Serpent Mound and southern Ohio's other prehistoric earthworks make picturesque destinations for a summer road trip that can include museumgoing, hiking and picnicking.
Start at the Ohio Historical Center in Columbus (1-800-OLD-OHIO), just off I-71. Its First Ohioans exhibit includes the story of the Fort Ancient people and their predecessors, the Hopewell, who built most of Ohio's other major ancient earthworks about 2,000 years ago. The museum's impressive Hopewell artwork includes pipes carved in animal shapes and a stone carving of a shaman wearing a bearskin.
Head south on U.S. 23 to Chillicothe. Its Hopewell Culture National Historical Park (740-774-1126) includes Mound City, 23 mounds near the Scioto River that mark the cremation and burial sites of prominent Hopewell. The grassy plain seems quiet and subtle at first, but the stark landscape draws you in, the mounds loom taller than you thought and an eerie yet reverent feeling sets in. It's a church, ghost town and cemetery all at once.
You can stay overnight at various Chillicothe hotels, including the Hampton Inn and Suites (740-773-1616), which has an indoor pool, VCRs in the rooms and video rental rack in a little snack shop. For dinner, New York New York (740-773-2100) next door serves steaks, pasta and braised duck in a refined, stylish setting.
Scenic U.S. 50 and Ohio 41 lead from Chillicothe toward Serpent Mound. Seip Mound State Memorial, once the site of a complex of earthworks, is now a rest stop on U.S. 50 with a display of archaeological pictures, sites of three Hopewell houses and one big mound. Thirty feet tall, 130 by 240 feet around, Seip Mound covered the graves of 122 Hopewell.
Fort Hill State Memorial (1-800-283-8905), off Ohio 41, is a remote, welcoming park where hiking trails wander through woods, and creeks whisper and meander past picnic tables. One trail leads uphill to a plateau the Hopewell marked off with almost two miles of earthen walls, probably as a religious or social meeting place. Ask for directions at the small museum as the trailheads are poorly marked.
Other spots to visit near Chillicothe
It has nothing to do with mounds, but Seven Caves (1-800-290-9695), a bit west of Ohio 41 on U.S. 50, makes a fun detour on the way to Serpent Mound. The privately owned site sits on a rocky cliff where a tiny creek meets a deep valley. Two trails take visitors into caverns, through ravines and past waterfalls. This old roadside tourist stop still looks like it must have decades ago. The caves are rigged with aging lighting systems; visitors flip switches to shine lights on stalactites and holes in the wall named for things they faintly resemble, such as "Jefferson's Head."
Adena (1-800-319-7248), the 300-acre estate of early Ohio governor Thomas Worthington, offers a glimpse of what life was like when Ohio first became a state. Worthington built his mansion 196 years ago, when Chillicothe was the state capital. It was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, considered the first professional American architect. (The estate became the namesake for a prehistoric Ohio civilization because one of its burial mounds was located on the grounds.)
Prehistoric earthworks east of Columbus
The Hopewell built an earthwork complex that enclosed four square miles in the present-day town of Newark. Two main parts remain. The Great Circle Earthworks (1-800-600-7174), off Ohio 79, a tall wall with a moat around it, shelters a 400-yard-wide circle with a few burial mounds near the center. From the outside, the circle's opening looks intimidating, ready to swallow you. But once inside, the walls are calming and the noise from the highway recedes. When we visited, a drum circle was nestled behind two mounds.
Across town (near 30th Street and Fairbanks Avenue), the Octagon Earthworks is one of the more surreal historical sites anywhere. A giant Hopewell octagon and circle, aligned with important moonrises and moonsets, is now a golf course, the Moundbuilders Country Club. From a viewing platform, visitors can watch golfers wheel their bags over the earthworks. The public is only allowed on the course to explore the mounds on Monday mornings from April through October.