Museums are fine, but why shuffle around in air conditioning when you can see remarkable ages-old artwork as part of a dazzling dayhike? These three treks lead to the larger-than-life creations of the ancients–some so mysterious it’ll be up to you to theorize about their meaning. As always with such treasures, look all you want, but never touch.
Effigy Mounds, IA
Track earthen animals
Prehistoric Americans built more than 20,000 ceremonial mounds in Iowa and Wisconsin-but they only fashioned a few to resemble living creatures, as at this national monument. The south unit’s 7-mile circuit climbs from the confluence of the Yellow and Mississippi Rivers, winding past cliffs and over flowering tallgrass prairie to the Marching Bear Group, one of the largest such clusters ever created. Ten bears and three eagles were built to honor tribes’ totem animals; nearly 1,300 years later, the grassy figures still feel like shrines. Also look for small leather pouches of tobacco hanging from trees–offerings from modern Native Americans to the Old Ones.
Sit atop the Big Muddy at the River View Inn in nearby McGregor, where catfish is the local catch and a mere $5 buys a half-pound “crocoburger.” (563) 873-9667
From Madison, WI, take US 18 west to the town of Marquette, then IA 76 north for 3 miles. (563) 873-3491, www.nps.gov/efmo