follow us:
Shoulders of Giants is closed. Click here for more information
Adventure, Travel / June 20, 2016

America’s unseen ruins

Written by: Matt Minich

When we think of ruins from pre-Columbian America, most of us picture the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan cities of Latin America.

But those aren’t the only ancient cities to be found in the western hemisphere. These three seldom-visited sites are all north of the U.S. / Mexico border.

New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon

Photo by John Fowler.

Many of the ruins in Chaco Culture National Park have stood for more than 1,000 years. The brick buildings and the petroglyphs painted on their walls are the best-preserved remnants of the Southwest’s ancient Pueblo people.

Archaeologists believe Chaco Canyon was home to a large and advanced civilization. Many of the buildings contain upwards of 700 rooms, and the city’s layout suggests its designers understood the movement of the stars and planets. The site was abandoned almost 1,000 years ago for reasons that are still not fully known.

We strongly recommend any trip to Chaco Canyon include a night of camping. The park’s remote location and relatively clear skies make it one of the best stargazing destinations on the planet. Most camping in the park is available on a first come/first serve basis, but some premium spots among the ruins require reservations.


Newfoundland’s L’Anse Aux Meadows


Photo by Eric Titcombe.

Five hundred years before Columbus and his men landed in the New World, an entirely different group of European plunderers had already come and gone.

Newfoundland’s L’Anse aux Meadows is believed the be the site of a small Viking outpost occupied in the year 1,000 A.D.  Archaeologists estimate that as many as 160 people lived there, but suspect that harsh winters and scarce game forced them to leave after just a few years.

Historians have reconstructed many of the site’s timber and sod buildings, and actors in Viking costume give tours. It’s sort of like Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg, but with big beards, axes, and swords.


Illinois’ Cahokia mounds


Photo by Brandon Shea.

A bunch of mounds in Illinois? We know it doesn’t exactly sound like a bucket list destination, but bear with us. Because while it just looks like a bunch of rolling hills now, Cahokia was once the largest American city north of Mexico.

At its peak (around 1250 A.D.), Cahokia was home to more than 20,000 people. It was a rare urban center in the land that is now the United States—it consisted of hundreds of mounds and other structures on 2,200 acres of land.

The mounds are preserved as a state historic site. Interpretive trails and a nearby museum help visitors to envision the mounds as they once were. An outstanding guide to the site is available online.


about the author

Matt Minich

Matt Minich is Editorial Director for Shoulders of Giants. He has spent more than a decade writing, editing, and curating content about outdoor sports and adventure. As an adventure journalist he has climbed peaks in Patagonia, rappelled waterfalls in Colorado, B.A.S.E. jumped in Moab, and sampled fermented horse milk in Kyrgyzstan.

read more
hit the outdoors

Sign up for the inside scoop on new products, member discounts and inspiration from our giants.