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The Effigy Mounds

Take a meditative walk amid ancient Earth art

Over a thousand years ago, Indians from the eastern woodlands came upon a craggy limestone bluff overlooking the Mississippi River and, basketful by basketful of dirt, began sculpting a procession of 10 bears across the landscape, a labour that took more than 500 years to complete. While the grass-covered mounds are only a few feet tall, they are quite large and best perceived from above. Stretching close to a quarter-mile across, ‘The Marching Bears’ is the largest and finest group of animal-shaped mounds (known as effigy mounds) in the country, one reason this site was declared a national monument in 1949.

‘Mound Builders’ is a general name given to the many ancient Indian cultures that, over a period of thousands of years, built mounds in a variety of shapes and sizes for different purposes. This culture stretched over a vast area, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Mississippi River Valley to the Appalachians. Built between A.D. 600 and 1200, there were as many as 10,000 mounds in northeastern Iowa alone in the early 20th century, but fewer than 1,000 mounds and only 65 effigies survive, lost mostly to agriculture, road-building and other development at a time when they weren’t valued or understood.

The 2,526-acre Effigy Mounds National Monument contains 206 mounds, 175 of them in geometric shapes like cones or rectangles, and 31 shaped like animals, primarily bears and birds. Many of the conical mounds here are burial sites, and it is illegal to disturb them, even for archaeological purposes. A deeply spiritual place, this pilgrimage site for Indian descendants is best experienced in a meditative walk on the 14 miles of pathways. ‘The Marching Bears’ can be seen only after a steep climb to the top of the bluff, and even then you must use your imagination to conjure up their full size, shape and meaning. Stop at the Visitor Centre to see the aerial shots that illustrate the forms and beauty of this ancient Earth art.

Located in the rugged country of northeastern Iowa, the Effigy Mounds are a stop on the Great River Road, a 3,000-mile network of federal, state and county roads that run parallel to the Mississippi River on both sides from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. While Iowa brings to mind corn more readily than paddleboats, it in fact has a significant river culture that can be explored at Dubuque’s National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.

Giant blue catfish, gar and paddlefish are stocked here, and interactive exhibits let you take the helm of a barge tow or climb on a floating log raft like that of a certain Huck of Missouri fame. Outside in the boatyards, you can tour vintage vessels like the national landmark William M. Black Steam Dredge Boat. A stroll through wetlands over boarded walkways reveals a timeless scene along the Mississippi, where turtles sun themselves on logs and delicate herons haunt the shores.

This trip idea can be found in:

1,000 Places to See in the United States & Canada Before You Die®

Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.

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