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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
Horseshoe Canyon, UT
Trek to desert rock art
Horseshoe Canyon is a detached unit of Canyonlands National Park, but this satellite sector is so remote they don’t even collect fees. What’s taxing is the 3-hour drive from Moab, but that’s a fair price for the chance to see spectacular pictographs–paintings made as many as 8,000 years ago by predecessors of the Puebloan tribes. The hike is 7 miles out and back; as you begin the 750-foot descent from the rim, look to the left for three-toed, 8-inch-long dinosaur tracks in gray limestone. Go right at the canyon floor past several small pictograph sites en route to the Great Gallery, a 200-foot panel with dozens of haunting red, brown, and white figures. The “Holy Ghost” is a Shaquillean 7-footer.
Turn the day into an overnight by toting your tent (plus water) 5 miles north to Keg Point, a solitary slickrock overlook on BLM land.
From Green River, take I-70 west to UT 24 south. Go left on a road marked “Maze District”; follow signs to Horseshoe Canyon. (435) 719-2313; www.nps.gov/cany
Puako Petroglyphs, HI
Hike to etchings in lava
The Big Island’s Kohala Coast is where black lava collides with blue ocean, and where hikers can walk vestiges of the ancient Malama Trail, which once circled the island. The still-intact 3 miles wind through a 233-acre park where early Polynesians etched more than 3,000 images of dancers, paddlers, and fishermen into volcanic rock. The slanting morning sunlight makes them easier to see, but their exact purpose remains unclear. Cover up to ward off prickly kiawe trees, and tread carefully around the 1-inch piko holes in the lava, where parents buried their newborns’ umbilical cords to guarantee their long lives. Don’t miss a broad, sloping red rock emblazoned with several-foot-high warriors; they may commemorate a great historical battle.
Snorkel with the sea turtles near Hapuna Beach’s coral reefs, then sleep in a rustic A-frame ($20) near shore. (808) 974-6200
From Kona Airport, go north on HI-19, turn left on Mauna Lani Drive and park at Holoholokai Beach. The Mauna Lani Resort has maps. (www.maunalani)