10 great ancient ruins that track the heavens, from Woodhenge to Chichen Itza

As they have for centuries, ancient ruins around the globe aligned with the sun this month. Like fine-tuned Swiss watches, they marked the solstice, indicating the beginning of summer in the northern hemisphere. Researchers and travelers are paying more attention to these archaeoastronomy sites, which operate like giant calendars to note the passing seasons. “It’s something human beings have always done. They were keenly interested in the patterns of nature,” says Ken Taylor, author of “Celestial Geometry: Understanding the Astronomical Meanings of Ancient Sites” (Watkins Publishing, $19.95). He shares some notable destinations with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.

Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this entire ancient city is believed to have been designed to track the heavens. Many walls are built on a north-south, east-west axis, and shadows dramatically mark the solstice, equinox and other celestial events. “The siting of the great houses throughout the canyon have an element of planning. They are not randomly positioned,” Taylor says. nps.gov/chcu

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Illinois

This earthen mound complex east of St. Louis was once the continent’s largest city north of Mexico. Hills and circles of red cedar posts align with the solstice and equinox, earning the ruins the name Woodhenge. “The interest lies in the grand pattern that researchers have discovered, or re-discovered,” Taylor says. cahokiamounds.org

Bighorn Medicine Wheel, Wyoming

On the summer solstice, this ancient stone hoop comes to life, aligning with the sunrise and sunset. The well-preserved site in the Bighorn National Forest also marks places on the horizon where prominent stars appear. “It’s stunning scenery,” Taylor says. “It’s a wonderful geometric design that you can see at a glance and take it all in.” travelwyoming.com

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Arizona

Constructed about 700 years ago, this four-story house serves as a calendar. When the sunrises and sunsets during the summer solstice and spring and fall equinox, a beam of light shines through windows in a top-floor room. “To look at it, you’d think it’s simply a house, but the scholars surmised it was carefully constructed for kind of a light show at certain times of year,” Taylor says. nps.gov/cagr

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