Who would have thought that an area of historic Native American mounds would be such an interesting experience? That’s exactly what we thought before heading to Ocmulgee National Monument in the heart of Macon, Georgia. If you are looking to find the best things to do in Macon, this is certainly one of the more popular choices and with good reason.
When you first hear about a bunch of grass mounds providing an intriguing spectacle, you could be forgiven for wondering why on earth you would waste your time here. After spending some time exploring the area it’s certainly an interesting reflection on American history that has been preserved.
Where is Ocmulgee National Monument?
You may be wondering how we stumbled across the Ocmulgee National Monument? After leaving Atlanta en route to Jacksonville, Florida, we headed down I-75 knowing that we would pass through the city of Macon, GA.
A quick Google search led us to believe that Ocmulgee National Monument was worth exploring so we took the short drive from the interstate to find out what this was all about.
The history of Ocmulgee National Monument is what makes this such an intriguing place to explore. When you hear that this place dates back 17,000 years and is a prehistoric American Indian site, if you are an avid historian or archaeological guru, this place is certainly an attractive spot to visit.
Ocmulgee National Monument protects and preserves “Lands commonly known as the Old Ocmulgee Fields”
There have been four different prehistoric cultures that have resided on the Ocmulgee land until European settlers set foot on this part of the world. Ocmulgee is the ancestral homeland of the Muscogee tribe which now resides in the state of Oklahoma.
When you visit Ocmulgee National Monument today, you can set foot on this hallowed ground and learn all about the history of the tribes and different cultures that resided here.
Meanwhile, the visitor center includes an informative museum with a variety of ancient artifacts found during the mass excavations of the Macon Plateau.
Ocmulgee Hiking Trails
There are several distinctive mounds that you can explore throughout the landscape. A designated walking trail has been created and if you are really adventurous you can experience the full 3.25-mile loop (there are up to 6 miles of different trails around Ocmulgee) that also takes in some of the forest and wetland environments.
For those of you just interested in learning more about the American Indian settlers here, take a short 1/2 mile trail from the Visitor Center to the Great Temple Mound. This trail leads to three of Ocmulgee’s most popular landmarks –the Earth Lodge, the Trading Post site, and the Greater and Lesser Temple Mounds.
You also have the opportunity to cross over the iconic railway that leads to the unfortunate demise of Ocmulgee Mounds as settlements for local tribes. Here are is a list of the various trails you can experience here:
- Dunlap Trail – 1/4 Mile
- McDougal Trail – 1/2 Mile
- Heritage Trail – 3/4 Mile
- Opelofa Trail – 1 Mile
- Bartram Trail – 3/4 Mile
- Visitor Center to the Great Temple Mound – 1/2 Mile
- Southeast Mound Trail – 1/4 Mile
- Hitchiti Village Site Trail – 1/2 Mile
- River Trail – 1 Mile
- Funeral Mound Trail – 1/4 Mile
- Corn Field Mound Trail – 1/4 Mile
As you can see, there are plenty of ‘short’ hikes available so if you are planning on staying in the area and want a variety of things to do in Macon, be sure to check out a variety of these trails. A word of warning, if you plan on taking the River trail, be sure to watch out for alligators and other wildlife that are frequently spotted along this route!
The first mound we stumbled across with any significance was the wonderfully named ‘Earth Lodge’. As we approached this mound, we had no idea that as we went around the side we would have the opportunity to crawl (unless you are only 5ft tall, you will be crawling!) inside and explore.
The central chamber can be accessed through the narrow tunnel before you can then stand upright and appreciate the interior.
A smoke hole is the only other form of access for light to enter the tunnel though today the air-conditioned museum display offered a moment of respite from the searing hot weather outside.
Historians and archaeologists have researched the Earth Lodge and after uncovering this mound during excavations in 1938, it soon became apparent that this was a unique structure with nothing else like this in the surrounding area. Research also suggests that the tribes guilty of creating this Earth Lodge were inspired by the Pawnee tribes who followed similar design features when creating these types of structures.
Impact of the Railroad
In 1843, the Central Georgia Railroad constructed a railway line that ran through the heart of Ocmulgee National Monument. It’s no surprise to hear that this had a detrimental effect and in fact damaged many of the iconic mounds that are in close proximity to the present day railroad tracks. It destroyed a portion of the Lesser Temple Mound and the great prehistoric town that was once on this site.
Today, as you walk along the trail, crossing over the bridge gives you time to reflect on the history of this landscape and how human intervention helped cause the demise of a natural habitat used by prehistoric tribes.
I’m glad that this location has been designated as a National Monument and will be preserved in the future because these types of locations are becoming less prevalent in today’s society. Reading about the prehistoric tribes is one thing but there is nothing quite like investigating their roots and how they survived in communities like Ocmulgee.
Great Temple Mound
After crossing the railroad tracks, you can immediately see the magnificent sight of the Great Temple Mound in the distance. This is the largest mound at the Ocmulgee National Monument site and is well worth the short hike from the visitor center. The mound stands at 55ft and is located on a high bluff overlooking the floodplain of the Ocmulgee River.
A walkway and steps are located at the side of the Great Temple Mound and provide easy access for visitors to climb to the summit.
You are well and truly on top of the world, well at least in Macon, Georgia when you reach the top of the mound and the panoramic views offer stunning scenery across the surrounding countryside.
Visitors are not allowed on the slopes of any of the mounds but the Great Temple Mound is one that is large enough for you to walk around the top before heading back along the trail.
Ocmulgee National Monument is certainly a gem worth visiting if you are in this part of Georgia. When it comes to the best things to do in Macon, Ocmulgee is definitely near the top of that list especially if you have any interest in American history, prehistoric cultures or gorgeous panoramic Georgia landscapes.