Distance: 4 miles (6.4 km) roundtrip or 7 miles to Hanging Rock
Additional: Plus you can add 1 mile to head onto the Yellow River boardwalk to see the wetlands
Elevation: 600-1100 feet (185 - 335 m)
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Time of Year: Anytime
Located on the Mississippi River in northeastern Iowa is Effigy Mounds National Monument. This absolute gem of a park preserves not only some outstanding native mound sites, but also a stretch of the beautiful and unexpected Mississippi Blufflands.
|Frozen islands on the Mississippi in March|
This 2500+ acre site contains 31 effigy mounds and hundreds of smaller ones, built between 600-1400 AD during the Woodland Period. Many of these mounds are formed in the shapes of animals, including bear, eagle, birds, deer, bison, lynx, turtle, mountain lion. In addition, there are conical and linear mounds, some used for burials.
You can reach Effigy Mounds National Monument by using IA-76 3 miles north of Marquette and just to the west of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. The monument is also surrounded by other protected areas including the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge and the Yellow River State Forest.
|Eastern red cedars on the edge of the bluffs|
From the visitor center, where you can see artifacts and watch an introductory interpretive film, the trail begins by climbing up the slopes to the top of the bluffs. This initial 1/2 mile is by far the most strenuous portion of the hike, climing nearly 600 feet in elevation. As you ascend, you will pass sugar maples, oaks, and hickory in a dense forest at the edge of the prairie.
|A blue jay scoping me out|
As you reach the bluff top, the trail will split, as you have met up with the Fire Point Loop. If you did this loop and returned back to the visitor center, it would be a 2-mile hike. Follow the trail to the right as it passes Eagle Rock and then Fire Point for your first views of the Mississippi gorge.
This region was not flattened during the last Ice Age, and thus the hills and rocky outcroppings of 450 million year old Ordivician sandstones and limestones remained. However, as the glaciers melted and receeded, the Mississippi River became swollen in a torrent so strong we can only imagine. As such, it carved a 600 foot deep gorge into the landscape.
From Fire Point back to the main trail are numerous conical mounds. Upon reaching the main trail, 80-foot Little Bear Mound is located just to the left, while the 137-foot Great Bear Mound (the largest in the park) is to the right. Obviously it is difficult to see shapes from ground level, but it is shaped like a bear. The exact purposes of these mounds and their shapes can only be speculated on, but clearly these creatures had an important symbolism to the people.
|Looking south down the Mississippi River|
As you continue north on the main trail, you will pass numerous small mounds and one large one and then you will encounter a branch to the right. This heads to Twin Views, where there is a spectacular panorama out across the islands of the Mississippi, as well as, the blufflands on the Wisconsin side of the border. It is here that I saw overwintering bald eagles soaring about. It is definitely worth the little side trip.
|A large mound near Twin Views|
|Hanging Rock from Third Scenic View|
|Yellow River with stranded ice from higher waters|
Upon returning to the visitor center, it may be worth your time to follow the short trail down to the Yellow River boardwalk just south of the road. This trail will take you out onto a bridge crossing the Yellow River and into a wetland area to see what that vegatation is like.
On thing you should notice is the abundance of dead tree trunks along the marsh's edge. This is a common occurrance related to shifting water levels over time. When the water levels drop, trees will begin to invade the edges. But, a change in water levels due to hydrological conditions (drainages that get plugged, sudden increases in inflow, etc) will water-log the soil and drown the trees that were growing there for years.