Cahokia Mounds – Jul 2011

How To Turn Your Cahokia Mounds Visit Into A 6-Mile Safari

Cahokia Mounds is a State Historic Site near Collinsville, IL and also prominently a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of only twenty in the US and one of eight for cultural reasons. It is the largest American Indian earthen construction in the Americas north of Mexico and the ancient city was larger than any subsequent city north of Mexico until Philadelphia finally passed it in the 1780s! There were mounds all over the area and the modern world has caught up with them in large part but the core is still preserved here. Visiting the museum and exploring the area a bit can give a good glimpse back into the history of the site, and while it’s not an area you’d think to go for some time in a natural environment, we found it has a lot more to offer than expected.

  • Hikers: Brad, Melissa, Mike
  • Estimated Distance: 6 miles

Cahokia Mounds museumWe went into the museum building first to check it out and find the best map we could. We’d all been there before so we didn’t go through the exhibits or watch the movie but I highly recommend it.

We decided to take a counter-clockwise route around the biggest loop trail we could make. It was a fairly hot and sunny day in the mid 90s, but we were ready for some exercise and adventure.  We started right across the Cahokia Mounds entrance road from the museum (east side). We found the trail which wasn’t worn and was just a line of shorter grass, and continued southeast.  Brad immediately found a painted turtle along the trail so we carried it to the shore of the nearby pond. The pond is actually one of the many borrow pits from which earth was taken to build the mounds.

Egret Painted Turtle Borrow pit lake

Yellow necked birdWe saw egrets and blue herons near the water here, and in several other places on our trail. I’m not sure what the yellow and black necked bird was. It’s a good place for bird watching which made Melissa excited especially since she has become a bit of a bird watcher this year.

deerSoon we saw our first deer after passing a stand of trees on the right and turning the corner into a large grassy area. It had small antlers and looked up when it noticed us. It moved off toward the trees on the right and then we noticed the second deer. I made sure to get a lot of pictures of them but at that point we didn’t realize we’d be seeing tons of deer on the rest of the hike!

It felt very secluded back in this flat grassy area. There were were trees on all sides of it but was quite far to the other end and the tall grass just went on for the whole distance. The trail we chose headed south along the trees and then crossed through a gap in the trees and into a new narrower grass area to the west. It then followed along the trees south on that side for a while before hitting more trees at the end and cutting back east where we ducked past wild berries through a hole to the side we were on before.

This was just a very pretty grassland area with some thistle and flowers. We saw two much bigger deer with big racks here and after they saw us, they were taking huge leaps somewhat toward us. These guys looked like they could do some damage so we paused to see what they would do. I imagine it’s rare, but we have actually heard of deer attacks in the area. They eventually headed off into the trees. The trail went back north and we planned to take a side loop to the right around another pond but the trail was under too much water. Instead we continued past the museum and eventually crossed Collinsville Rd/Rt. 111 and took a snack break near the Monks Mound parking lot.

deer grassland

Taking a short loop to the east, the trail wasn’t very defined but we saw some archaeological dig sites with obvious worn ground where vehicles drove up to it so we took a closer look and found a trail at that point. The sites were partially covered up and looked like they hadn’t been worked on in some time however. We ended up at the Stockade and checked that out before cutting across to the back corner of Monks Mound where we took the trail south so we could take the stairs up.

excavation site Stockade Stairs up Monk's Mound

The top of Monks Mound has a pretty good view just from the height, much of the larger historic site is in view from up there. Besides that, the general surrounding area doesn’t really have anything appealing to see besides the distant view of downtown St. Louis clearly though. Monks Mound itself is impressive, the age and the size and the amazing historical value of it. It looked over a city larger than any subsequent city in the United States until about 1800 when Philadelphia grew beyond 40,000. Monks Mound has a larger base than the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán, Mexico, though it is much shorter.

Top of the stairs at Monk's Mound Melissa on top of Monk's Mound St. Louis from Monk's MoundCahokia mural Monk's Mound size comparison

WoodhengeNext we cut across off-trail paralleling the road to catch back up with the trail that went around back of Monks Mound, then followed that west toward Woodhenge. The sun began to feel particularly hot at this point and we passed another group of hikers.

Safari deerAfter passing the Woodhenge, we had a vantage point to the huge open grassy area that we’d be hiking into next after we crossed the road for the second time. There were quite a lot of deer visible way off in the distance. If we hadn’t stopped and watched, we might not have noticed since they were so far away. We noticed deer running in various directions across the field, some grazing, some looking up to watch us. There was a mom and two young deer. It really did feel a bit like an African safari here. I see deer quite regularly around here but I hadn’t seen them in a setting like this before, way off in the distance and galloping left and right long distance across the open space.

We crossed the road and the trail took us into the grassland. We followed the trail we wanted the best we could but it eventually became quite swampy and clearly wasn’t mowed so we just made for the south end of the clearing where we were able to notice the trail again. However it was soupy and muddy going through the woods and the mosquitos were really annoying. They had mentioned the trail might be wet at some point when we were in the museum.

Clearing at the back of the parkThe next clearing really felt like the back end of the park. It had taller vegetation and the trail was clear but it we were still walking on an inch or two of water in many places. It wasn’t too bad since it wasn’t muddy anymore. We spotted an interesting blue bird along the trail that was blue on the bottom and had gray wings that Melissa identified it as an Indigo Bunting.

The trail went back into the woods and we slogged through a lot more mud, with mosquitoes once again, before turning right at a junction where conditions improved. It opened up heading toward the museum and we came across a pair of large wild turkeys ahead. We finished out on paved trail after narrowly surviving an encounter with a threatening crayfish.

Melissa and Brad back on nicer trail Killer crawdad Wild Turkeys



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