Serpent Mound was always one of those places I knew about, but never went to growing up in Ohio. I always thought it was 2-3 hours away, and in the middle of nowhere. Also I was never a big history buff, so it didn’t hold much interest. However, when I started this project, this became one of the first places on my list to go to for a few reasons. For one, it was weird, and I like weird. It fits in with the mound builders theme that had cropped up as I was researching things. Finally, it’s on nearly every last Ohio “bucket list” site I researched.
The first thing I need to say about Serpent Mound. Yes, it is in the middle of nowhere. It’s about an hour outside Cincinnati, and roughly 45 minutes from either Chillicothe or Portsmouth. While I do highly recommend visiting the mound, as it is an incredible sight to behold…as a sole destination, it may not be a fulfilling trip. I’ll make a suggestion or two as to how to make a great 1-day trip out of it a little later.
The story behind the building of Serpent Mound is as mysterious as the mound itself. What we do know: it was built on top of a meteorite impact location. Some 300 million years ago a meteorite in this exact location, causing a roughly 4 mile diameter crater. Although erosion would have destroyed any visual evidence of this by the time Serpent Mound was built; it is fascinating that this exact location was chosen for construction. Originally believed to be built 1000 years ago, more recent discoveries suggest it might have been built nearly 3000 years ago by the early Adena Culture.
Serpent Mound is called an “effigy mound.” Unlike the mounds we’ve visited before, these were not used for burial. Most effigy mounds have evidence of ceremonial use. Serpent Mound is unique in that it combines both lunar and solar astronomical information into one formation. Unlike the burial mounds we have seen to this point, Serpent Mound is only about 3 feet high near the tail, and maybe gets up to 7-8 feet high near the middle.
As you walk around the mound, you’ll notice the body of the serpent makes large curves. Each apex of these curves points almost directly to the location a significant solar or lunar event (such as lunar minimums). The “head” of the snake points almost directly towards where the sun sets during the summer solstice. The coils of the tail point towards the Winter Solstice Sunrise.
Visiting the Park
The park that the mound is in is surprisingly small. There are three burial mounds on the grounds, two Adena and one from the Hopewell culture. One of them is kind of hidden near one of the restrooms, the other two are in plain sight near the parking lot.
There is a small building which contains a gift shop and a museum. I will note that the gift shop is actually larger than the museum.
In the museum, there are a couple displays about how mounds are built, a few artifacts, and a continuously running video (which is actually just a different section of the same movie shown at Mound City in Chillicothe). It’s a little underwhelming given the significance of the site. While still not very large, I felt the Mound City museum was more informative.
Right at the start of the trail, there is an observation tower if you’d like a better view of the mound. Because of the elevation change and curvature of the mound, it is not possible to see the entire mound all at once.
I will say that if you are there when school groups are around or on weekends, you might get some nice extra educational opportunities. On my first trip, there was an Atlatl (traditional hunting spear) throwing demonstration, and an expert leading a school group around explaining some aspects and theories that surround the mound. These helped add a layer to the visit you don’t get normally (as I discovered the second time I went).
The highlight of the park is of course the Serpent Mound itself. There is a paved walking path that takes you fully around the mound (making roughly a 1/2 mile loop). There is an overlook near the head so you can look into the valley below. I imagine this would be a phenomenal place to visit in the fall.
There is also an offshoot about halfway down the right side of the serpent that leads to a half-mile long unpaved nature trail. Unfortunately, there are no informational signs or other stops along the way (save for a fascinating stone monument that explains how this land used to be owned by Harvard University). Also, there are parts of the trail where nearby tree roots have broken through, and there are some pretty steep drops if you lose your balance at the wrong moment.
The only real downside to the park is that once you’ve done a lap or two, wandered the gift shop (paying your $8 parking fee), and taken 5 minutes in the museum…you’re done. I’d say the average visit here is maybe 30-45 minutes at best. However, your imagination will probably spin for days afterward.
Make a day of it!
Serpent Mound is great, but it’s probably not enough on its own for a day trip. Coming from the north, I started my trip in Chillicothe at Mound City, found Story Mound, went to Seip Earthworks and hit Serpent Mound and was done by lunch time. There is also another location called Fort Hill, just 5 minutes north of Serpent Mound that I’ve had to skip both times because recent weather had made the nature trails there more slick than I was comfortable with. If you add that one in (which has a 2.5 mile circular trail with quite a bit of elevation change), you’ve really got a solid day’s worth of ancient history.
Serpent Mound is a fascinating location. You leave with far more questions than answers, which makes it a wonderful location for letting your imagination run wild with such questions as: How did they find this place, anyway?
If you’d like to see more pics, please visit my Flickr album.
Adams County is officially County #6 of 88 visited. I did drive through a couple others, but did not stop…so they don’t count. Yet.