I came to Iowa with preconceived notions of cornfields and farmlands. Though I saw many a farm, and measured corn stalks near to my knees before July. What I didn't anticipate before setting foot in the Midwest was how much Northeast Iowa's "Driftless Area" had to offer.
Splitting time between Lansing, a small town on the Mississippi, population: 999 (my partner and I made it 1,001), and Decorah, 36 miles away, I grew to love and admire all that summer had to offer in Iowa. This region, sandwiched between I-90 and I-80, simply would not be on anyone's way traveling East or West. And, if one was going North or South along I-39, you'd enjoy the views in Wisconsin, never knowing what beauty awaited in Iowa.
The "Driftless Region" of Northeast Iowa includes Southwest Wisconsin and Southeast Minnesota, covering 24,103 square miles. This area is called Driftless as a result of a continental glacier ice flow 790,000+ years ago, which left rolling hills, underground water sources, caves, bluffs, and made way for the Mississippi and surrounding rivers and creeks to flourish. Unlike the flatlands of farm fields and prairies outside of the Driftless diameter, this area is an oasis of lush topography and a multitude of activities and environments for nature lovers.
Here are 18 reasons why you should visit Northeast Iowa's Driftless Area:
1. The Mississippi River:
The Upper Mississippi River starts in Minnesota out of the glacial lake, Lake Itasca, and meanders all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Here, in Lansing, Iowa, the wide river hosts recreational boat activities, as well as barges and shipping containers who move slowly around sharp bends in the river.
On either side of the river are epic bluffs, made of sandstone and dolomite rock. You can visit theGreat River Bluffs State Park just a 40 minute drive from Lansing into Minnesota, or do more local hikes (like Mount Hosmer City Park) for beautiful views.
2. Fresh Spring Water Creeks:
In what seems like every direction off the Mississippi are creeks and rivers. Driving on the county roads in this region and you'll see signs for various creeks that are stocked with trout for fishing, or river systems that follow the bike trails and farm borders.
Head to Decorah, Iowa to see Dunnings Springs Park, a 200 foot waterfall in a park region with multiple hiking and biking trails, and view points along the Upper Iowa River.
4. National Parks and State Parks: Biking, hiking, cross-country skiing
There is simply no shortage of nature trails for any season and any type of walker. Stay local in small towns and make your way through prairies, forests, river trails on foot bike or ski. Or hit up the many State and National Parks in the region: Effigy Mounds National Monument, Pikes Peak State Park, Wyalusing Hardwood Forest, Yellow River State Forest, Driftless Area Wildlife Refuge, Great River State Trail, Perrot State Park, or Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge.
5. Ice Caves:
One of the lasting legacies of the glaciers drift are the Ice Caves. Visit Ice Cave State Preservein Winneshiek County's Decorah, an actual geological wonder, this cave stays icy through the heat and humidity of summer. Pair visiting the Ice Cave with Dunnings Falls, as both sites are in the same park area.
6. Trout Fishing:
Whether you came to the Midwest an avid fisher or not, you'll find that it's a big past time for many! With a few trout hatcheries scattered around the region, the rivers and creeks are filled with trout so that both novices and experienced people alike can find joy and success on a fishing trip.
What fun is visiting the Midwest if not to drink some beer after a day of activities? There are a lot of excellent craft breweries in the Driftless region, such as Toppling Goliath Brewing Co, PIVO Brewery, in Iowa, New Glarus Brewing company, Potosi Brewery, and Pearl Street Brewery in Wisconsin, and Karst Brewing in Minnesota. There are many many other breweries as well, but it's always fun to go local.
8. Farmers Markets:
The farm produce and small batch products available in the region are phenomenally fresh and affordable, everything from Mennonite churned butter, to seasonal tomatoes, herbs, squash, radish, meats, cheeses, pies and more - organic supermarkets and farmers markets alike carry options that will make you never want to go back to your own sad supermarket.
9. Butter Burgers and Cheese Curds:
On the other hand, fruits and vegetables aside, it's not a trip to Iowa without stopping at aCulver's for a butter burger and cheese curds. Similar to pizza, or NYC bagels, everyone has an opinion on where to get the best butter burgers and cheese curds are, so try them at multiple places and make your assessment! The squeakier the better?
10. Forests and Pine Groves:
It's important to emphasize that truly the Driftless region felt more like a forested place than farmlands. Though there are many farms in the region, it's clear that thousands of years ago, Northeast Iowa was a forest. From the National and State Forests to local pine groves, enjoy it.
11. Bird Watching:
Similarly to fishing, if you are not a bird watcher now, you may leave the Midwest with a low key hobby in birdwatching. Between the large, open skies, the variety of trees and environments, and the hot summer and cold winters, Iowa is host to many migrational birds, birds of prey, and families of Bald Eagles. You'll see everything from Lazuli Bunting, Black-throated Blue Warblers, Henslow's Sparrows, American Goldfinch, and so many more!
Of course, forests, creeks and trails aside - the rolling farmlands that sprawl between towns is gorgeous in its own right. Get down and dirty learning about the food you love, how produce grows, and how livestock is tended to. You might be able to visit a working farm, ride a horse, and pick your own corn, strawberries and apples. From major, corporate farms, to small, generational mom and pop farms, you'll see all types, shapes and sizes as you explore the region.
13. Sunsets and weather patterns:
Big skies in Iowa! Sunsets don't disappoint, and you'll often see weather patterns roll in or stay away. Summer has a fair share of afternoon thunderstorms, and often unpredictable weather that comes in quickly and leaves just as fast.
It's not a farm, it's not a forest... it's a prairie! And my are they beautiful. If you've come to Decorah to see waterfalls and ice caves, stop by the community prairie, known as the butterfly garden to walk the well-groomed yet wild trails that surround the Upper Iowa River.
As summer blooms, so do the wildflowers. Enjoy a consistent bloom that gets more and more colorful through June, July and August - with White Wild Indigos, Rattlesnake Masters, Prairie Sage, Golden Alexanders, Butterfly Milkweeds, Black and Browneyed Susans, various Sunflowers, Partridge Peas, Wild Roses, Spiderworts, Coneflowers, Wild Bergamots, and a lot more.
16. Friendly people:
Midwesterners already have a reputation for being friendly folk, and the stereotypes are true. People say hello to you, whether they want to or not, it seems to be the norm that you not only wave to people on your walk but also when driving. The pace is comfortable enough to take a moment to acknowledge the people around you.
17. Canoeing and Kayaking:
For those interested in more water activities, the summer months are great for canoeing and kayaking. Meander the rivers for hours, lazy tube with a beer, or do a multiple day trip all the way to the Mississippi, stopping at campgrounds along the way. Check the forecast though; heavy summer rains can cause rivers and creek water to rise quickly and dangerously, many people can get stuck in high waters and need to be rescued. If you aren't sure - ask a local, or get an experienced guide to go with you for a few hours.
18. Iowa's History: Native and European
And finally, while we lean into the natural aspects that the Driftless region of Iowa has to offer, it would not be a full picture without understanding the people of Iowa and the history of settlement.
Before the 1800s, Indigenous Peoples lived in Iowa for thousands of years. Iowa is a Siouan Indian word derived from Ioway, meaning sleepy ones. The Dakota Sioux, Illini, Ioway, Missouria and Otoe tribes inhabited Iowa well before European settlers arrived. Today, only the Sac and Fox tribe are recognized federally, in Iowa.
In the 1800s, the first white settlers made their way into Iowa. From the North were French-Canadiens, and Eastward were Norwegian and German immigrants previously living Illinois, Ohio and New England. Between the Black Hawk Treaty of 1833 and the Homestead Act of 1862, Iowa became territory prime for settlement by white immigrants. Today the population of Iowa is majority of White, European, with a sprinkling of Amish and Mennonites (of German descent). People come from all over to attend the Nordic Festival, held most summers, an ode to the Scandinavian heritage abound, as you'll see many garden gnomes in lawns around Northeast Iowa.
For history buffs, you can visit the world's smallest church in Festina, Iowa: built in 1885 by Frank Joseph Huber, it seats 8 people and is maintained by 65 grandchildren of Marie Anna Huber.