We enjoyed this two mile hike in the North Unit of Effigy Mounds National Monument on an absolutely glorious spring morning. Although it is said to take about one hour, we took two, so we could soak up twice as much of this special place. There are 10 stops along the trail, beginning at the Visitor Center. These are marked and numbered with ground stakes and a self guiding booklet is available to tell the story of the mounds.
This would be a very worthwhile hike even if there were no mounds to view. The woods and wildflowers are lovely; the views across the Mississippi and Yellow Rivers are marvelous. We also saw many songbirds, squirrels, chipmunks etc.
This mound, outlined in small pebbles, represents a four-legged animal that is facing downriver, as are many of the other effigy mounds in this region. Very few effigy mounds were used for burials and therefore probably had some other symbolic or ceremonial purpose. No burials have been found in this mound, but a fire pit was located in the "heart" region.
Archeologists speculate that mounds as this one may have been clan symbols, monuments or totems to animal spirits, or territorial markers. In other words - nobody knows for sure.
Between Little Bear/Great Bear and Fire Point, there is a long row of conical mounds. These round mounds are by far the most prevalent in the park. They almost lead like an arrow to Fire Point. At this point in the hike, you can gaze over the fence to look at the Mighty Mississippi. We were here in the fall and the colors were very pretty. The best views are to the south, and on a clear day, you can see to Prairie du Chien, across the river in Wisconsin. This is by far the most scenic view we had on the hike, and as long as you are doing the loop, you won't miss it.
As you leave the visitor center, there's only one trail that you can make anywhere from 2 to 7 miles depending on what you want to see. We decided to just limit ourselves to the loop that included Little Bear, Great Bear and Fire Point.
The first quarter mile or so is uphill with numerous switch backs. While this isn't exactly mountain climbing, you will need to catch your breath a little bit when you finally make it to the top and decide which way to head around the loop. We went left and were treated to a few different types of mounds - compound mounds (several conical mounds joined by a linear mound), and then we saw Little Bear mound, a bear effigy surrounded by a few more conical mounds. I found it very difficult to make out the shape of the bear, but if you let your imagination run a little bit, you'll see it.
650 feet later, you can get to Great Bear Mound, the largest animal effigy in the park. Again, a little difficult to make out, but still impressive. You are asked to stand back from the sacred grounds.
After viewing Great Bear, we looped back to see Fire Point. All in all, it was about a 2.5 mile hike and took just about an hour or so. A very pleasant little walk.
The majority of the mounds in Effigy Mounds National Monument are not animal shaped at all but are simply conical. Here on a high blufftop overlooking the Mississippi River, is a row of several conical mounds. These are the oldest and most numerous mounds in the area, dating back about 3,000 years. These 16 mounds are about two to four feet high and and 12 to 15 feet in diameter. Originally they would have been taller. Unfortunately they do not show as well in this picture is we would like because of the angle of the sun and shadows.
Many river bottoms were once dominated by mounds as well, but they have been destroyed. Because this was not prime farm land these were saved.
Boardwalks have been built for the trails at Effigy Mounds National Monument in the wet lower portions of the Mississippi and Yellow River Valleys. This area seemed particularly rewarding for bird watchers. In fact, on the Sunday morning we were there we encountered a birding club group of about a dozen people, with their binoculars and bird guidebooks. Among other songbirds along the boardwalk we were excited to sight was a Rose Breasted Grosebeak, which is very uncommon in the area where we live.
When we were at Effigy Mounds in mid-May the spring wildflowers along the trail were abundant. Among the many species we saw growing in the rich damp woods were Red Columbine (pictured), Wild Sweet William, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Mayapple, Dutchman's Breeches and more.
Because of time constraints we were only able to visit the North Unit of Effigy Mounds National Monument on this trip. This picture is a view from the North Unit across the Yellow River, with the Mississippi on the left, to the South Unit. Enlarge the picture and you can see the railroad tracks crossing the Yellow River.
In the South Unit is the largest effigy mound group remaining in North America. Along the bluff are 10 bear mounds and 3 bird mounds clustered together. A four mile hike is necessary to view those mounds.
The splendid view from Fire Point, across the Mississippi River, was our reward for the one mile uphill hike from the Visitor Center. From here the trail loops around and descends to its beginning point.
The highest point on the right side of the river is Pikes Peak State Park. Across the river, from Pike's Peak is the mouth of the Wisconsin River and more bluffs that are part of Wyalusing State Park. Prehistoric Indian mounds are also preserved at both of those parks as well as other places throughout southern Wisconsin and northeastern Iowa.
Across the river is the town of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.
These three mounds near the Fire Point Overlook are several feet higher than the other nearby mounds. One of these was excavated and studied. It contained at least 8 burials that were extended, flexed or cremated. The burials were made at different times which may partially account for the height.
Various other items were found in the excavated mound, including a copper breastplate, bird bones fashioned into sewing needles, copper beads, and pieces of pottery. Also unique is that this mound was covered with clay from the river valley below.
The Logical place to begin a visit to any National Park site is the Visitor Center, and even more so here than most. You will find interesting exhibits, an orientation film, gift shop, restrooms, and a helpful staff. Most importantly, this is where you can get maps of the trails, which is the only way to explore the area and see the mounds.
The Effigy Mounds are divided into a North Unit and a south Unit, divided by the Yellow River where it flows into the Mississippi. The Visitor Center sits in the valley between the two units.