By Charlene Corson Selbee
This is the year to explore the karst topography both above and below ground in the driftless region. Years 2021 and 2022 are celebrated as the International Year of Caves and Karst.
“The 24,000 square miles of the driftless area is almost the size of Iowa and Wisconsin and encompasses four states and 46 counties,” explained George Howe with Sustainable Driftless, Inc. and film producer of Mysteries of the Driftless and Decoding the Driftless. The driftless region includes southwestern Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa, and the far northwestern corner of Illinois.
Why the name “driftless”? According to Wikipedia, the Driftless Area is an area “never covered by ice during the last ice age, and therefore lacks glacial deposits, also termed drift. The landscape in the driftless region is characterized by steep hills, forested ridges, deeply carved river valleys, and karst geology with spring-fed waterfalls and cold-water trout streams.”
The Oxford Languages online dictionary defines karst as, “Landscape underlain by limestone which has been eroded by dissolution, producing ridges, towers, fissures, sinkholes, and other characteristic landforms.”
Visitors come to the driftless region for world-class fly fishing, mountain biking on inclines steeper than can be found in mountains, to paddle the numerous rivers, rock climbing, hiking, birding, hunting, camping, exploring caves, taking pictures, admiring waterfalls both underground and above ground, and sightseeing.
Howe explained, “The driftless is world-famous for trout fishing and known throughout the world for birding as there are many species of birds.” The Mississippi Flyway is a bird migration route that follows the Mississippi River. Over 40% of North America’s migrating birds follow this route.
“The top three destinations in the United States are New York, Hollywood, and the Mississippi River,” shared Howe.
Visitors explore the Mississippi River in paddle boats, speed boats, canoes, and cruise ships.
Native Americans found the richness of the area beneficial, and their footprints are still evident in the area. A must stop is Effigy Mounds National Monument, Harper Ferry, Iowa. Howe explained, “There are more Native American mounds in this area than anywhere else in the world.”
Howe’s top picks
- Start in Wabasha, Minn., and follow the scenic Great River Road, which follows the majestic Mississippi River to Lansing, Iowa, or venture further south to Dubuque, Iowa.
- Wisconsin Dells, Wis., and Devil’s Lake State Park, Baraboo, Wis.
- SE MN sinkholes and caves – Niagara Cave, Harmony, Minn.; Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park; and Fountain, Minn., Sink Hole Capital of the U.S.
- Bike or travel the Root River Trail in SE MN by foot or head to the Elroy-Sparta State Trail, Wis.; the oldest rail to trail initiative goes through three tunnels.
- Lake Pepin, a natural lake and the widest part of the Mississippi River, is not only rare, but beautiful. Lake Pepin is known as the birthplace of water skiing.
Dawn Ryan, founder, and Sabrina M. Fluegel, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Marketing consultant for DARK (Driftless Area Karst Trail) note that there are 69 stops on the trail known as discovery areas. Check out the Driftless.caves.org website for more information and download the interactive self-guided driving tour app, Flyover Country, to create a personalized itinerary.
Ryan and Fluegel’s top picks
- Mystery Cave, Niagara Cave, and Cave of the Mounds are excellent examples of caves.
- Dresbach Welcome Center in Dakota, Minn., boasts a karst exhibit.
- Checkout the Chimney Rock Footbridge, a single-span, rustic-style stone, and timber pedestrian bridge designed by N. Averill and built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps at the Whitewater State Park in Altura, Minn.
- John Latsch State Park, Minnesota City, Minn., a 1,654-acre state park borders the Mississippi River. Hiking trails lead to the top of the three bluffs, – Mount Faith, Mount Hope, and Mount Charity that provide spectacular views of the river.
- Coldwater Cave State Preserve, Bluffton, Iowa. A spectacular cave is located under the rich black dirt of pristine Iowa farmland in NE Iowa. A trail is available for visitors as the entrance to the cave is gated closed.
- Wyalusing State Park, Bagley, Wis., is one of Wisconsin’s oldest state parks, offering campsites, hiking trails, a canoe trail, Native American burial mounds, bird watching, fishing, boating, bicycling, and picnicking at the top of overlooks.
DARK can be found on Facebook and Instagram @driftlessareakarsttrail. Use #driftlesslive when posting so everyone can enjoy your journey and photographs.