Explore: Panoramic vistas, dramatic landscapes are highlights of the Driftless Area Scenic Byway

This article is published in Explore Magazine’s fall & winter 2018 issue, featuring Iowa’s scenic byways. This week, The Gazette will publish articles featuring one byway each day online. You can pick up a hard copy of the magazine at area businesses, convenience stores and grocery stores. You also can pick up a copy at The Gazette.

WW Homestead Dairy has become a must stop on the Driftless Area Scenic Byway in Northeast Iowa.

School groups and tourists visit the production plant with store front at 850 Rossville Road in Waukon, where the staff of 10 process the milk from cows raised at dairy farms outside Lansing and Waukon. Visitors can watch the production of award- winning cheese curds, such as jalapeno ranch or bloody mary, butter, milk or a choice of 30 flavors of ice cream, and of course try some.

“This has a richer, better flavor, because it doesn’t have all the processing, and it is easier to digest, because it is in a more natural state,” said Tom Weighner, who co-owns the dairy, noting they don’t homogenize, a process that renders a uniform product but removes nutritional benefits.

The dairy is one of dozens of places to check out on the byway. Defined by a dramatic landscape of rolling hills, rock outcroppings, deep valleys, limestone bluffs and colorful foliage in the fall, the route snakes for 130 miles from Postville, Harpers Ferry, Waukon, Lansing and New Albin to Decorah.

The Driftless byway was designated in 2001 and was rated as the most scenic of the state’s byways, according to Allamakee County Economic Development and Tourism. The last stretch to Decorah was added last fall.

Travelers can find countless options from restaurants and specialty foods to canoeing, kayaking, or fishing in trout streams, such as Bear Creek or Paint Creek; hiking, biking or camping; historical landmarks, such as the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah or the Iron Post in New Albin and forests, parks and panoramic vistas, such as Mount Hosmer in Lansing or Effigy Mounds in Harpers Ferry.

“We have a lot of stuff to choose from,” said Jared Nielsen, scenic byway coordinator for the River Bluffs and Driftless Area for Northeast Iowa Resource, Conservation and Development, based in Postville. “It’s hard to pinpoint one thing we are known for. We have something for everyone.”

Unique topography

Northeast Iowa is often described as hardly resembling the rest of the state, which is dominated by farm fields and a flat topography.

The region including northeast Iowa, portions of Minnesota, Wisconsin and northwest Illinois is dubbed “driftless,” referring to its geological formation. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, glacial drift, which pulverized what was in its path, leaving behind silt and clay, largely skipped this area.

“We have the towering limestone outcropping on the Mississippi River and long deep coulees,” said Jim Janett, executive director of Allamakee County Conservation. “That topography provides the setting for cold water streams and gives us unique geological features.”

The byway passes through three river valleys, including the Upper Iowa, Mississippi and Yellow River.

Janett oversees the new Driftless Area Education & Visitors Center in Lansing and Yellow River State Forest in Harpers Ferry, which offers hiking, camping, backpacking, fishing and paddling opportunities.


Good eats

Nielson described an assortment of people who visit the area, such as empty nestors out for a cruise, motorcyclists, adventure seekers and families with children. An increasing number of travelers are passing through, staff at WW Homestead said.

“We are getting more and more traffic from the byway,” Weighner said. “We are in a town of 4,000 people, so we’ve got to depend on distribution. It’s amazing the amount of people we get stopping in, coming to visit. That part is getting better and better, and the tourism helps.”

Amanda Bloxham, store manager at Homestead, added there are so many good options, you can “eat your way across the Driftless Byway.”

In the northernmost portion of the byway, on the Minnesota border, travelers will find City Meat Market at 199 Railroad Ave. NW in New Albin in a historic red brick building. Established in 1880 and in the same family since 1882, the market has been in its current location since 1906 and still boasts the original marble counter top.

The small grocery store carries a little bit of everything, such as fishing lures, candy, milk and gorilla glue. But what they are most known for is smoked meats.

Josh Wuennecke left the area and returned in 2013 to help run the market, making him the sixth generation in his family involved.

He’s taken the torch running the smoker, a wood-stoked chamber behind the store. The smoker produces the bacon, jerky, bologna and other smoked meats customers have come to love. For visitors who haven’t been there in a while, the familiar smells of smoked meats take them back to when they visited as kids, he said.