Effigy Mounds National Monument | NORTH UNIT

Conical mounds in the North Unit of Effigy Mounds National Monument

Conical mounds in the North Unit of Effigy Mounds National Monument

The North Unit of Effigy Mounds National Monument is where the large majority of visitors to the park spend their time. The Visitor Center is located here, and the trail through the park begins just outside the building. It is a three-mile hike from the Visitor Center to the far end of the unit at Hanging Rock, and there are four side trails along the way that lead to mound groups and overlooks of the Mississippi River. Hiking to all points in the unit entails a journey of approximately 7.5 miles. Keep in mind that the North Unit is mountainous, and these trails are much more difficult than the ones in the South Unit, particularly beyond the turnoff for the Third Scenic View.

Effigy Mounds National Monument North Unit trail map (click to enlarge)

Effigy Mounds National Monument North Unit trail map (click to enlarge)

Nearly everyone who visits Effigy Mounds National Monument does nothing more than hike the two-mile loop trail to Fire Point and Eagle Rock. Rangers lead guided walks along this trail as well. However, while covering only a small portion of the overall park, this hike will do for most people, for as the old adage goes, if you’ve seen one Indian mound, you’ve seen them all. On the Fire Point Loop Trail, visitors will pass a bear-shaped effigy mound, multiple conical mounds, and a couple of compound mounds, plus take in views of the Mississippi River from two overlooks. And by the way, archeologists do not know for sure if the effigies are bears. They could just as well be bison or any other animal of similar shape.

Types of mounds at Effigy Mounds National Monument

Types of mounds at Effigy Mounds National Monument

Ranger leads a guided walk to Fire Point in the North Unit of Effigy Mounds National Monument

Ranger leads a guided walk to Fire Point in the North Unit of Effigy Mounds National Monument

All mounds were built by digging dirt from one place and piling it in another. The purpose of the mounds varies, and nothing is known for sure since there are no written records from the time. Archeologists have various theories about linear and effigy mounds: they were used for ceremonial purposes; they marked celestial events; they were territorial markers or boundaries. The use of conical mounds is more certain, as most were used as burial mounds. However, there are no remains in the actual dirt hill. The deceased were buried in the ground and the mound was built on top of the burial site. What the mound represents is also unknown, but perhaps it is similar to a tombstone or designed to prevent others from looting or disturbing the graves.

Anatomy of a burial mound

Anatomy of a burial mound

When it comes to seeing Indian mounds, be prepared to be underwhelmed. While they may be the greatest things since sliced bread to archeologists and anthropologists, they do not have much appeal for the typical tourist. They are certainly interesting to learn about, but visually they are nothing but man-made hills and ridges. Just imagine if you dug some dirt and piled it up to make a tall hill and then had people come look at it. Most of them would say, “You mean I hiked all the way out here for this?” Furthermore, the fact that some of the mounds may have been used for burials sounds intriguing, but there are no skeletons sticking out of the dirt, and tourists won’t be handed shovels and told to go digging for bones.

The mounds within Effigy Mounds National Monument were never that big to begin with, and most have been so whittled down by erosion that only archeologists would recognize them. Even the mounds that are large enough to stand out on the landscape are nothing more than small hills. To make visualization easier, the National Park Service allows the grass to grow tall on the mounds so that their shapes are more defined. Even so, in regards to the effigy mounds (bears and birds in this case), there is no possibility that an existing shape would be recognized from ground level if the tall grass didn’t define it, and even then a person really needs an active imagination. With that said, a hike at Effigy Mounds National Monument beyond the Fire Point loop should be more for exercise and the love of hiking than a journey to see Indian mounds.

There are four destinations within the North Unit. See the following trail reports for complete details on the hikes to these points:

Fire Point Loop Trail

Hike to Twin Views

Hike to Third Scenic View

Hike to Hanging Rock

There is also a short trail that starts behind the Visitor Center, the Yellow River Bridge Trail, that leads to some nice views of two ponds and the Yellow River.

Hiker on the Fire Point Loop Trail in the North Unit of Effigy Mounds National Monument

Hiker on the Fire Point Loop Trail in the North Unit of Effigy Mounds National Monument

For those who want more hiking opportunities or who just can’t get enough of the mounds, be sure to visit the less-popular South Unit of Effigy Mounds National Monument. In addition to another 7.5 miles of trails, the South Unit is the only place to see bird effigy mounds within the park.

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Last updated on May 29, 2024
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