Historical motorcycle touring is becoming more and more popular. This type of travel is a terrific way to get to know the history of this magnificent land of ours.
Most touring destinations that visit historic places answer the what, when, where and why. Interpretive signage, guided tours, and literature at historic sites lay it all out for us — in most cases.
But there are some places that raise more questions — intriguing questions, no less — than they answer. One such place is the upper Mississippi River Valley and the Lower Wisconsin Riverway. Here, you can go back to prehistoric times and reveal mysteries that remain obscured by the mists of time – what we call the Mounds of Mystery Tour.
It is in this region of the United States that thousands of ancient effigy mounds exist, and many are so close to travel routes you can literally view them from the seat of your motorcycle. But plan to get off your bike and spend some time with them.
Contemplate the people who may have built them and the times they may have lived in. We use the term “may” because even the experts are confounded by these ancient sites. The exact age of many of these mysterious structures, who built them and why are still not known with certainty, even by the experts. Most experts agree, however that mounds range in age between 800 and 3,000 years!
There have been a range of theories about the origin of the mounds; some include ancient Egyptians having made their way to the upper Midwest, or ancient Celts, Vikings or even some sort of lost civilization that left virtually no other trace.
Those theories aside, most experts now agree that effigy mounds were built by the woodland tribes of Native Americans whose descendants live in the area today. Still, exactly who built mounds in a given location is uncertain because some of the tribes that now are located in areas where ancient mounds exist arrived in those areas after most of the mounds are believed to have been built.
Among the Native American tribes said to be the most likely to have ancestral links to mounds in Wisconsin are the Dakota, Menominee and Ho-Chunk (formerly Winnebago).
At one time, an estimated 250,000 effigy mound existed across the country, but thousands of them had been destroyed by farming, development or other land uses before the sites gained legal protection such as the Wisconsin Burial Sites Preservation Act in 1985.
Effigy mounds exist as simple conical mounds, long linear mounds, compound mounds of conical and linear types joined, and animal, human or unexplained shapes. Conical mounds have been found most often to be burial sites, while linear and animal or human shaped mounds have generally not been found to contain human remains, but are thought to have been ceremonial or spiritual in nature.
Mounds can range in size from 15 or 20 feet in diameter. An example are the conical mounds to spectacularly large bird effigies, one near Lake Mendota in Madison with a wingspan of over 700 feet; another near Muscoda, Wis., with a wingspan of nearly a quarter of a mile!
Some excellent opportunities to tour the mound of mystery that do not require a lot of hiking in rough country are in southwestern Wisconsin.
Man Mound site — north of Baraboo, Wis., off of highway 33.
Take CTH T north and turn right on Man Mound Road. The road takes you east several miles to the site, which has a small parking area.
Unfortunately, the construction of the road many years ago cut off the feet of the bizarre man-shaped effigy mound, which has a head resembling one with horns or some sort of wide crown. The original length from head to foot of the Man Mound was 214 feet, but the structure was shortened by the width of the road.
Wisconsin Heights Mounds — near Sauk City, Wis:
Located 1.5 miles south of highway 12 on highway 78. Site has a small parking area with historic site marker sign. A short walk of about 100 yards on the trail into the site taking the trail to the right will take you to two linear mounds.
The site is also as the location of the Battle of Wisconsin Heights fought between Sac and Fox warriors and U.S. government and state militia forces during the Black Hawk War of 1832.
Hornung Mound Group — also near Sauk City, Wis.:
Located in the same vicinity as the Wisconsin Heights Mounds, about a quarter of a mile north of highway 12 on CTH Y near the Roxbury Gun Club. A trail to the mounds goes west from the Gun Club parking lot.
Avoca Lake Mound Group — Avoca, Wis.:
Located within the village limits at a village park. Take 6th Street north from STH 133 and follow the signs to Avoca Lake Park. The site has two conical and several linear mounds, most of which are visible from the parking area.
The Schaeffer Mound Group — just north Muscoda (MUS-co-day), Wis.:
This mound lies across the Wisconsin River from Muscoda on STH 80. Highway 60 west takes you past a large bird effigy mound that is visible from the highway near Mill Creek Bridge. A small area to park is located on Effigy Mound Road just past the bridge. There is a short walk from this point to the mound structure.
The Cipra Mound Group – five miles east of the village of Bridgeport on highway 60 in a small wayside on the north side of the highway:
The site holds three conical and six linear mound structures, nearly all of which are easily viewed from the parking area.
Wisconsin’s Wyalusing State Park – located near the confluence of the Wisconsin river with the Mississippi river:
There is a daily fee to enter the park. A short walk to the mounds site is necessary.
Effigy Mound National Monument — located north of Marquette, Iowa:
This spectacular site covers a large area and most of the mounds requires some walking, so have comfortable walking shoes and bring some bottled water. The facility includes 206 mounds; 31 are animal shapes with the remainder being conical, linear or compound shapes. Some of the mounds are very large, about 4 feet high—the Great Bear Mound is 137 feet long and 70 feet wide at the shoulder.
Many other sites exist in the region, as well. An excellent resource for locations and access information is a map and brochure called “Effigy Mounds Grand Tour: A self-guided tour,” available from Cultural Landscape Legacies, Inc., P. O. Box 187, Muscoda, WI, 53573 or by calling 1-800-221-3792.
Touring the area is exceptional with well-paved state and local highways and back roads that range from leisurely sweeping corners and long straights to twisty and down-right technical. Spectacular rolling countryside and sandstone rock formations are the setting and lodging and dining facilities are available in the small towns and villages that dot the countryside.