Effigy Mounds National Monument

Entry sign at Effigy Mounds National Monument

Effigy Mounds National Monument is a 2,526-acre property along the Mississippi River in eastern Iowa. More than 200 prehistoric earth mounds are preserved on the property, including a large number of effigy mounds. Mounds from the Mound Builder cultures are pretty common in the Midwestern states but effigy mounds are only found in northeast Iowa, southern Wisconsin and nearby areas in Minnesota and Illinois. The Great Serpent Mound in southeastern Ohio is the only effigy mound found anywhere else. There are 206 mounds found on Effigy Mounds National Monument and 31 of those are effigy mounds. More than half of all mounds on the property are on the Sny Magill Unit, about 11 miles to the south of the main units of the park and with no visitor facilities. The effigy mounds are all built as though the animal they portray were headed downstream on the Mississippi River. The most common animal shapes: bear, bird, turtle, panther and human.

In the Driftless Area of Iowa along the Mississippi River Valley, this is a countryside of deep-cut meandering streambeds and steep slopes, forests, wetlands and grasslands. The fluted projectile points of the Folsom and Clovis cultures found here indicate the area was seeing humans passing through more than 10,000 years ago. Early Archaic peoples moved through regularly around 7,000 years ago and the Early Woodland phase began about 3,000 years ago. The Early Woodland phase is marked with an increase of artifacts that were clearly conveyed from great distances: obsidian from the rocky mountains, sheet mica from the Carolinas, seashells from the Gulf of Mexico. Mounds built in those days (1200 to 1500 BCE) were of the "Red Ochre" persuasion: round, dome-shaped and covered in layers of ground-up iron ore (hence the "Red Ochre").

Effigy mounds outlined

Mound Builder civilizations rose and fell several times across the south and Midwest, the most recent disappearing shortly after the first Spaniards ventured ashore in Florida (early 1500's). Northeastern Iowa was on the fringes of the Hopewellian (from the Hopewell sites in Ohio), Eastern Woodland, Effigy Mound Building and Mississippian Cultures, and each mound built in the area shows effects from one or another of them. The effigy mounds in the Effigy Mounds National Monument area are attributed to the Late Woodland Culture of about 700 CE to about 1300 CE. It's estimated that people of the Mississippian Culture flowed into the area around 1300 CE and the building of effigy mounds stopped as cultural mores shifted. Some of the most recent mounds in the area were built as late as the early 1600's but they were smaller and less elaborate than their predecessors. All mound building stopped when the center of the civilization at Cahokia (in Illinois) was abandoned and the Mississippian Culture melted into the woods. The Native American tribes in the Driftless Area have no oral histories tying them to the Mound Builder cultures that preceded them.

At Effigy Mounds National Monument today you'll find that no vehicles are allowed past the parking lots. Effigy Mounds National Monument is a sacred site, a Native American burial and ceremonial ground. If you're going to see anything, you're going to have to hike there. There are 14 miles of trails available and they tie together nearly all the mounds on the North and South Units. Some of the shorter trails are fully accessible but the longer trails tend to have some very steep sections.

The park is day-use only, open from sunrise to sunset daily. The visitor center is open daily, too, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Days. Spring hours (third week in April to Memorial Day): 8 am to 4:30 pm. Summer hours (Memorial Day to Labor Day): 8 am to 6 pm. Fall hours (Labor Day through third week in October): 8 am to 5 pm. Winter hours (Last week in October through mid-April): 8:30 am to 4:30 pm weekdays, 9:30 am to 4:30 pm weekends.

Map of Effigy Mounds National Monument
Lower right photo and map courtesy of the National Park Service
Other photos are in the public domain