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The Story Behind The Animal-Shaped Mounds In Iowa

Over 800 years ago, indigenous cultures in what is now northeastern Iowa built their last mound, burial mounds in different shapes to honor those who’ve died. These mounds — some in shapes of animals, such as bears —  continue to exist today, and can be visited without much effort or hiking at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Harpers Ferry, Iowa. 

Disclosure: I visited Effigy Mounds National Monument during a hosted trip to Allamakee County, Iowa, though it’s free to visit the national monument. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own. This post may contain affiliate links.

Effigy Mounds Trail 2

I’ve wanted to visit Effigy Mounds since my early days of blogging, having read an Iowa Gallivant blog post about them years ago and became fascinated with the prehistoric mounds ever since. I figured a visit would not only provide an interesting history lesson for my family, but also a great hike. 

Mission accomplished.

Related post: Exploring the Driftless Region in Iowa – What to do, where to eat & where to stay

Where is Effigy Mounds National Monument 

Effigy Mounds National Monument is located in northeastern Iowa, right along the Mississippi River. It’s a very short distance from Wisconsin and Minnesota. While the national monument is in Iowa, the effigy mound region stretches up to southeastern Minnesota and a very large portion of Wisconsin.

The overlook at Fire Point at Effigy Mounds National Monument in northeast Iowa

It’s part of the U.S.’s beautiful Driftless Region, and in my opinion, one of the most beautiful parts of Iowa. 

The Driftless Region is a section of the country that was untouched by glacier melt long, long ago. The result is a surprisingly rocky terrain, with some rock walls that are not at all what one pictures for Iowa. It’s a place where farmland meets rugged river terrain, and it’s incredibly scenic. 

Effigy Mounds National Monument is open year-round, though we timed our visit for near-peak fall colors season. I’ve been told that on average, the peak day of the year for fall leaves is Oct. 11, so if you plan sometime a few days before or a few days after that date, you should witness some gorgeous scenery like we did.

What were the mounds used for?

The true purpose of the mounds are not known, since records were not kept. However, there are some pretty good guesses for their purpose. Perhaps they were religions sites, or symbols used during seasonal ceremonies. Maybe they were a way to connect people to their ancestors and the land.

Even without a clear explanation, everyone generally agrees its sacred ground. Signs remind visitors to be respectful during their time at the monument and to definitely leave everything as it was before they arrived. Take nothing, leave nothing.

Why people visit Effigy Mounds

Your first stop when visiting Effigy Mounds National Monument should be the visitor’s center, if only to grab a map and chat with a park ranger. But, if you’re not in a hurry, take about 10 minutes to visit the visitor’s center’s little museum, which does a decent job explaining the mounds’ significance and the on-going archaeological process of learning more about them.  

Great Bear Mound at Effigy Mounds National Monument

There are burial mounds all over the U.S., created by American Indians between 850 to 1,400 years ago. These particular mounds, though, are special and unique. Only in the Upper Midwest are there mounds that are built in shapes like animals. The most common shape was a bear — and you’ll see quite a few of bear mounds in Iowa — but other shapes have included birds, turtles and bison.

Note: However unique they are, effigy mounds are not the oldest mounds in Iowa, though. There have been conical mounds found in eastern Iowa that date back more than 2,500 years ago.

In the 1800s to early 1900s, surveyors believed that there were more than 10,000 mounds in northeastern Iowa — not only animal shapes, but conical, linear and compound types, as well. About 100 years later, only 1,000 or so exist. Efforts to preserve what remains kicked in after that discovery and in 1949, Effigy Mounds National Monument was created.

How many mounds are at Effigy Mounds National Monument?

There are 206 known mounds at Effigy Mounds National Monument. Only 31 of the mounds are animal effigies. 

A family walks on a trail around an unnamed mound at Effigy Mounds National Monument

What are some of the well-known mounds at Effigy Mounds National Monument?

A few of the notable effigy mounds here include:

  • Marching Bear Group (South Unit)
  • Little Bear Mound Group (North Unit)
  • Great Bear Mound Group (North Unit)

While hiking to any of these notable spots, you’ll pass other mounds. We spotted the mounds easily, but just in case, bring a map with you to help locate them. 

Easy hike to see mounds

There is a North Unit and South Unit of Effigy Mounds. We visited the north unit since road construction confused us with finding the south entrance. Anyway, the north unit entrance is where you’ll find the visitor’s center and a fairly easy hike to see several types of mounds. 

Note: I say “fairly easy” because it is an uphill climb that’s uneven due to roots and rocks jutting out. There are several stopping points along the way to rest and admire the view, if needed.

Our hike (about a 2-mile, kid-friendly round-trip hike)

The overlook at Eagle Rock

Highlights: Little Bear Mound, Grand Bear Mound, overlooks at Fire Point and Eagle Rock

  1. Start at the main Visitor Center located on the south side of the North Unit.
  2. take the winding trail uphill to Little Bear Mound (there are signs where the path splits, with one direction heading to Eagle Rock and Fire Point to the right, and Little Bear Mound to the left. Take the trail to the left. 
  3. You’ll pass a couple of compound mounds before coming across the very distinct Little Bear Mound Group. Just 650 feet ahead is the larger Great Bear Mound Group. 
  4. At this point, you can continue your hike northwards, or do what we did and head east to overlooks of the Mississippi River, Fire Point and Eagle Rock.
  5. You’ll come upon Fire Point first, which I thought was the better of the two views. From this spot, you cans Wisconsin to the east across the river, as well ass Pikes Peak State Park to the south.
  6. Eagle Rock is nearby and provides some views of ponds and marshlands. It’s known as a good place to spot bald eagles from November through March, but since we were there in October, we had no such luck.
  7. From Eagle Rock, head south on a mostly downhill journey back to the visitor center.
Effigy Mounds Trail

Are the trails at Effigy Mounds accessible?

There are some accessible areas. There is a 1-mile boardwalk trail in the park. And there are three mounds near the visitor center that are accessible to all. When we visited, there appeared to be a boardwalk under construction to get a closer look at them.

The visitor center and museum are also accessible to wheelchairs.

The hike up to see most mounds is a dirt path that is fairly steep and uneven at times.

Can you camp at Effigy Mounds National Monument?


If you’re looking for campground options in the area, Yellow River State Forest in Harpers Ferry has a lot of primitive camp options. A little further afield, we stayed at Upper Iowa Resort which had campsites as well as a few cabins (I highly recommend Cabin 5).

Exploring Effigy Mounds National Monument in northeast Iowa

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