Explore Iowa: Upper Iowa River

Posted on June 9, 2016 in Blog

Upper Iowa River

The Upper Iowa River winds through three northeast Iowa counties (Howard, Winneshiek, and Allamakee) before entering the Mississippi River. Along the way, the river courses through stunning bluffs and palisades, pastoral farmland and vibrant communities. It is popular with paddlers, tubers, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

The Upper Iowa River region supports wooded bluffs, hillside "goat" prairies and floodplain wetlands. It also provides critical habitat for diverse fish and wildlife, and native plants and insects. For these reasons it is often considered an ecological treasure. 

Read on to learn more about this special river, what you can see/do there, how Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation is protecting the river's natural beauty with the help of many partners — and how you can help.

Upper Iowa River: Plan Your Visit

The Upper Iowa River passes through a lovely part of Iowa with many outdoor recreational opportunities and other tourism services and amenities. Use the links below to help plan your trip.  

This site is a goldmine of information about the entire northeastern portion of Iowa (including six counties: Allamakee, Clayton, Howard, Fayette, Buchanan, and Winneshiek). Includes great information and interactive searches. 

The official Iowa tourism site also provides detailed information and interactive searches, not only about this region but about the entire state.

The Winneshiek County Conservation Board's site has information on camping, trails, preserves, historic sites, and parks in the area. There are pictures, descriptions, some history, and contacts given, as well as a PDF map of the Prairie Farmer Recreational Trail.

This Destination Report offers a brief description of the two main sections of the Upper Iowa River and some hints about what seasons to paddle them. The main Iowa page has similar reports for several other Iowa rivers.

Iowa Coalition of Off-Road Riders has created a haven site for the adventurous biker. They've done a great job compiling information on difficulty levels, area descriptions, trail maps, facilities and links. Rider feedback on their experiences really adds to the feel you get about each trail. ICORR is a great site for locating trails along the Upper Iowa - and across the state.

This website contains in-depth descriptions of the watershed, detailed water sampling data from 1999 to present, graphs and maps showing water testing results, maps displaying watershed characteristics, a photo tour of the watershed, publications relating to the watershed, links pertaining to the watershed, and a feedback section that allows visitors to provide comments.

Upper Iowa River: INHF's Role

While the Upper Iowa River's natural features are some of the most significant in Iowa, they are also under some of the most intensive development pressure. Homes, roads, and developments can quickly destroy natural areas.

That's why INHF is working to partnering with local landowners, local government agencies and state conservationists to protect this region's important natural heritage and to maintain the mystique of the Upper Iowa River experience. INHF started protecting sites here in the early 1980s (shortly after we were founded) and remains active there today. As of May 2010, INHF has protected 36 sites, totaling more than 4,000 acres, along or near the Upper Iowa River. 

Some INHF project sites, like the Canoe Creek Access in Winneshiek County and Upper Iowa River Access in Allamakee County are now owned by public conservation agencies and open to the public. Others sites, though not open to the public, are equally important to protect the area's wildlife, water quality and other natural values.

Here are a few highlights of our work:

Providing river access
INHF completed its first project along the Upper Iowa River in 1980, our first year as an organization. The Upper Iowa River Access (323 acres) lies along three-quarters of a mile of the Upper Iowa River in western Allamakee County. This rich natural area contains outstanding scenic, recreational, fisheries, wildlife, geological and archaeological features. INHF negotiated a purchase from the willing landowners, creating the opportunity for public access to the river. The site is now owned and managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. INHF often acts as a facilitator between voluntary private sellers and public buyers, like the state or county, to establish new public lands across Iowa.

Protecting palisades
Later in the 1980s, INHF worked with two private landowners who donated a conservation easement on the half-mile stretch of river that holds Chimney Rock, an outstanding limestone stack formation. The approximately 22-acre area also contains wooded hillsides and remnant prairies.

At about the same time, INHF negotiated another private conservation easement on the rugged, limestone palisades on the Upper Iowa River-another well-known segment. This easement also protected 23 acres of beautiful blufflands, some rare, endangered and unusual plant and animal species. A couple of years later the property was purchased by the Winneshiek County Conservation Board.

Saving trout streams
Meanwhile, INHF had a cold water stream protection program that was primarily directed at this Winneshiek and Allamakee County region. It includes protection along Pine Creek, Cold Water Creek, and other significant tributaries.

Working with the neighborhood
In 2000-2001, the 128-acre River Bend acquisition to prevent a 44-house subdivision has pushed INHF's efforts along the Upper Iowa River to new heights. INHF staff made 60 individual landowner contacts within several months and gave presentations to local county boards and commissions, plus local organizations. Working closely with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and 12 local families who voluntarily donated conservation easements to make the deal work, the River Bend project eventually resulted in 144 acres protected for public use and nearly 900 acres protected under private conservation easements.

Then in 2004, INHF transferred 140 acres, including the inside bend of the Chimney Rock palisades, to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. An INHF board member, shocked by a landowner who was plowing right into the river, had purchased thin buffer strips of land along the river and donated them to INHF in 1990. Nearly 15 years later, INHF was finally able to purchase the adjoining parcels. The Department of Natural Resources is restoring woodland and reconstructing prairie on the land, which is now open for public use. A few months later, INHF helped the Iowa DNR acquire an adjoining 27-acre parcel, adding the last puzzle piece to this key river bend across from Chimney Rocks.

Heritage Valley
In 2007, INHF acquired 1,224 acres from the estate of Forrest and Gladys Ryan. Now called Heritage Valley, this diverse and beautiful property is located along the Upper Iowa River in western Allamakee County. It contains wooded bluffs, hillside prairies and more than 3 miles of the Upper Iowa River. The property is still in INHF ownership and typically not open to public use. However, INHF opened it for several public BioBlitz events - where participants identified more than 1,000 plant and wildlife species on the site. INHF continues to invest many hours of intern and staff time on restoration and management.

Upper Iowa River: How to Help

INHF's recent work along the Upper Iowa River has interested many landowners in permanent protection. But we can't get it all done without funding for land payments, stewardship expenses, appraisals, staff time, etc.

That's why we've targeted the Upper Iowa River as part of our Campaign for the Bluffs, the Hills, the Lakes. Donors to this campaign know that every penny of their gift goes into the land – and is matched 9 to 1! You can direct your gift to protect land in the Bluffs Country of northeast Iowa (which includes the Upper Iowa River), Iowa's major natural lakes, and/or the Loess Hills. Donate today!