Upper Iowa River
Date Paddled: September 12th, 2015
Put-in: Cattle Creek Road Bridge
Take-out: Bluffton Road/W20 Canoe Ramp
Distance: 9.7 Miles
Time: 9 hours 30 minutes (atypical...expect 4-5 hours)
Gradient: Roughly 4' per mile
Water Level: Upper Iowa River @ Bluffton 305 CFS or 4.03'
This is probably the best segment on the best river in all of Iowa. Despite being just an hour drive northwest of the Prairie du Chien bridge, I don’t think that many in Wisconsin know about the Upper Iowa River. What makes this unique? Good current, clear water, little development, pine trees (a surprise for Iowa), but most of all, massive limestone bluffs called palisades which tower over 300′ high above the river.
Great trip…so what’s the downside? A LOT of people. We went in September during an Iowa/Iowa State game and there were still a lot of paddlers! During summer weekends it is much worse though, and I do suggest doing this trip outside of summer and/or on a weekday if possible. Also, be wary that this is Iowa which, unlike Wisconsin, has a law that you must register and sticker boats over 17′.
Trip starts on a good note, where there is a rustic wood-planked bridge that spans the river by the put-in. Right away bluffs are visible from the access and will be for much of the trip. I’ll for the most part just refer to the major bluffs from here on given how numerous the small bluffs were. The other early observation was how clear and fast the water was, yet wide and relatively shallow.
Soon you’ll come to some medium-sized bluffs which most paddlers will obliviously just paddle by. Their loss though, as there are three incredible springs hiding at the base of the bluffs. The first two have been “dammed” by paddlers and are quite the sight (see pictures below). The Upper Iowa River is known for its artesian wells because of how porous the limestone bluffs are and how the elevation changes create the pressure needed to get the water above ground.
It’s unfortunate that such a nice river (and in fact a nationally designated Wild and Scenic River) has cow problems, but this does. In a couple of spots you’ll see mud banks from upstream erosion and you’ll see in other spots where cows are destroying the banks directly along the river. At times you’ll smell the manure, but I don’t want to overstate the issue as the majority of the river is free of agriculture.
The advantage of putting in at Cattle Creek Road (and you do have a bevy of access options) is that you will get to paddle by Chimney Rock, a free-standing rock pillar rising out of the bluffs. But even more impressive are the Chimney Rock bluffs, which are at least 200′ high and wrap around the river for almost a mile.
If you don’t want to see Chimney Rock, you can put in at Chimney Rock Road where there is a nice public put-in. From Cattle Creek Road to Chimney Rock Road was a great stretch at 4.5 miles, but the section from Chimney Rock Road to Bluffton is the best segment on the entire river (if you have to shorten and pick a subtrip). This second section is almost nonstop rock bluffs for 5.2 miles, with four sets of major palisades.
The first palisade you’ll encounter (in “section 2”) is by Chimney Rock Campground, which is quite impressive, but swarming with people. You’ll see private campsites right by the river which I wasn’t used to and wasn’t thrilled to see. Nice rivers need wilderness buffers along the banks…
The second major bluff is another impressive horseshoe because of how sharp the river turns. Not as nice as the Chimney Rock horseshoe, this is still amazing and there is a nice gravel bar in the middle where you can take panoramas. These horseshoes (or S-turns) are referred to as “entrenched meanders” and are quite amazing with their white-ish color and coniferous trees lined along the top.
The third set is, I believe, the tallest and most famous set of palisades (if you see a picture of the Upper Iowa, chances are it is of these very bluffs). Do consider paddling on a cloudless day for lighting as it really makes the bluffs more vibrant.
Many will take out at either private campground in Bluffton, but again, this is a mistake as there is a fourth set of major bluffs after this small town that are worth checking out. A unique section because of the attractive balsam firs that line the top of the bluffs here. From here to the take-out on W20 is just a short paddle, so it doesn’t lengthen the trip too much.
So, all in all, a fantastic trip I think all serious paddlers in southern Wisconsin should consider. Minor side-note though…chances are if you drive out here, you’ll stay the night. But (as we found out) the local hotels and motels fill up quickly and completely. Most paddlers instead will camp. So something to consider.
The bridge at Cattle Creek Road is a very good and busy access spot. Ok roadside parking, good launch ramp, but no facilities.
Just downstream from Bluffton Road (aka W20) there is a good public canoe launch with lots of parking. No outhouse though.
I highly discourage bike shuttling the 6 miles from take-out to put-in. Much of the shuttle route is very hilly, has rough gravel and the few paved sections have poor shoulders.
There are plenty of rental and livery options in the town of Bluffton (roughly close to the take-out).
- Hruska’s Canoe Livery & Bluffton Campground – (563) 735-5633
- Randy’s Bluffton Store – (563) 735-5738
- Chimney Rock Canoe Rental – (877) 787-2267
- Harvest Farm – (563) 883-8562 (a bit further upstream, but they should service this section, too)
Most liveries are pretty affordable. Randy’s, for example, shuttled three of us and our boats to the put-in and dropped our car at the take-out for just 30 dollars. Note: It is easier for the liveries to have you take out in the tiny town of Bluffton so they can use their private launches, but if you do this, you miss some nice rock outcroppings (and light rapids) that run through town. I highly suggest paddling just a bit further and taking out at the Bluffton Road bridge.
Hazards and Log Jams:
No hazards and no log jams. A river well suited for beginners and bigger canoes.
River Depth, Navigability and Current:
The river moves along at a very good pace with many minor riffles. These are all easy and should not be an issue for beginners.
We went at 305 CFS according to the local Bluffton gauge, which was more than plenty. 200 CFS is considered low and 150 CFS scrapey, but paddlers will regularly run the river below these levels. I would guess that 700 CFS and up would be too pushy. This river can have good water clarity at lower depths, so IMO lower is better.
Surprisingly little. An immature bald eagle, great blue heron, kingfisher, songbirds and some minnows. The highlight was seeing some impressive beaver handiwork. There were multiple slides and partly eaten corn by one of the beaver holes (must be an Iowa thing). One of the side springs had a large beaver dam, which was quite cool.
If you have time, there are cool natural areas nearby that are worth exploring.
- Malanaphy Springs: Accessible via a one-mile trail along the river from the W20 bridge (see map). The water comes gushing out of the rock face near the top of a bluff and tumbles into the river as a splendid small waterfall.
- Palisades Park: A park that sits atop large rock bluffs overlooking the city of Decorah. Honestly, a little disappointing because you could hardly see the bluffs or water from the overlooks.
- Ice Cave Hill Park: A cave in Decorah that apparently is so cold it has ice in the summer. Did not get a chance to explore this.
- Dunning Springs: Much larger than Malanaphy Springs, this is easy to access in Decorah and is well worth the visit…but is absolutely crawling with people.
- Twin Springs Park: A nice little spring west of Decorah that we didn’t get a chance to check out.
- Seed Savers Farm: A famous farm known for preserving rare heirloom species. It has a store on-site with a lot of natural and organic items (including seeds!). In addition to extensive display gardens, there is a large trail network that is open to the public and a really cool dry creek bed you can explore.
Alternative Upper Iowa River Trips:
Starting upstream and working downstream, here is a segment guide to the Upper Iowa River. Thanks to Nate Hoogeven, author of Paddling Iowa, for much of this information.
- Upstream of Litdtke Park (Minnesota): I don’t know much about this.
- Lidtke Park to Florenceville Bridge: 14 miles with few paddlers, minor bluffs and possible electric fences.
- Florenceville Bridge to Kendallville Park: 13.9 miles with nicer bluffs.
- Kendallville Park to Cattle Creek Road: 8.3 miles with great rock bluffs and the start of the famous and most popular stretches of the river. Plymouth Rock access is a good halfway point.
- Cattle Creek Road to Chimney Rock Park: 4.3 miles and part of this review.
- Chimney Rock Park to Bluffton: 5.1 miles and part of this review. Last stretch of the famous Kendallville to Bluffton route.
- Bluffton to Malanaphy Springs: 8.6 miles with good current and riffles, but not as many of the nice bluffs.
- Malanaphy Springs to Will Baker Park in Decorah: 6.1 miles that is pleasant with good riffles and some bluffs.
- Will Baker Park to Freeport access: A pleasant 5.6 mile paddle through the city of Decorah with good views of the bluffs.
- Freeport Access to the Upper Dam: 7.1 miles and considered very scenic.
- Upper Dam to Lower Dam: 4.8 miles and not as popular with some flowage paddling.
- Lower Dam to Ferris Mill Road: 4.4 miles that starts with some nice wooded sections before widening out.
- Ferris Mill Road to Iverson Bridge Access: 11.2 miles. River really widens here but there are still some bluffs.
- Iverson Bridge Access to Upper Iowa Access: 9.4 miles. Not as exotic, but starts with a nice boulder garden.
- Upper Iowa Access to the Mississippi: A number of paddling options, but the river is shallow and channelized down here.