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Exploring The Beautiful Driftless Region

The Driftless Region is one of those regions you never hear of until you’re in it and then you wonder why it’s so unknown. It’s a beautiful region of the Midwest, and while I’m most familiar with the Iowa part of the Driftless Region, I have no doubt that it’s just as scenic in Minnesota and Wisconin. But for my Nebraska friends — well, all of you really, not just Nebraskans — the Iowa region is where I want to send you first.

Disclosure: My visit was hosted by Allamakee County, though some parts I mention in this blog post were places I visited during a hosted stay in Decorah a few years ago. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own. This post may contain affiliate links.

Kim at the Larkin Overlook in the Yellow River State Forest in Iowa

What to do in the region

If you love the outdoors, you’re going to love your visit to the Driftless Region. You don’t have to be in super fit shape, either, to enjoy the outdoors here.

Hiking

Effigy Mounds National Monument near Harpers Ferry is a must-see attraction in the area. Taking a 2-mile hike from the visitor center in the park’s North Unit leads to scenic overlooks, while passing by several of the park’s namesakes. Effigy mounds are animal-shaped mounds created between 850 to 1,400 years ago. 

A trail near the visitor center at Effigy Mounds National Monument

Yellow River State Forest is one of only four state forests in Iowa, and easily one of the most popular spots to camp (even with all sites being primitive). There are 50 miles of multi-use trails at the state forest, also near Harpers Ferry.

Word is the hiking trail there is best in Iowa – but beware, it’s an uphill loop hike that’s about 10 miles long. For easy and short hikes, the Bluff Trail to overlook is great, as is the one leading to Larkin Overlook. If you only go to one, go to Larkin.

A trail at Mt. Hosmer in Lansing, Iowa

Mt. Hosmer is a city park in Lansing, but also a popular place to enjoy a great view of the Mississippi River. The park has several short trails, including Beaver Loop, which starts right by the main overlook. It’s an out-and-back half-mile hike that’s picturesque, but a little steep for unsteady hikers. My kids, ages 11 and 13, had no problem with it, but you’re butt’s going o feel he workout during the uphill return.

Visit a farm or orchard 

Farm visits are easily becoming one of my favorite things to include on a trip itinerary. Luna Valley Farm in Decorah was a wonderful visit, especially on the weekends when they serve up wood-fire pizzas. 

Calves at Peake Orchard near Waukon, Iowa

Peake Orchards is a family farm in Waukon, and while it’s not a pick-your-own kind of orchard, it’s a pleasant stop. You can sample various apples before purchasing pre-bagged varieties. 

Plus, if you have kids, they will like seeing the different animals on the farm. 

You can also visit a dairy farm if you call WW Homestead Dairy in advance. They also have their dairy production facility and shop with all made-in-Iowa items in the town of Waukon (and you can ask to see behind-the-scenes while you’re there – no reservation needed).

Behind-the-scenes tour of WW Homestead Dairy in Waukon

Sip some wine or beer

For family trips, it’s not always easy to sample local brews in a family-friendly atmosphere. We had no such problem at Empty Nest Winery near Waukon. While my husband and I sampled a few pours of wine and cider, we played a game from the same cart with my kids. They had popcorn for snacks, too.

A flight of wine at Empty Nest Winery near Waukon, Iowa

Decorah has a few stellar breweries, including the well-known craft brewer Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. One of the smaller breweries I like visiting (without kids) was Pulpit Rock Brewing Co.

See a waterfall

Dunning Spring is a 200-foot waterfall in downtown Decorah located in in Dunning Spring Park. It’s pretty easy to get to, with a parking lot nearby. Stairs make it easy to reach the top of the falls, but if you’re wearing climbing shoes, you can attempt to go up the waterfall on your own. The water is cold, though.

Bald eagle watching 

Prime bald eagle viewing is November through March. In Decorah, two famous eagle residents inhabit a nest along the Trout Run Trail. They’re so popular, they have their own eagle cam.

The view from Eagle Rock's overlook at Effigy Mounds National Monument

Eagle Rock in the North Unit of Effigy Mounds National Monument is also a recommended spot to look for them.

Where to stay in Iowa’s Driftless Region

The toughest decision when visiting the Driftless region may be this: Deciding where to stay. It’s a large region, so it be tempting to pick more than one place for overnight stays. That’s fine, but I recommend just picking one hotel or camp spot as home base and making the drive around the region from there.

I’ve stayed at both a hotel in Decorah and a cabin in Dorchester, and they each have their perks, but for the money, I’d stay at a cabin any day.

The view from Cabin 5 at Upper Iowa Resort

I recommend Upper Iowa Resort, which has five cabins and a ton of sites for RVs and tent camping. We stayed in Cabin 5, which was a two-bedroom cabin overlooking the Upper Iowa River, which was included in a National Geographic list of the 100 Greatest Adventures in America.

Saying the views was lovely is an understatement. I spotted a bald eagle one morning and marveled at the eery steam rising from the river another morning. 

The resort is remote, yes, but that’s the appeal. In the summer, there’s a river launch spot on-site, as well as a “pool,” which is more like a lake for swimming, complete with a floating pier and a volleyball net.

You can rent kayaks and canoes from the resort. 

Swimming lake at Upper Iowa Resort

The distance from the resort to some of the places I’ve highlight in this post:

  • WW Homestead Dairy (Waukon) – 13 miles
  • Empty Nest Winery (Waukon) – 16 miles
  • Peake Orchard (Waukon) – 17 miles
  • Luna Valley Farm (Decorah) – 17 miles
  • Pulpit Rock Brewery (Decorah) – 22 miles
  • Dunning Springs Waterfall (Decorah) – 23 miles
  • Mt. Hosmer City Park (Lansing) – 26 miles
  • Yellow River State Forest (Harpers Ferry) – 29 miles
  • Effigy Mounds National Monument (Harpers Ferry) – 33 miles
A view of the Mississippi River from the shore in Lansing, Iowa at night

Where to eat

I’ll divide this section of by town, since the Driftless Region includes more than one town and city:

Luna Valley Farm near Decorah, Iowa

Decorah –  I’ve mentioned my favorite Deborah eatery already, Luna Valley Farm. This is a working farm so it’s not a full-time restaurant, but during the season, the popular wood-fired pizza nights are a must-try. Make a reservation for Friday or Saturday night.

Lansing – For pizza any day of the week, try Safe House Saloon. The interior was designed to look like a historic old bar, and the goal is achieved. Try some fried cheese curds for an appetizer. WW Homestead Dairy in Waukon supplies those curds.

Booths at Safe House Saloon in Lansing, Iowa

Red Barn Campground & Restaurant is another option, especially for grilled burgers. It’s the kind of place you go for a beer and a ball game on TV, but families feel welcomed here. There is a kid’s menu.

Waukon – For breakfast, head to Jet’s Meats & Cafe where it seems like everyone knows your name. They’ve won a ton of awards for their cured meats, so you can’t go wrong with bacon or ham with your breakfast. We absolutely adored our waitress, Jill. 

Ice cream in the dipped waffle cone at WW Homestead Dairy in Waukon, Iowa

WW Homestead Dairy is just over 11 years old, but it already feels like an institution in Waukon. Tell anyone you’re headed to their store, and they’ll tell you to try the cheese curds. Do that, but also take advantage of their ice cream shop. There are 16 rotating flavors to choose from.

For dinner, Wuakon has a new steakhouse called AJ’s Steakhouse. Go hungry!

Tips on exploring the Driftless Region in northeastern Iowa, including where to hike, where to stay, recommended restaurants and more fun things to do while visiting.

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