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The Languid, Driftless Region of Iowa

Sunrise at the Luster Height Overlook in Yellow River State Park in Iowa. Bailey Shafer photos.

Sunrise at the Luster Height Overlook in Yellow River State Park in Iowa. Bailey Shafer photos

Iowa. The first thoughts that come to mind? Maybe something like, oh, flyover country.

By Bailey Shafer

Isn’t that just a flat state filled with cornfields? I guess that may be true for portions of the state, but the northeast corner of Iowa varies drastically from the rest of the state. Winding gravel roads pass through rolling hills covered in luscious, green cornfields that descend into beautiful green valleys and skirt around babbling creeks.

This is the Iowa I know, the Driftless Region. Northeast Iowa, in addition to southeastern Minnesota, southwestern Wisconsin, and the far northwest corner of Illinois constitute the Driftless Region, an area that was bypassed during the last glacial period.

The topography of this untouched region of the Upper Midwest includes beautiful bluffs, rolling hills, and valleys that were carved out over millennia by rivers and creeks. The Driftless Area of northeast Iowa is truly a gem, specifically Allamakee County. What you will find here is a far cry from the typical Midwestern farm-state stereotype. Listed below are great activities to partake in on your first trip to Allamakee County!

Views of the Mississippi from Effigy Mounds at Hanging Rock Overlook in Iowa.

Views of the Mississippi from Effigy Mounds at Hanging Rock Overlook

Hike Yellow River State Forest

With over 50 miles of trails, countless stunning overlooks, and perfect family campgrounds, Yellow River makes for a perfect weekend or day trip in Allamakee County. The State Forest, managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was established in 1935, consists of six units for visitors to explore.

Fishing, hunting, camping, and (of course) hiking are popular activities in the park. My favorite thing to do in Yellow River is a hike, so below are my top three favorite hikes in the State Forest.

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***Be aware that the trails are not always marked the best in this park, so be sure to have a planned route and take a map!

Bluff Trail – This 1.6 mile out and back trail climbs significantly in the beginning, but flattens out nicely and opens up to beautiful vistas of the Yellow River valley. There are several overlooks on the route that can be driven up to, but I think it is more rewarding if you make the climb and earn those views!

Paint Creek Unit Loop – At 13.5 miles, this loop (often taken as an overnight backpacking trip) encircles the entirety of the Paint Creek Unit Loop. It crosses the Yellow River twice, passes by the fire tower, and climbs over 1600 feet in elevation.

Luster Heights Overlook – Although this trail doesn’t have a name, it is probably my favorite hike in Allamakee County. Using the map linked below, go straight from the parking lot, passing the old Luster Heights Prison.

Take a left at marker 10, hang a right at marker 9, and shortly after, you will reach a breathtaking view of the Mississippi! This spot is especially beautiful at sunrise. The hike is just under two miles round trip, but I recommend exploring other trails in the unit on your way back.

Trail map

Explore Iowa’s only National Monument, Effigy Mounds

Hiking through the forest at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa.

Hiking through the forest at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa.

Another awesome spot for outdoor enthusiasts is Effigy Mounds National Monument, home to over 200 mounds created by the Woodland Indians. Construction on these mounds began between 800 and 1600 years ago during the Late Woodland period.

Ceremonial and burial mounds are relatively common throughout the United States, however, the animal shapes of the mounds at Effigy are what make them unique.

Bear and bird mounds are most prevalent at Effigy Mounds National Monument, but archeologists are still unsure why these mounds were built.

A visit to Effigy Mounds National Monument should start at the visitor center where individuals can walk through the museum and learn more about the history of the place. After that, I recommend taking a hike! Several hikes pass by mounds/effigies and lead to spectacular viewpoints of the Mississippi.

If you’re looking for a shorter hike, I encourage you to walk to Fire Point. In less than two miles, you will pass the Little Bear Mound group and reach a viewpoint overlooking the Mississippi River.

Should you decide to continue, there are several additional overlooks to take in. A hike to Hanging Rock comes in at just under six miles, but walking through the beautiful forests and past a plethora of mounds makes it worth it.

Plus, the view at the end isn’t bad either! Be aware that there is a strenuous climb (300 feet of elevation gain) at the beginning of the Fire Point and Hanging Rock hikes. After the initial climb, it is mostly flat!

The Backroads of Allamakee

Patterson Creek Drive

Located in the rich farmlands between Waukon and Decorah, Patterson Creek Drive is a quintessential Iowa road. It is probably my favorite gravel in Allamakee County. The scenic route starts a few miles north of Waukon off Highway 76 and quickly drops into a stunning valley.

Mornings are a great time to visit Patterson Creek as the fog is rising from the valley, cows are grazing, and the sun is peeking over the trees on the hills. Making Patterson Creek even better is the babbling stream that meanders its way through the valley and is the namesake of the gravel.

canoe

Canoeing on the Upper Iowa River in Allamakee Co with Kelsey Becknell from out of town, cousin Photo by Beth Shafer

Donahue Road

Classified as a “dirt road” by Allamakee County, driving Donahue Road is quite the adventure! Starting across the road from the Little Paint Campground in Yellow River State Forest, Donahue stretches for four miles and comes out near Waukon Junction.

This quaint little road meanders along the Yellow River, rising and falling with the hills. At the start of this road, you will drive through a small creek, which can be quite exciting! Don’t be too worried about it…I made it driving a Prius!

Red Oak Road

Another Allamakee County gem, Red Oak Road is truly beautiful. The gravel begins just a few miles north of Harpers Ferry and clings to the bluff alongside the river.

After about two miles, the gravel diverts from the Mississippi and climbs slightly before revealing a tiny creek snaking its way to the river fifty feet below.

The road rises and falls for two more miles before meeting up with the Great River Road once more. At the end of the road lies the picturesque Wexford Church, its small cemetery and white steeple a stark contrast to the greenery surrounding the church.

Smokey Hollow Road

Smokey Hollow. The name just sounds mysterious and beautiful, and the road itself lives up to those descriptions. Take a left just before reaching Effigy Mounds National Monument (from the Waukon direction) and find yourself surrounded by towering trees and a majestic forest. Although I have not visited during the fall, I have heard that the autumn colors on the trees are phenomenal.

Smokey Hollow twists and turns through the forest that borders Effigy Mounds and eventually intersects with Luster Heights Road, another gravel that will take you to the edge of the bluffs (this is also where you can take a hike I mentioned previously!). Take it slow and enjoy nature on this Allamakee County drive!

Enjoy Water Sports on Allamakee’s Rivers

So much of Allamakee County’s charm comes in its rivers and streams, which means a visit here isn’t complete without taking part in some water activities! Kayaking, canoeing, and boating on the Mississippi are definite highlights of any visitor’s itinerary here.

There are several kayak/canoe/tube routes to choose from, the two which I recommend being on the Upper Iowa River near the Upper Iowa Resort (formerly known as Lonnings) and the second being on the Yellow River starting in Volney.

If you need to rent kayaks/canoes and do not have transportation to get to/from the entry and exit points, the Upper Iowa River is the choice for you. From the Upper Iowa Resort, you can rent watercraft and receive transportation to the drop-off point where you will float through the scenic hill country. My recommendation is to be dropped off at Iverson Bridge Access for a five-mile, two-hour long float.

The Yellow River and Volney is the better option if you have personal kayaks/canoes and transportation. Volney’s river float is more scenic as it meanders through crop fields and passes high reaching limestone bluffs.

The float from Volney to the Sixteen Bridge Access is just over four miles long and takes about two hours. Two bonuses with the Volney route are a great spot for cliff jumping and a rope swing at the Old Sixteen campground!

Check Out Small-Town Iowa

Harpers Ferry, Lansing, and Waukon are three of the main towns in Allamakee County, and each offers a unique slate of things to do. From food to museums, to shopping, you could easily spend a half-day enjoying the sights and sounds in each of these three towns.

Harpers Ferry

If you want to spend any time on the mighty Mississippi, Harpers Ferry is the place for you. Situated right on the shores of the River, Harpers is a classic Mississippi River town. There is a wonderful boat landing, a plethora of cabins/houses available for rent, and plentiful wildlife. Harpers doesn’t have much of a shopping scene, but try the Spillway or Portside Supper Clubs for some quality Iowa grub after a long day on the river.

If you happen to be in Harpers during the spring, be on the lookout for baby turtles making their way towards the river. Furthermore, on the Fourth of July, Harpers hosts an exciting bash complete with a 5k run and fireworks.

Lansing

Lansing is another quaint town on the Mississippi River. Lansing has a bit more happening than Harpers, and is best enjoyed over the course of a full day. I highly recommend walking through the downtown area for some boutique shopping.

Although not quite a boutique, Horsefalls Lansing Variety Store is a can’t miss stop. You’ll see what I mean when you get there. A trip to Lansing is not complete without a drive up to the top of Mount Hosmer to take in spectacular views of the Mississippi. There is a network of trails that trace the bluff at Mount Hosmer as well.

Finally, if you are interested in learning more about the history of Allamakee County and what the Driftless Region is, pay a visit to the Driftless Area Education and Visitors Center, located just south of Lansing’s downtown. In the recently constructed building, there are informative and interactive displays regarding wildlife, native culture, and science.

After a long day of sightseeing, get a pizza at the Safe House Saloon or try a burger at Sheps Riverside Bar and Grill. Make sure to get some Skinny Dip ice cream for dessert! Before you start the next morning, hit up Nutmeg’s or Coffee on the River for your caffeine and pastry fix.

Waukon

Welcome to Waukon! My hometown. While Waukon may not have the charm of the Mississippi passing by, it is still worth a stop. Several women’s clothing stores have recently opened, Luna Salon and Boutique and Silver Laine Co. Walk through the City Park and make sure to hike the .9 mile (round trip) Seven Bridges Trail which is across the street from the park pond. If you’re into wine, stop in at the Empty Nest Winery for a tasting.

For dinner, eat at Green Valley Getaway which is located in the basement of an old barn. If you’re in the mood for Mexican, head over to Fiesta Vallarta! Finally, because you are in the cheese curd capital of Iowa, have a curd at WW Homestead Dairy. They make their own cheese curds, ice cream, and other delicacies!

In conclusion, Allamakee County is a great destination for everyone. From jaw-dropping vistas to scenic gravel road drives, exciting watersports, and quaint towns, this area will blow you away.Bailey Shafer

Bailey Shafer is currently a student at the University of Iowa studying finance and international relations.  Having grown up in a small town in Iowa, she loves the outdoors, especially the Mississippi River and hiking trails in the area. Bailey’s hobbies include hiking, running, and visiting new places.

1 thought on “The Languid, Driftless Region of Iowa”

  1. Thanks for showing that Iowa has some great outdoor places. One of my best friends married an Iowa gal and for years she’s told me there are some gorgeous places in Iowa. If I ever find myself in that corner of your home state, I’ll be sure and take a hike.

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