Effigy Mounds National Monument: Massive Bears, Stunning Views, and Thousands of Years of Native American History

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Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
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Marching Bear Group. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Where: Northeastern Iowa. The monument is located three miles north of Marquette, Iowa, on Highway 76.
Phone: 563/873-3491, ext. 123 (visitor center front desk)
Web, Facebook
Distance From City-Center Chicago: 220 miles
Travel Notes: The historic river town of Galena, Illinois, in far northwestern Illinois, was our home base for this trip. Effigy Mounds is about 72 miles northwest of Galena.
Open: Year-round except on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day

BEARS, SOME 80 FEET IN LENGTH, are lurking in Effigy Mounds National Monument in northeastern Iowa along the mighty Mississippi River. And massive birds, too. But they’re not ferocious. They’re just resting in the woods waiting to be discovered for those who are interested in Native American history. These huge animals are effigy mounds, raised masses of earth in the shape of animals, humans, or other symbols. They were built by the Late Woodland Indian culture from about 600 through 1150 AD, and were used to bury the dead, for clan ceremonies, and, perhaps, for celestial observations or to mark tribal or group boundaries. There are 206 prehistoric mounds in Effigy Mounds National Monument (EMNM), including 31 animal effigies. The mounds are typically two to four feet high, 40 feet wide, and 800 feet long, although the bird mounds have wingspans that range from 124 of 212 feet.

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Native American Mound Sites in the Midwest

The mounds in EMNM are just some of many in the Effigy Mounds Region, which encompasses northeastern Iowa, southern Wisconsin, northwestern Illinois, and southeastern Minnesota. Effigy and other mounds were once ubiquitous in this region, but many were destroyed by farmers and builders as forests and grasslands were converted to farms and towns were built or expanded. It’s estimated that there were 10,000 mounds of all types in northeastern Iowa alone in the early 1900s. Fewer than 1,000 survive today, and Effigy Mounds National Monument, other federal sites, and state and local sites represent efforts to preserve this important history.

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It was a picture-perfect August day when my wife, my seven-year-old son, and myself visited Effigy Mounds. Our first stop was the visitor center, which is located between the monument’s North and South Units on IA-76. The center offers a 15-minute movie about the history of the mound builders; helpful and knowledgeable staff; a well-stocked gift shop filled with many interesting books, crafts, artwork, and toys; and a small museum that features a wealth of information about the Driftless Region, examples of Woodland Indian pottery, weapons, and tools, and a brief history of white explorers in the area.

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94413078-1DD8-B71B-0B54577BF7BE3632-copper effigy was recovered from the grounds of the Mound City Group during the 1920's excavations
A copper effigy that was recovered from the grounds of the Mound City Group during excavations in the 1920s. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service. 

After checking out the visitor center, we hiked the Fire Point Trail, which begins at the back door of the visitor center. On this two-mile circle trail, you’ll journey through dense woods, enjoy stunning views of the Mississippi River, and see many conical mounds, a few compound mounds, the Little Bear Mound Group, and the Great Bear Mound Group. (Click here for more info on the types of mounds in the monument.)

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IMG_0222IMG_0223IMG_0213More adventurous hikers can continue north about three miles to view more mounds and scenic vistas. At Fire Point, about 400 feet above the Mississippi, we caught our breaths and marveled at the views of the river and its backwaters and islands. As we walked and viewed the mounds, we tried to imagine what life was like 850 to 1,400 years ago, the ceremonies and everyday moments that occurred at the mounds, and what must be buried in the mounds. It was a nice break from thoughts of Trump (whose Environmental Protection Agency is doing the opposite of protecting our environment and whose recent executive order puts at least two dozen national monuments—luckily not EMNM—at risk of losing their federally protected status), North Korea, a potential loss of health insurance for tens of millions of people, and the latest crises du jour.

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Illustration courtesy of the National Park Service.

One caveat: this hike involves a somewhat-challenging climb up switchbacks that is entirely do-able for those in good health/shape. Luckily, there were plenty of benches to catch one’s breath on, and, at times, my seven-year-old son got a break from walking with the help of his Sherpa-dad. (These days are quickly coming to an end!) During our breaks, we met people of all ages—from familes with dogs, to middle-aged people hiking the trail for the first time (and deciding to turn back due to the trail’s difficulty), to those in their 70s continuing on to Fire Point.

Is hiking the Fire Point Trail worth it? YES. The views of the Mississippi River from Fire Point were beautiful, the forests were filled with wildflowers and birdsong as we hiked, and discovering and tracing the shapes of the animal effigies was both enjoyable and awe inspiring.

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Fire Point Overlook

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Some visitors may be disappointed by the effigy mounds, expecting something on the level of the spectacular Native American cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. But that’s like comparing apples and oranges (or Anasazi and Late Woodland cultures). The mounds rise only two to four feet above the earth, and they are best viewed from high above, which is not an option in EMNM. But skeptics should first take some time to appreciate the Late Woodland culture in the excellent visitor center. Then hike the various trails in the monument and walk the perimeter of each mound and discover the shapes of animal heads, legs, and wings. Then close their eyes and think back to a time before skyscrapers, superhighways, social media, and all the other trappings of the modern world. To a time when big wasn’t always better and one’s beliefs and traditions mattered more than the spectacular. To a time when a thriving Indian culture summered on the towering hills above the Mississippi. When religious rites (including burying their dead in conical mounds) and seasonal ceremonies were held at these mounds where we walk today—the smell of campfires and the sounds of chants and drumbeats washing over the hills and the Mississippi River valley below. In the heartland of the Late Woodland Indian culture that lasted 550 years—nearly 300 years longer than our own nation’s history.

Many think the story of the mound builders ended when their descendants were forcibly removed from the area in the 1800s. But this is not true. Native Americans so loved their lands that they returned in small groups to live in the woods, along the river, or amongst their conquerors in towns. Today, 20 modern tribes trace their heritage to the region. And that was a nice thought on which to end our hike.

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Marching Bear Group. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.
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Marching Bear Group. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

4 Things to Check Out That I Didn’t See:

  • The Marching Bear Group in the South Unit. Many consider it the most impressive collection of effigy mounds in the monument. An EMNM staff member told me the following about the trail’s hiking difficulty: “The elevation gain for both trails (i.e, Fire Point and Marching Bear) is about 400 feet. The South Unit trail differs from the North Unit in that the trail does not switch back up and is gravel, not wood chips. If you hiked in the North Unit without issue I do not see the Marching Bear Trail being any problem. Just keep in mind that to get to the Marching Bear Group and back is four miles.” This sounds like an interesting hike, and we will be back to check this out when my son gets a little older.
  • The one-mile Yellow River Boardwalk Trail, which travels through a wetland environment. It is accessible for those with disabilities. Located south of the visitor center.
  • Sny Magill Unit. Features the largest mound group, and is located about 12 miles south of the visitor center. Ask the rangers at the visitor center for directions to this remote unit.
  • The Driftless Area Wetland Centre, an environmental education facility that features information on wetlands, prairie, wildlife displays and animals native to the Driftless Area. Located just south of Effigy Mounds.

Tips, Rules, Information, Etc.

  • If you don’t want to hike the somewhat-challenging Fire Point Trail, you can view three conical mounds just outside the visitor center before the trail starts. Ask the park rangers to direct you to other accessible mounds.
  • Wear good hiking boots; the trails can be slippery after heavy rains or during the winter.
  • Bring plenty of water and bug repellant.
  • Watch for poison ivy and ticks.
  • Be respectful. Do not climb on the mounds and remember that some mounds contain the remains of the dead.
  • It should go without saying, but it’s illegal to remove archaeological or natural objects from the monument.
  • Be sure to check out the wildlife, which I didn’t cover in detail in this post. According to the National Park Service, “Effigy Mounds National Monument is located where the western prairies meet the eastern forests. The monument also protects both upland and wetland habitats. The result of this mixing of habitat types is that a great diversity of animals call the monument home.”
  • Print or download the helpful guides about the effigy mound builders and trails. One quibble: while there was some interpretive signage along the trail, at times I wished for more on-site descriptions of what I was seeing and what it meant. The monument’s bookstore also has some excellent publications.
  • Looking for lunch or dinner? If so, check out the river towns of Marquette or McGregor, the closest settlements to the monument. We visited McGregor and enjoyed its historic downtown, which features several restaurants, a rare books store, art galleries, and more. At the time of our visit, McGregor was still recovering from a EF-1 tornado that occurred three weeks earlier. It destroyed several buildings and damaged many others, as well as stripped the leaves and branches from entire trees. If you ever doubted the power of nature, a visit to rebuilding McGregor (which can use all the tourist dollars it can get) will be an eye opener. Across the Mississippi in Wisconsin, check out Prairie Du Chien. It’s the oldest community on the Upper Mississippi River, and offers many more amenities.

 

Click here to access the following guides and brochures:  

  • Mound and Burial Styles of the Woodland Era
  • Prairies and Savannas
  • Prehistoric Resources
  • Animal Resources
  • The New Albin Tablet and Atlatl
  • Yellow River Bridge Trail

And here for a park brochure.

Copyright Andrew Morkes (text and photos unless otherwise credited)

Next Time at Nature in Chicagoland: Apple River Canyon State Park 

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