“Old-growth forest atop the high bluffs along the Mississippi River.
— Kenny Slocum
Birding · Fall Colors · Spring · Views · Wildflowers · Wildlife
Many who make the trip to Hanging Rock describe the experience as positively spiritual. Every season offers a new experience. In spring, new flowers seem to emerge by the hour. Come summer, with the towering hardwoods fully leafed out, the forest floor is carpeted in a staggering diversity of herbaceous plants, and dozens of bird calls echoing in the old growth, life seems to pulsate over every inch. In fall, the forest floor dies away and wildlife runs out of places to hide as a constant view of the Mississippi 400 ft below becomes a runner's companion. In winter, an eery quiet makes the yin to summers yang, while the ancient mounds thrust up through the drifting snow. In all seasons, the forest provides comfort, blocking sun in the summer and wind in the winter, and natural wonders for those with a keen eye all year round. The route is one of the more challenging in the area, but the rewards are commensurate with the effort.
Need to Know
Please respect the mounds by keeping your distance, as they continue to be a sacred site for Native Americans of almost 20 different tribes.
Trail becomes significantly more technical after the third scenic view, as maintenance occurs less often.
If you have time, attend a ranger program to learn more about this fascinating monument. It is without a doubt one of the most unique sites in the entire National Park Service, and the absolute definition of a hidden gem.
The trail is well maintained until the third scenic view. After this the trail becomes considerably more rocky, and a few major washouts can present hazards. While nothing matches the first climb's length, the climbs heading out towards Hanging Rock are steeper and looser, making it a true challenge and lots of fun.
Starting at the visitor center, the trail climbs steeply towards Fire Point. Fire Point and back (2 miles) is all most visitors will do, and the NPS leads guided hikes on this route, so this section will be where crowds are heaviest. Near the top of the first climb, a junction offers the choice to go right towards Eagle Rock, or left towards Little Bear, Great Bear, and the rest of the trail system. Don't sweat the decision too much; both deserve a visit, but it's a small loop so just take the other side on your way back down.
Shortly after the junction, the trail ceases its climb and becomes very gently rolling through lovely open forest. Past Fire Point, the trail becomes grassy and a little less obvious through a few mound groups. Out of respect for the mounds, please stay as close to the edge of the mowed areas as possible. You'll pass Great Bear (one of the largest mounds in the park, and the largest Effigy mound), and several more mounds before the trail runs adjacent to a large prairie. There is a junction to head straight, or branch right towards Twin Views. All the views are worth the trip, as they are just a few hundred yards "out of the way" from the main trail.
Passing twin views, runners come to one more overlook at "Third Scenic View." After this, the trail begins to climb in and out of some steep ravines toward Hanging Rock. The journey out is more difficult than the return.
Hanging Rock itself is stunning. If you have time, spend a little while here and enjoy kettles of birds of prey along the Mississippi flyway. Bald eagles are abundant, as are turkey vultures in the summer. Fall migration is a real treat, with often dozens of Rough Legged Hawks, Red Shouldered Hawks, and Sharp Shinned hawks flocking together and visible from this viewpoint. Perched 400' over the river, Hanging Rock allows visitors to get up close to these birds as they drift lazily on thermals. Some birds fly so close you can hear the wind rustling in their feathers.
Flora & Fauna
Some of the best birding in the country. The prairie has a spectacular wildflower show from late May through September. Wild turkey and deer are common as well.
History & Background
Effigy Mounds are a unique archaeological feature of the Driftless area of Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. Due to their great antiquity - effigies were built from around 800 to 1200 AD - their purpose remains mysterious, but they appear to have served ceremonial functions, with burials being more common in the Conical mounds that were built for over a millennia before and during the Effigy Mound period.