Hiking Iowa: Effigy Mounds National Monument

There are currently 129 national monuments in the United States. Though national parks are protected for their recreational value, scenic wonder, inspirational significance, and educational value, national monuments are protected for a different reason.

Most are home to objects of cultural, historical, or scientific significance. And how they're designated (presidential proclamations using federally owned land, which is a hot topic these days) is different from how national parks are designated (by Congress).

The mighty Mississippi frozen over, from Fire Point, Effigy Mounds National Monument.

Prior to visiting Effigy Mounds National Monument, I didn't know it existed. (Of the 129 national monuments, I can count the number I've been to on one hand, time to change that!) Turns out, it's much more than a gorgeous place to go hiking right on the Mississippi River in Iowa.

About Effigy Mounds National Monument

According to the National Park Service, President Harry Truman designated Effigy Mounds in 1949. The idea was to protect what a passerby might see as unnatural bumps or strangely shaped hills on land above the Mississippi River, and associated prehistoric artifacts hidden in them. Stories and legends handed down through generations of Native Americans hold that the mounds are ceremonial and scared, but we don't know much more than that. The mounds are most commonly shaped like birds, bears, deer, and other animals or spirits.

Looks just like a weirdly shaped hill, right? It's not!
Effigy Mounds National Monument keeps a collection of over a combined 20,000 artifacts and manuscripts, some of which are stored in an interpretive museum that's a must-visit spot if you're headed there. Hiking trails allow visitors to see the mounds first-hand, like we did. (Fun fact, Effigy Mounts has increased in size as recent as 2000.)

Getting There

Effigy Mounds National Monument is located in the northeastern corner of Iowa. It's two hours by car from Cedar Rapids, one and a half hours from Dubuque, and two hours from Madison, Wisconsin. The monument has multiple units, all accessible directly or indirectly from IA-76. Trails are open every day from dawn until dusk, but the visitor center does have seasonal hours.

Hiking Around Effigy Mounds National Monument

We only had enough time to explore the North Unit of the monument on a recent trip there, beginning with a stop at the visitor center to pick up a map. We arrived a day in advance of the recent government shutdown, so we had plenty of time to chat with the ranger on staff about hiking options. 

The trail system is straightforward and signage makes it easy to avoid making a wrong turn. All hikers head up into the North Unit on the same main trail, and once you're up on the hillside, there are plenty of options. Based on the amount of time we had and when the sun was expected to set, we opted for a four mile round trip covering three stunning viewpoints along the Mississippi River and two mound groups - Little Bear and Great Bear.

The trail is wide and easy to follow, and switchbacks gently up from the visitor center toward the Little Bear Mound Group. Before arriving at Little Bear, hikers have the option of turning right toward the Mississippi and Eagle Rock, or staying left toward the Little Bear Mount Group. We opted to visit Eagle Rock and Fire Point on the way up to take in the view, knowing we could see Little Bear on the way down.

Look closely and you'll see the section of ground with less snow, that's one of the bear mounds.
My hiking buddies are standing in the right of the frame, it's no small mound!

After spending some time admiring the frozen Mississippi from Fire Point, we made our way back toward the main trail, and turned right toward the Great Bear Mound Group. It was incredible to think about how easy it would be to mistake the sacred mounds for simply misshapen land on the hillside. But stopping as we approached Great Bear, it was clear the misshapen land was, in fact, a bear-shaped outline.

We continued on toward Twin Views, our turnaround point for the hike. Our only option was to backtrack along the trail we'd come in on, but instead of heading back toward Fire Point and Eagle Rock, we opted to stay more inland for views of the Little Bear Mound Group. Seeing the Mississippi frozen over coupled with seeing the mounds made it one of the most memorable quick afternoon hikes in recent memory.

Not a bad view, right? The trail had no shortage of stunning spots to see the Mississippi.

What do you think, would you make a trip here? What's the coolest national monument you've visited, or want to visit? And if you've been here, we'd love to hear from you in the comments, too!