Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park, TN 09/14/18

Trails: Sauls Mound Overlook, Outer Loop Trail, Ducknest Access, Boardwalk Loop, Nature Trail, Eastern Citadel, Central Mound Group

Length: 4mi

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The first stop of the road trip was at a place I first visited briefly some 12 years ago, Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park.  The Native American complex is the largest group of Middle Woodland mounds in the United States, and Sauls Mound, the name for the great temple mound, is the second highest surviving mound in the United States at 72 feet tall.  My first visit in 2006 only allowed a climb to the top of this mound, and to see a few others.  This time I set out with the intention of seeing every single mound in the park itself, including a trek down to the Forked Deer River and into The Citadel, to see the unique geometric earthworks.  In addition to all the mounds, I’d get a taste of the swamps, something I’d see much more of this adventure. 


Pulling up to the visitor’s center, the front was decked out with fall decorations, and appropriately enough, shaped like a mound. On the way there I could see a number of tables set up behind the museum and a few school buses, but nothing prepared me for what I’d find inside. A worker would later tell me it was a slow day, but there were several hundred young school kids crammed into the visitor’s center, mostly waiting impatiently their turn for the bathroom. I stopped at the far end away from most of the crowd to look at maps of the complex, and interesting photos of cross sections of the mounds revealing their layers. The noise level was more than I could handle, so I ventured out the back, and wandered through the tables and exhibits of the 2018 Archeofest that was going on this weekend, of which I was oblivious. Standing tall and stark in the distance was Sauls’ Mound, the second highest surviving mound in the United States. Noticeably bare, the state park had cut down all of the trees, including many old growth trees from the mound, as some had fallen and were compromising the integrity of the mound itself. Every mound in the state park has now been cleared of trees. Saul’s Mound seemed to be the focal point for all of the school groups, so I set out on a side trail to the right to make a large loop and save the big mound for last. The winding paved path offered glimpses of Mound 12 [used for ceremonial purposes] through a field of wildflowers, but without tick spray I only stopped to photograph white crownbeard and heath aster at the edge. A turn to the left revealed an open spot to wander up to the mound, and a plaque telling of it’s use as a crematory pit. Ahead and to the right, the Mound 14 sector, the remnant foundations of a wall trench house, which really isn’t a mound at all. More interesting here was the array of wildflowers hiding any evidence of a former dwelling, with more white crownbeard and liatris in bloom. The path wound south through thick forest, open at times in the understory for a photograph or two. I soon came to a large open field, with just a few old growth hardwoods around. A marker next to the thick forest on the far side notated the whole area as Mound 15, and this open section was what was left from much erosion and plow damage. The western half of the mound was largely intact, and completely forested. Behind a nearby bench an old foot path wound up into the woods. I followed it, passing chicory wilted in the summer heat, until the path devolved into several game trails. I carefully stepped around until I found the edge of the mound itself, still quite prominent even now. Below the land drew off into gullies as it raced downhill toward the Forked Deer River. I searched for any sign of the river itself, but turned back.


The next long stretch of paved path offered nothing to report until meeting a four way junction. Ahead a dirt path offered the beginnings of the Nature Trail, while left led back to the visitor’s center. Knowing the path to the right led down to a unique spot called the “duck’s nest”, and eventually, the boardwalk, and river, I kept on with my trek southward. Again another seemingly long stretch that reached another split, with the Duck’s Nest to the right. Thought to be the remnants of a ritual center in the middle of a mound eroded to the point it’s undetectable, the duck’s nest is a 40ft wide circular depression with pottery shards from many different spots in the southeast of which there are no local counterparts to justify their being there. A truly unique little place. Off trail and not labeled was a temporary camp set up as living quarters for people participating in the site rituals there. Back at the junction, I took the steps down to the boardwalk, elevation well above the floodplain here, mature cypresses on either side in a wide wash of an area with a shallow wide stream running beneath. The leaves were already falling, though this seems more to do with the dry conditions of late than early hints of fall. The low wide depression extended as far as I could see toward the river, blocked from view with the foliage. The boardwalk wound right before a sharp left led over another wide dry stream, with a deeper dry trench undercutting the boardwalk further to the east. Here the cypress were larger, and a spur to the right led down to the Forked Deer River, muddy and murky much like many streams I come across in Mississippi, especially with lots of adjacent swampland. Had the water been higher, I would have seen it earlier in the hike for sure, as the banks drop off almost 10ft before reaching the water. Across from the observation platform another dry stream bed fed in from the south, creating a small waterfall where it met the river. After enjoying this from a bit and listening to a multitude of bird songs, I backtracked to the main trail, continuing east with the boardwalk through more mature mixed hardwood and cypress trees. This time as the boardwalk veered to the right, it bordered a deeper, clear running stream that I would have loved to have followed to the river, but there’s no access here other than to jump. The low water exposed the cypress knees and intricate cypress tree root systems. I’d always wondered how the knees were attached to the trees/root system, and now I do. The knees appear to grow like runners along a rhizome, each with a taproot of their own much thicker than the protrusion above surface. The path continued parallel to the unnamed stream for a while before the streams split, with both leads headed further east, as the trail pulled to the left. Just before going uphill here, though, more cypress and an absolute sea of knees so thick it would be pretty difficult to navigate through them.


The ascent to the bluff offered a great view down to the south of the low lands, some 30-40ft below the ridge line. All along little springs fed into the low swampy area. A railing appeared on the left, directing folks around a bit of a knoll and across another boardwalk over an intermittent stream. From this vantage point in the middle of the stream, no less than 3 or 4 spring fed feeders joined together. The trail led briefly uphill to a wide flat plain of land before descending several flights of steps to the bottom lands again. Here, the ferns came alive, and the mosquitoes became an annoyance. Good trail maintenance has taken care of several large tree hazards through this stretch. This section is the closest one gets to actually walking through the swamp itself, right at the edge between it and the steep slope back to the ridge. Eventually the trail nudged uphill again, through a scrubby area where a huge beech had toppled. Again this didn’t last long, crossing a bridge over a well flowing stream I’d glimpsed views of off to the side shortly before. The trail splits here. Left led uphill and to the geometric earthworks, but I opted to continue straight to see the Eastern Citadel and more of the mounds. The trail continued on, a bit uneventful, as I had hoped to see the earthworks from below. Instead, both sides of the trail were thick with vegetation, the tree canopy sparse, with cedars mixing in with the deciduous trees. I passed an interesting little frog and purple aster, the shining star of late summer wildflowers. Eventually the forest thickened again, and the ferns returned, and the trail was now a definitive uphill grind. From the map, it’d appeared I’d missed a mound or two, but as the treeline broke into open fields, Mound 30 came into view. A burial mound, it’s thought that the irregular shape of the mound represents a bird effigy. It’s not really prominently visible from the ground. Rounding to the right, the trail borders Mound 29, sporting large white scars in the form of old growth trees now removed. This mound is thought to have been specifically built to mark the Spring and Fall Equinox sunrises. About 12ft high, it’s a large mound, roughly 160-170ft wide and long. I knew in the woods at the edge of the fields here the geometric earthworks were hidden, but with no bug spray there were no thoughts given to strolling through chest deep grass, especially intermixed with the beautiful but stinging thistle in bloom. I followed the only obvious path out, finding a sign about the enclosures notating it as 1,200ft in length and 5ft tall. There seem to be two main theories of it’s purpose: either it was meant to define sacred space where rituals or ceremonies took place, or it acted as a water catchment area.


As the trail turned to the left, the thick canopy offered a way of getting up onto the enclosure itself, though it’s short height and brush made it difficult to really get a feel of the scale of the creation. Another informational sign compared this enclosure to the Millford Circle in Ohio, and an overlay of this circle and the one here at Pinson Mounds were almost an exact match. I passed the turnoff for the long loop around to the Eastern Citadel paralleling the earthworks, but instead continued on ahead, making a right at the intersection, now paved, opting to head to Mound 28, the third largest mound in the complex. This mound is unique in that there were never any excavations, so it’s not entirely sure what it’s purpose was, though it’s nearly in line with the view of the Summer Solstice sunrise. Like Mound 29, this mound was low and large, approximately 200 feet wide and long, and roughly 13ft high [low compared to Sauls Mound anyway]. Differing from much of the rest of the complex, this area was nearly completely treeless, and the hot sun was wearing on me, thanks in part to my forgetting to bring a water bottle at all on the hike. I followed the paved trail past one of the picnic pavilions, taking a left at the split to backtrack and climb Sauls Mound and see the few remaining. Hanging right at another junction, Mound 10 was nestled practically at the feet of Sauls Mound, and the only mound so far in the park that had trees atop it. This low, irregular mound [likely from erosion] was more of a platform or ceremonial mound. A side trail was supposed to lead to Mound 17, but following it led me nowhere except past tall grasses [possibly hiding the mound]. Crossing a bridge over a dry stream before turning back, I never found a marker for this mound. Making my way back to Sauls Mound, you really don’t get a sense of how large this is until you try and walk around the whole thing. I stared up at the seven flights of stairs and knew the western mound complex would have to wait another day, if I wanted to have any steam left for hiking at Reelfoot Lake State Park later on. The climb to the top reminded me I need to exercise more, but the views here were more breathtaking than the climb. A full 360 degree view of the landscape above tree canopy, one could see for miles and miles here. I stayed as long as my thirst and tolerance of the hot sun would let me, before stopping for ice cream and a drink at the Archeofest. I always enjoy browsing the wares and crafts for sale, and took note of several advertisements of other festivals closer to home I was unaware of too. After a stop in the museum and gift shop, quiet now, I set out for Reelfoot Lake State Park, where I’d be staying the night.

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