From remnants of once-massive Native American civilizations to natural wonders that showcase the wild beauty of the United States, UNESCO World Heritage Sites help tell the story of the region, its land, and its people. Here’s a closer look at the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Mississippi River Country.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Illinois
This site, which once covered nearly 16 square kilometers and contained 120 earthen mounds, was the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico. The area was occupied mainly from A.D. 800 to 1200 and may have had a population as high as 20,000 people. The highlight of the site is Monks Mound, the largest prehistoric earthwork in North or South America, which rises 30 meters above the ground. Visitors to the site can take a self-guided tour of the mounds and learn about the history of the region at the Interpretive Center, which features educational exhibits and public programs.
Getting there: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is a 25-minute (35km) drive from St. Louis Lambert International Airport in St. Louis, Missouri.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Mammoth Cave, located in central Kentucky, is the most extensive cave system in the world, with more than 450km of surveyed passages within the park’s boundaries, and 125km more outside the park. The cave system is home to nearly every type of cave formation and more than 130 species of plants and animals. In addition to cave tours of various lengths and difficulty levels, the park is a popular spot for camping, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, fishing, swimming, and canoeing and kayaking.
Getting there: Mammoth Cave is a 1-hour, 20-minute (145km) drive from Louisville International Airport in Louisville, Kentucky, and a 1-hour, 30-minute drive (160km) from Nashville International Airport in Nashville, Tennessee.
Frank Lloyd Wright Sites, Wisconsin and Illinois
A collection of buildings designed by the iconic American architect Frank Lloyd Wright have been named to the UNESCO World Heritage List. There are eight buildings on the list and four of them are in Mississippi River Country. The buildings include the Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois; the Frederick C. Robie House in Chicago, Illinois; Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin; and the Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House in Madison, Wisconsin. While some sites are not open for public tours, Taliesin welcomes visitors. It was Wright’s home, studio, school, and 325-hectare agricultural estate.
Getting there: The sites are driving distance from Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Taliesin is the furthest from the airport: it’s about 2 hours and 35 minutes away. Madison is about 2 hours from Chicago-O’Hare. Another option: Fly into the Dane County Regional Airport in Madison.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
UNESCO named Great Smoky Mountains National Park—which straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina—as a World Heritage Site in 1983 as an example of an ecologically rich and diverse landscape, reflecting how the area looked before human contact. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited National Park site in the United States and is home to more than 3,500 plant species, including nearly as many species of trees (130) as there are in all of Europe. The Smoky Mountains are also home to many endangered animal species, including the greatest variety of salamanders in the world. The park is a popular destination for camping, hiking (including part of the Appalachian Trail) and auto tours.
Getting there: There are three main entrances to the park—Gatlinburg and Townsend in Tennessee and Cherokee in North Carolina. Townsend is a 45-minute drive and Gatlinburg is a 1-hour drive from nearby Knoxville, Tennessee, home to McGhee Tyson Airport; the cities are each about 3 hours from Nashville International Airport. The closest airport to Cherokee is Asheville Regional Airport, about an hour away; Charlotte Douglas International Airport in Charlotte is about 3 hours away (both located in North Carolina)
Poverty Point World Heritage Site, Louisiana
Located in northeastern Louisiana just a short drive from the Mississippi River, Poverty Point is home to a collection of earthen monuments that were constructed more than 3,000 years ago by the native hunter-gatherers who lived in the area. The central mound at the site is one of the largest constructed earthen mounds in North America, and the scale of the construction was not topped for more than 2,000 years—even though the area’s settlers did not have modern tools or domesticated animals. Today, visitors can take guided tours of the site, watch demonstrations, and visit the museum. Poverty Point is also home to picnic areas and more than 6.5 kilometers of hiking trails.
Getting there: Poverty Point is a 1-hour, 45-minute drive (170km) from Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport in Jackson, Mississippi, and approximately 4 hours (400km) from Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in Louisiana.