 of 27: It was among the first four sites given the designation “National Monument”, in 1906, and for decades visitors could access it via a series of cliffside ladders. Now, to prevent further damage, it can only be viewed from the ground. There are further dwellings around Montezuma Well, six miles (10km) away – some more than 1,000 years old. 
Slide 21 of 27: The Hopewell peoples – made up of various Native groups – once gathered around the grassy mounds and enclosures of this national historical park for ceremonies from feasts to funerals. The mounds, built around 2,000 years ago and containing structures up to 1,000-feet (305m) wide, are preserved across six separate locations across the park.
Slide 22 of 27: When the park is open there is a self-guided trail around the mounds or you can sign up for a ranger-led tour for a more in-depth look at the structures and archaeology. Or, if you’re there during summer, reflect on the site’s spiritual and cultural significance with a free outdoor yoga class. Now check out the world's most incredible Roman ruins.
Slide 23 of 27: The earthen mounds at and around Poverty Point dwarf most others in size and also age – the nearby Lower Jackson Mound has been dated to about 3900 BC. It's thought that the impressive mounds and concentric half-circles here were shaped by hand too.
Slide 24 of 27: What isn’t yet known is the purpose of the site, though ongoing archaeological studies into the ground and artifacts suggest it may have been both a residential and trade center. Adding to the mystery, Poverty Point was abandoned sometime around 1100 BC, and another Native group moved in around AD 700, contributing another mound to the landscape.
Slide 25 of 27: The nine masonry buildings that make up vast Kinishiba once contained up to 500 rooms across the ground floor and housed up to 1,000 people. The Pueblo village, constructed by pre-Columbian Mogollon people between AD 1250 and 1350, was abandoned in the late 14th century for unexplained reasons. Now you can enter the site, part of the Fort Apache Historic Park, in a grassy valley on land belonging to the White Mountain Apache Tribe.
Slide 26 of 27: From a distance, Cliff Palace resembles a sprawling, intricate sandcastle city. Tucked in an alcove beneath the bluffs in Mesa Verde National Park, the Ancestral Puebloan ruin is believed to have been built between AD 1190 and 1260. It’s also the largest known cliff dwelling in North America.
Slide 27 of 27: The palace’s many rooms and kivas – spaces used by Puebloans for religious rituals and meetings – are carved out of sandstone and supported by wooden beams and mortar. It’s incredibly well-preserved, and tours are only ever with the park’s rangers. Now check out 50 incredible wonders of the world.

Remains of the days

Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

There’s evidence that humans inhabited this rugged land of canyons and cliffs more than 11,000 years ago, though its striking structures were built by Ancestral Puebloans around AD 1150. The Los Alamos site is home to the remnants of stone walls, petroglyphs, and buildings expertly carved into sheer rock faces.

Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

River House Ruin, Utah

River House Ruin, Utah

Sand Island Petroglyph Panel, Utah

Around 30-minutes’ from River House Ruin near Bluff is one of the finest surviving examples of Ancestral Puebloan wall art in Bears Ears National Monument. This petroglyph panel stretches for 100 yards (91m) and has rock art spanning more than 2,500 years. Images of fertility deity Kokopelli and a flute-playing bighorn sheep are marked onto the rock above clearer, more recent Ute and Navajo carvings. Discover more about what to see in Southern Utah with our full guide to Bluff and beyond.

Judaculla Rock, North Carolina

Cahokia Mounds, Illinois

Spread across six square miles (16sq km) and with an estimated population of between 10,000 to 20,000, Cahokia was once bigger than London. Or at least, London as it was in AD 1250, when North America’s first-known city reached its peak. The land is dotted with around 80 earthen mounds and their origins are shrouded in mystery.

Cahokia Mounds, Illinois

Lapakahi State Historical Park, Hawaii

Archaeological sites are rarely more scenic than Lapakahi State Historical Park on the island of Hawaii’s North Kohala coast. The ancient fishing settlement is set against a backdrop of palm trees and shimmering blue waters and fringed by a striking beach with black and white stones.

Lapakahi State Historical Park, Hawaii

Serpent Mound Historical Site, Ohio

Something sinister – and huge – appears to lurk beneath the grass at this site in Peebles. Thankfully there isn’t a snake slithering here. This is actually the world’s largest serpent effigy, a mound that winds across a plateau in the shape of a snake. It’s believed to have been constructed by Native Ohioans, though archaeologists haven’t been able to pinpoint a specific culture or date, with estimates varying wildly from 321 BC to AD 1070.

Bighorn Medicine Wheel, Wyoming

Stone circles are so often shrouded in mystery. Bighorn Medicine Wheel, in northern Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest, goes one further and is shrouded in snow through the winter months. In summer, it melts away to reveal limestone rocks scattered in a wheel shape with spokes encased in a large circle.

Bighorn Medicine Wheel, Wyoming

Moundville Archaeological Park, Alabama

National Geographic once described Moundville as “The Big Apple of the 14th Century”. The 29 flat-topped earthen mounds, crafted by Native Mississippians around 800 years ago, may not quite measure up to the skyscrapers of modern New York, but they speak of a sophisticated and advanced civilization.

Moundville Archaeological Park, Alabama

Today the archaeological park, on the Black Warrior River near Tuscaloosa, preserves 326 acres of the grounds. There is a nature trail and paths that weave around the mounds, which were once topped with nobles’ homes and ceremonial structures. Now discover the secret wonders hidden in the world’s largest deserts.

Chaco Culture, New Mexico

Ancestral Puebloans built what was effectively a huge trade center in the heart of the New Mexican desert. Chaco Culture is made up of a series of huge stone buildings, constructed around AD 850, and it’s believed it was used as a ceremonial and administrative center despite the arid landscape and long winters.

Chaco Culture, New Mexico

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

Locations don’t come much more impressive than the perch occupied by this high-rise building, tucked into limestone cliffs in the desert of Camp Verde. Montezuma Castle was built and occupied by the Sinagua people between AD 1100 and 1425, and used as an abode with 20 rooms.

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

It was among the first four sites given the designation “National Monument”, in 1906, and for decades visitors could access it via a series of cliffside ladders. Now, to prevent further damage, it can only be viewed from the ground. There are further dwellings around Montezuma Well, six miles (10km) away – some more than 1,000 years old. 

Hopewell Culture, Ohio

The Hopewell peoples – made up of various Native groups – once gathered around the grassy mounds and enclosures of this national historical park for ceremonies from feasts to funerals. The mounds, built around 2,000 years ago and containing structures up to 1,000-feet (305m) wide, are preserved across six separate locations across the park.

Hopewell Culture, Ohio

When the park is open there is a self-guided trail around the mounds or you can sign up for a ranger-led tour for a more in-depth look at the structures and archaeology. Or, if you’re there during summer, reflect on the site’s spiritual and cultural significance with a free outdoor yoga class. Now check out the world’s most incredible Roman ruins.

Poverty Point, Louisiana

The earthen mounds at and around Poverty Point dwarf most others in size and also age – the nearby Lower Jackson Mound has been dated to about 3900 BC. It’s thought that the impressive mounds and concentric half-circles here were shaped by hand too.

Poverty Point State Historic Site, Louisiana

Kinishba Ruins, Arizona

The nine masonry buildings that make up vast Kinishiba once contained up to 500 rooms across the ground floor and housed up to 1,000 people. The Pueblo village, constructed by pre-Columbian Mogollon people between AD 1250 and 1350, was abandoned in the late 14th century for unexplained reasons. Now you can enter the site, part of the Fort Apache Historic Park, in a grassy valley on land belonging to the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

Cliff Palace, Colorado

From a distance, Cliff Palace resembles a sprawling, intricate sandcastle city. Tucked in an alcove beneath the bluffs in Mesa Verde National Park, the Ancestral Puebloan ruin is believed to have been built between AD 1190 and 1260. It’s also the largest known cliff dwelling in North America.

Cliff Palace, Colorado

The palace’s many rooms and kivas – spaces used by Puebloans for religious rituals and meetings – are carved out of sandstone and supported by wooden beams and mortar. It’s incredibly well-preserved, and tours are only ever with the park’s rangers. Now check out 50 incredible wonders of the world.

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