Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa

Photo: National Park Service/Kat Busse

The calendar says it’s autumn. From the slight chill in the air and the jewel-toned colors popping outside, it seems like the weather and the trees are starting to agree. As the season changes, so should your outdoor activities. Weekends are no longer reserved for the beach. It’s time to head inland and resume hiking.

Usually you head to a national park for well-maintained trails and scenic views. This time, your sights are set on a national monument. Effigy Mounds National Monument is in Northeast Iowa, where the Yellow River meets the Mississippi River. High bluffs overlook the mighty river. Hardwood forests run into the central plains. Bald eagles live here. But these aren’t the reasons the area is protected. It’s also home to more than 200 prehistoric mounds that were built by Native Americans. Thirty one of them are effigies shaped like animals.

From the monument’s Visitor Center, it’s a seven-mile roundtrip hike to Hanging Rock, a high viewpoint over the Mississippi River. After passing Bluegill Pond, the trail is steep from the get-go. It starts to open up into an old-growth forest in about a mile. The tall trees are impressive, but your eyes are firmly on the ground and the first mounds. The Woodland people likely built them in the 1st millennium for burials and ceremonies.

Quick detours bring you to Fire Point, Twin Views, and the Third Scenic View. It’s worth pausing at each lookout point for a water break. The mounds mix with effigies as you continue along the trail. They look like bears and bison, birds and reptiles. The final push to Hanging Rock is rocky and, again, steep. But the views of the Upper Mississippi River Valley are worth it. Historic Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin sits across the water. Crimson and gold leaves, plus blue water, extend as far as the eye can see. Two turkey vultures, which have bald red heads, circle overhead. While a single bald eagle looks like it’s gliding down the river. Your first fall hike is way more impressive than you expected.

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