Iowa’s Effigy Mounds park offers hikes of ancient history

  If a love of hiking is the only thing that takes you to northeast Iowa’s Effigy Mounds National Monument — where 14 miles of trails wind through the elegant 2,526-acre monument — you won’t come away disappointed. The immaculately groomed trails, 4 feet wide, of fine gravel or wood chips, hairpin up and along 400-foot-high river bluffs, providing views of the Mississippi River and its many verdant islands as stunningly dramatic as vistas anywhere. Happily, the trails are also configured so you can choose the length of your hike.

But what sets Effigy Mounds apart, and is the main reason to go, beyond the sheer beauty of the rugged, thickly wooded landscape, is the fascinating history you pass as you walk. It’s a world of ancient mounds beginning some 3,000 years ago (during the Woodland Period and continuing into the Late Woodland, around A.D. 1250).

Walking the sometimes steep trail that zigzags through what could be a primeval forest, you pass many of the mounds: cone-shaped ones, linear ones that resemble giant green Twinkies and the more intriguing “effigies” of bears and birds, though the animal shapes are a little difficult to decipher from the trail. All lie under lush, carefully mowed grass, with nary a weed in sight.

Aerial photos taken in years past and displayed at the monument’s visitors center, show a procession of fetish-style bears trudging across this craggy landscape. Many of the 10 bears in this earthen parade — “The Marching Bear Group” — are more than 100 feet long.

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