From dramatic red sandstone canyon dwellings to marsh-side man-made mounds, indigenous peoples’ history is all around. Their sacred sites are still in use today for ceremonies with ties to the land. Plan a road trip stop to experience a Native American cultural site to learn about the past and present from a different perspective.
1. Bighorn Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain: Bighorn National Forest, WY
Near the top of Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountain, the 80-foot diameter Bighorn Medicine Wheel is laid out in limestone boulders on a plateau clearing. The 28 spoke wheel is formed by rocks stemming from a central circle of rocks, and is accompanied by six smaller rock circles around the wheel’s rim. This structure has been used for seven thousand years by indigenous tribes, including the Shoshone and Crow, for sun dance, prayer and fasting rituals. Today tribes use the medicine wheel to perform ceremonies, gather medicinal plants and vision quest journeys.
Greybull KOA Holiday
2. Bears Ears National Monument, UT
There’s so much to explore at Bears Ears National Monument. The 1.35 million acres of land received monument status in 2016 through the work of indigenous tribes. Local tribes access the land for cultural and traditional uses like collecting medicinal plants, firewood and hunting. Artifacts of Ancestral Puebloans and other tribes going back thousands of years are preserved within the monument. Newspaper Rock is a concentation of 650 petroglyphs located in the Indian Creek region. House on Fire in the Cedar Mesa region of the monument is an ancient brick ruin of five granaries built into a sandstone overhang. In the early morning, the sun strikes the building looking like flames. Dinosaur footprints and fossils can be found at Bears Ears, along with the sound of silence and the dark night sky.
Monument Valley KOA Journey
3. Devils Tower National Monument, WY
Devils Tower rises above the prairie grasses, looking like the base of a gigantic chopped tree. The tower’s texture is made of igneous rock columns ten feet wide and hundreds of feet tall. A 13-acre boulder field of giant rocks that eroded off the tower surrounds its base. Visitors can rock climb the tower or walk around it to get different perspectives of the impressive geological feature. Tribes of the Great Plains and Black Hills connect to Devils Tower and may perform ceremonies in the area and leave colorful prayer cloth and bundles as ritual offerings.
Devils Tower / Black Hills KOA Holiday
4. Lava Beds National Monument, CA
Ancient volcanic eruptions in the Medicine Lake shield volcano created 800 lava tube caves in what is now the Lava Beds National Monument. Visitors can explore some of these caves ranging from easy to advanced difficulty levels. The Cave Loop route has the biggest selection of developed caves with access via trail, stairway or ladder into the cave. The Modoc tribe lived in the Lava Beds area until they were pushed out during the Modoc War. The terrain has changed little since the tribe lived there last. Their battlefields are located within the monument, and so is their rock art. Petroglyph Point tells the Modoc creation story and has the highest concentration of images within the monument. Art can also be found at cave entrances painted in black charcoal.
Mount Shasta City KOA Holiday
5. Canyon de Chelly National Monument, AZ
Navajo families live in Canyon de Chelly and teach visitors about the land and its history on guided canyon tours. Ancient Puebloans farmed in the basin and built what is now the White House Ruin around 1060 AD. The remaining ruins indicate a massive 80 room structure built into a sandstone cliff wall. The two-hour hike to see White House is the only self-guided hike in the monument, while others are ranger-led. See more of the canyon on two scenic rim drives that oversee the valley, rock formations and more ancient cliff dwellings.
Holbrook / Petrified Forest KOA Journey
Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park
6. Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park, GA
The Macon Plateau has been home to indigenous peoples for thousands of years. The Mississippian tribes left their mark where wetlands meet upland forest with earthen mounds. The Ocmulgee Mounds are man-made hills built for varying purposes. Visitors can enter the Earth Lodge constructed on top of a raised slope. The original floor was uncovered during an archaeological dig, and it dates back to 1015. A trading post site, seven burial and ceremonial earth mounds, and a museum full of artifacts that have been uncovered help tell the story of the area’s original people.
Forsyth KOA Journey
Eva Barrows is an accomplished San Francisco Peninsula freelance writer and editor. She writes for regional magazines like PUNCH and Edible Silicon Valley and is editor-in-chief of Live&ThriveCA magazine. She founded the online literary journal Imitation Fruit in 2007 and has enjoyed promoting fellow writers and artists ever since. Read more of her travel writing at www.evabarrows.com.