Eastern Iowa River Hikes | Port Louisa Wildlife Refuge

by Melanie and Jim

Last month we enjoyed a number of outings in our own backyard. In mid-May we headed southeast to Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge. As the U.S. Fish & WIldlife Service says:

Port Louisa was established for the protection of migratory birds. It is located along the Mississippi River Flyway, one of the major routes for migrating waterfowl. Key goals of the refuge are to conserve and enhance the quality and diversity of fish and wildlife and their habitats; and to restore floodplain functions in the river corridor.

The refuge area includes ground stretching from above the Mississippi River bluff, down to the river itself. A levee within the park helps control flooding and provides a flat walking path for birders and others.

In fact the day we went, the river level was high and we weren’t able to explore very far. We did enjoy exhibits in a visitor center at the south end of the refuge. On the grounds are Native American burial mounds. According to the State Historical Society of Iowa,

The conical mounds were constructed between 100 BC and AD 200 by a local Hopewell group. At one time, there may have been as many as twelve mounds, but subsequent settlement and excavation have reduced that number to the present seven. As of yet, no village site near the Toolesboro mounds has been located, and this is attributed to the shifting path of the Iowa River which has obliterated possible village sites on the flood plain over the last 2000 years.

Here are the two mounds on the grounds of the visitor center:

The mounds are considered sacred ground. Visitors are asked to stay off of them.

We backtracked north to an overlook with a view of the Mississippi River, and across the river to Illinois. A trail wove its way down to the water’s edge. The woods were damp and dimly lit. The undergrowth was varied, and birds called to us from all around.

The trail continued but we could not.

Jim found a big tree. The photo doesn’t show the size well, but we estimated it at about six feet across.

Back up on the overlook platform we had a picnic lunch. The trees and surrounding underbrush provide shelter for many varieties of birds. We enjoyed seeing American Redstarts, Eastern Phoebes, Yellow Warblers, and Magnolia Warblers.

After lunch we stopped at the confluence of the Iowa and Cedar Rivers. The Cedar feeds the Iowa, which in turn spills into the Mississippi. Just south of the small town of Columbus Junction is a small park called Chinkapin Bluffs. It is a county park with a picnic shelter, playground, and restrooms, as well as a couple of trail loops. One descends to the Hoover Trail.

Along the trail was an abundance of wild flowers. Jim took these three lovely photos.


When Jim looked into the Hoover Trail, he found this photo. Apparently we were walking on the One-Armed Strangler Way!

Though the Mississippi River flooding kept us from our original plan, we had a great outing at Port Louisa and at Chinkapin Bluffs Park, and we surely will go back.

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17 thoughts on “Eastern Iowa River Hikes | Port Louisa Wildlife Refuge

  1. BJ Good

    I continue to enjoy the luxury of your photos & descriptions of places in Iowa that are new to me.

    Good to have National government support for environment. Apparently the Iowa Governor is not on the same page in view of his line item veto of REAP appropriations that made it through bipartisan legislative process.

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    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      grrr…. Not everyone values “green” space, unless they use it themselves.

      Glad to have you join us. Upcoming reports on Palisades Kepler and the McGregor parks — Effigy Mounds and Pike’s Peak. 🙂

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  2. OceanDiver

    Beautiful spot for a walk. I can see why you couldn’t go any further by the river, but it’s interesting to see that the plants there manage different water levels. I really like the shadows and reflections, and the big tree is awesome. Thanks for sharing your trip!

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  3. shoreacres

    It’s interesting to me how many states have mounds – most of which I knew nothing about until I bumped into them. Iowa, Texas, Mississippi – all different, but equally fascinating.

    Do you happen to know what the gorgeous orange and yellow flower is? I’ve never seen anything like it — at least, that I remember.

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    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      Yes! The orange and yellow is a columbine! Beautiful, isn’t it? You’ve seen them but perhaps not in that coloring.

      As to burial mounds, I expect they are all over. Effigy mounds, on the other hand, are only found in the upper Mississippi Valley, according to my source. (And I’m not sure how far north “upper” is.)

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  4. melissabluefineart

    I thoroughly enjoyed going along with you on this trip 🙂 Adventures in our own back yards are very satisfying, especially since nature can be so politically vulnerable. Wouldn’t it be nice if more of the Mississippi river were allowed to be a river, like this?

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  5. Alex Autin

    As always, I enjoy adventuring with you and Jim! A while back I had a friend who was really, and I mean REALLY, into Indian mounds. His excitement was infectious and we made many visits to mounds, mostly in Alabama – Moundsville and Florence are the ones I remember most. He was also really into hunting for arrowheads and pottery chips in stream beds, an activity I found kinda boring mostly cus I completely suck at it, and he was so good at it. 😉

    Great pics! It’s nice to see the Mississippi river from a location other than those I’m familiar with – Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.

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      1. Alex Autin

        We can’t all be successful at everything, and I think that’s a good thing. 🙂 For me, one of the things I enjoy most is to find someone who IS successful at something then catch a bit of that excitement, that passion, for something I might not otherwise have the opportunity to really experience.

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