The small road’s sharp curve brought us abruptly around a steep forested ridge to a delightful but unexpected sight. To our right, in a small field beneath a steep ridge, six bald eagles were eating something. By the time we got the car stopped and binoculars out the stately birds decided they had business elsewhere and departed.
We were exploring the Driftless Area, a jumbled hodgepodge of steep bluffs, heavily timbered woodlands, occasional picturesque farms tucked in hollows, cool trout streams, caves, trails and quaint towns. The terrain, wildlife and recreation are so different from Iowa’s norm that we visit whenever we need a scenery switch. Getting to the Driftless is easy. It’s about a two-hour drive from Cedar Rapids.
Google Earth gives a computer traveler a lesson in the Driftless Areas’ contrast with the rest of Iowa. Seen from high above, our state is mostly an orderly, relatively flat land of agricultural fields punctuated by occasional towns and bisected by highways going east/west or north/south. Move the screen and hover over Iowa’s northeast corner and the view changes dramatically. Below is a rugged landscape with roads twisting and turning as they rise and plunge over ridges and into hollows. It’s the Driftless Area that Iowa shares with Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois. The powerful Mississippi River courses through the roughest terrain in each state.
For reasons unclear even to geologists several glaciations created enormous pancakes of ice over much of the upper Midwest while bypassing what today is called the Driftless Area. These massive ice sheets differed from the more familiar valley glaciers that scoured deep canyons out of mountains. Instead, they oozed along and flattened the land, grinding down high spots and depositing rock and dirt in low areas. Glaciers formed the renowned level farmland of north central Iowa and gave our state it’s generally gentle topography. As the climate warmed and ice sheets gradually melted, they left behind millions of tons of rocks, sand and silt. Geologists call it till or drift.
Because the last few glaciations avoided a large area, they left no drift, giving both a name and a geological description to what’s now called the Driftless Area. By escaping the flattening glaciers, the region experienced thousands of years of natural erosion that carved deep valleys nestled below ridges.
When we long for topography more rugged that Iowa’s typical farmland we zip up to the Driftless. It’s close enough for a day trip from Cedar Rapids or Iowa City, but we prefer to take two- or three-day visits. Over the years we’ve camped in many state parks and enjoyed winter overnights in motels throughout the Driftless.
Every year vacationers cruising across the country are thrilled by the dramatic topographic change in a short distance when they leave the Great Plains, enter Big Thompson Canyon, and soon arrive at Rocky Mountain National Park. The transition from plains to mountains is abrupt and exciting. A similar, if less grand, change takes place in Iowa. Drive north on Iowa 13 from Marion and the car bisects hardly noticeable and gently undulating farm fields. Past Strawberry Point the topography starts to look like a rumpled blanket. By Elkader the drive is an up and down and curvy affair as the car enters the rugged Driftless Area of Clayton and Allamakee Counties. Eventually Route 13 drops steeply down into the Mississippi River at Marquette.
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Magnificent bluffs lining both sides of the Mississippi River are so photogenic that area residents of Iowa and Wisconsin once proposed the area become a national park, probably to be called the Upper Mississippi National Park. A century ago a team of experts toured the area and rejected the idea, feeling the land was too settled for national park status. However, they noticed intricate mounds made by Native Americans 700 odd years ago and recommended protection as a national monument. In 1949 Effigy Mounds National Monument, in the heart of the Driftless Area, was created to protect the mounds and some of the area’s magnificent scenery.
Last May we donned hiking boots and departed the Monument’s Visitor Center. The hike was a steep huffing and puffing upslope exercise. But once we reached the bluff’s top, we enjoyed a few miles of relatively level walking. Orioles and wood thrushes serenaded us as we walked to several overlooks for views up and down the Mississippi River about 400 feet below. We hike Effigy Mounds trails and loops every fall and spring. In our opinion they are Iowa’s most scenic trails that always offer wildlife sightings, exercise, and expansive views. As we walk by the mounds, we feel the presence of these ancient Iowans. It is sacred space within natural beauty.
A few years ago, we enjoyed a visit from Mike and Joce Berriochoa, longtime friends and residents of Washington State. They’ve traveled extensively and live in one of the most scenic states in the lower 48. But when they arrived at our home they exclaimed, “The Driftless Area is among the most beautiful scenery we’ve ever seen.” We agree, and to enjoy it, hiking isn’t required. Motorists enjoy steep windy roads offering views of bluffs, deep forests, the massive Mississippi River, and many attractive small towns built along the big river or tucked into hollows.
The Driftless is lightly populated. Its steep land isn’t well suited for row crops but dairies reminiscent of the Vermont countryside pasture herds of Jersey and Guernsey cows that munch grass in fields cleared of trees years ago. The region isn’t lacking cultivated land but crop fields tend to be relatively small and are either on somewhat level high ground or along river bottoms. The land is a patchwork of diverse scenery.
About 85 percent of the Driftless area is in Wisconsin, with the rest in Southeast Minnesota northeast Iowa, and a tiny sliver in northwest Illinois. Although it isn’t the best farmland the terrain is perfectly suited for outdoor recreation. The Upper Mississippi River’s immensity offers spaciousness for boating and fishing. Most popular fish are bass, pike, walleyes and panfish. Most of the River its banks and islands are protected within 240,000 acres of the Upper Mississippi National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. It was created in 1924 and is one of the biggest blocks of protected bottomland forest in the country. Parts of the massive refuge are in all four Driftless Area states.
Much of the Driftless Area has a limestone bedrock that is slowly dissolved by acid rainwater, forming sinkholes and caves. Smaller rivers and streams usually originate from cool springs oozing from limestone where trout dart through clear water and hide in watercress and fallen tree branches. Trout live in the world’s most scenic and pristine places, making fishing for them a delightful experience. Unexpectedly, Iowa is one of those places. Cave enthusiasts might visit Spook Cave near Giard, Iowa and then tour spectacular Crystal and Niagara Caves a little farther north in Minnesota.
The 60-mile-long Root River and Harmony-Preston Valley State Trails in SE Minnesota are a bicyclist’s haven that enable cyclists to access many small picturesque towns. The trail stretches between Houston and Fountain and partly follows the Root River, a popular canoeing stream. We like visiting Lanesboro in the winter when hordes of bicyclists are absent. Last year we overnighted at the Stone Mill Hotel and Suites, a comfortable, rustic lodging near downtown. Lunch at the nearby Pedal Pusher Café found us chatting with local residents where we learned about live theatre and great pubs nearby. Many other overnight opportunities and eateries are scattered about Lanesboro and many other towns. There are also many public and private campgrounds.
In June we pitched our tent in the Little Paint Creek Campground of Iowa’s Yellow River State Forest near Harpers Ferry. While sipping coffee one morning we watched turkey vultures circle above a high ridge near the tent as the sun cleared the ridge above. Camping there is somewhat of an illusion. It feels like we were in hilly terrain, when actually we were in a deep valley. A steep challenging climb upward eventually tops out to a somewhat level horizon and farm fields. Yellow River offers semi primitive camping. No electricity or drinking water is at the campground and cell signals can’t penetrate into the valley. It makes it feel like one of the wildest parts of Iowa. The Forest is big enough to make backpacking feasible and is open to fishing and hunting. For us it’s an easily reached quiet place to spend a few days.
When camping at Yellow River we usually spend a day exploring Allamakee County’s backroads that snake their way up to Lansing, Iowa. A favorite stop is at Wexford Catholic Church between Harper’s Ferry and Lansing. Said to be the oldest permanent church in the county, it was built between 1863 and 1867 by Irish immigrants and named for a county that hugs the old country’s coast. The congregation keeps the beautifully maintained church open, and we enjoyed quietly sitting in a pew.
Only a few miles further north is the Driftless Area Visitor Center operated by the Allamakee County Conservation Board. A stroll through its exhibits gives first time visitors an understanding of the geology, natural history, and culture of the area. It is open business hours, and we always stop in before continuing to Lansing and lunch at either nutMeg’s (Note this IS spelled correctly) Bakery and Café or the Main Channel café. For anyone wanting a magnificent view of the Mississippi Valley without the Effigy Mounds climb they can drive up a steep, windy road to Hosmer Park. It’s named for Harriet Hosmer. During a steamboat stop in the 1850s she won a footrace up the bluff and ended up with a Lansing City Park named in her honor.
Some of our other favorite Driftless Area camping are in Beaver Creek Valley State Park in Minnesota and Wyalusing State Park in Wisconsin. Although, there are many other parks in the area. The Driftless lacks major cities. Two larger cities, Dubuque, Iowa, and Rochester, Minnesota, hug its edge. Mostly it’s a region of small towns. Many offer fascinating museums and attractions. We love birding and two of our favorite spots are the International Owl Center in Houston, Minnesota, and the National Eagle Center a bit further north in Wabasha.
As we sat with a small crowd Owl Center Executive, Director Karla Bloem, helped us understand the lives of many worldwide species of owls. Owl enthusiasts from around the world often visit, and many of the towns businesses are decorated with owl themes.
In a larger crowd at the Eagle Center we learned, among other things, that Golden Eagles are sometimes spotted in the area, although most of the giant birds are Bald Eagles. Both organizations are open to the public and are relatively close together. It is possible to tour them in one day.
In nearby Winona, Minnesota, is the Minnesota Marine Art Museum that features works of Georgia O’Keeffe, John James Audubon, Mary Cassatt, and the Hudson River School Collection. Best known is Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze. Collections have a water theme, which is utterly appropriate for a museum sited near the Mississippi River.
Because the Driftless Area is heavily forested and many of the trees are sugar maples, it offers brilliant autumn scenery. Its hills may be lower than those of Vermont but its colors are just as vibrant. Normally the fall leaf season starts in early October and, depending on the weather, lasts a few weeks as maples gradually drop their leaves and oaks come into their russet glory.
Fall in Wisconsin’s Driftless gives travelers a chance to stop at orchards in the Gays Mill area to stock up on fruit or shop antique shops in small towns. Beer enthusiasts might combine scenery with a stop at the National Beer Museum in Potosi, Wisconsin.
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If the Mississippi River is in normal or low flow an unusual crossing is the Cassville Car Ferry between that small Wisconsin town and a rural landing in Iowa upstream from Dubuque. The ride across on the small crossing fee is worth it. Often eagles are spotted from the Ferry. It operates during warm months but not if the River is high. Call ahead to make sure it’s operating.
We are always surprised when we meet a native Iowan who has never heard of the Driftless Area. It’s a gorgeous, historic and geologically fascinating corner of Iowa and neighboring states that is an easy drive away.
•l Driftless Area Visitor Center: www.allmakeecountyconservationboard.org
• The National Eagle Center: www.nationaleaglecenter.org
• International Owl Center: www.internationalowlcenter.org
• Minnesota Marine Art Museum: www.mmam.org
• National Brewing Museum: www.potosibrewery.com
• Cassville Car Ferry: www.cassville.org or (608) 725-5180
• Effigy Mounds National Monument: nps.gov/efmo