While the Driftless Region extends through several Midwestern states, the area that extends into Iowa is breath-taking. I’d first visited the Driftless Region years ago during a weekend trip to Deborah and I wanted to return. This time, I had my mind set on exploring Waukon and nearby Effigy Mounds National Monument.
Disclosure: This visit was hosted by Allamakee County. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own. This post may contain affiliate links.
An Overview of Waukon, Iowa
The small town of Waukon is located in northeastern Iowa, a picturesque region of Iowa that’s part of the U.S.’s beautiful Driftless Region. The Driftless Region is a section of the country that was untouched by glacier melt long, long ago. The result is a surprisingly rocky terrain, with some rock walls that are not at all what one pictures for Iowa. It’s a place where farmland meets rugged river terrain, and it’s incredibly scenic.
Northeast Iowa draws visitors for its outdoor activities, from mountain biking and hiking, to kayaking the Upper Iowa River, which has been noted as one of the 100 Greatest Adventures in America by National Geographic. Other Waukon attractions I recommend visiting for the scenic views (and moderate to challenging trails) are Effigy Mounds National Monument and Yellow River State Forest.
Waukon has a population of about 3,700 people, and is one of the closest towns to the region’s outdoor adventures. It’s considered the Cheese Curd Capital of Iowa, due to the wonderful products produced by WW Homestead Dairy.
Must-see attractions & fun things to do in Waukon
Waukon is a low-key getaway and all of the “must-see” attractions are of the nature kind. If you love to hike, there are three nearby hiking spots I recommend (they’re in Harpers Ferry and Lansing, but close enough).
Definitely plan a hike or two at Effigy Mounds National Monument, which has a north and south unit. The mounds are significant if a little mysterious. No one doubts these oval and animal-shaped mounds are on sacred ground, but the reason behind them is unknown.
Effigy Mounds is free to visit any time of year. We visited in early October and the fall leaves were spectacular.
Another great spot for hiking is Yellow River State Forest. I recommend finding Larkin Overlook for spectacular views.
Mount Hosmer Park is the third hiking spot, and it’s located in Lansing. Mount Hosmer is one of the region’s must-visit spots for the Mississippi River overlooks. You can see parts of Wisconsin from the park.
For a more low-key activity, take a little drive to Peake Orchards. It’s a little family-run orchard that has a little store open on the weekends. While you can’t pick your own apples there, you can sample a variety in the store before buying some to take home.
Peake Orchards is also a dairy farm so while you’re there, you may spot some of the animal residents. They were the highlight for my daughter during our visit.
From mid-September to October, Sundays are a great day to visit Peake Orchards. They sell caramel apple sundaes and offer hay rides to families.
Unforgettable dining experiences to try in Waukon
For breakfast, I recommend going where the locals go: Jet’s Meats and Cafe. The restaurants was busy the morning we visited, with a brief line to be seated while the waitstaff rushed around. The cozy dining room was lined with awards for cured meats (also sold by Jet’s).
My family was entertained watching how lively the place was (the cafe also is a retail store for their cured meats). Our waitress, Jill, seemed to know everyone’s name and business. She made us laugh by explaining why my daughter’s special request may not be possible: “The cook’s grumpy today.” (It was possible)
Tip: Jet’s Meats and Cafe is a good spot to purchase meats for a cook-out, especially if your plans in Waukon involve camping.
One Waukon’s newest restaurants is AJ’s Steakhouse, serving up hearty entrees alongside local beers and wines. If you’re up for trying the best pork tenderloin sandwich in Iowa (and who isn’t?), head to Lid’s Bar & Grill. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but Lid’s was recognized for best tenderloin in 2022 by the Iowa Pork Producers Association.
For a sweet treat, head straight to WW Homestead Dairy. Yes, they make cheese curds as mentioned earlier, but they also make a variety of other dairy products. Namely, ice cream (about 40 or so flavors). The retail store at the WW Homestead has a lot of Iowa-made products, too, in addition to blocks of cheese and other goodies.
Tip: Don’t leave without getting a bag or two of cheese curds, the dairy’s most popular product. I recommend onion & chive flavored curds, though the ranch peppercorn cheese curds won best of show at Iowa State Fair recently (it was a little too peppery for my taste).
Waukon has one winery, and it’s one you’ll definitely want to visit. Empty Nest Winery not only serves their award-winning wines, but local beers, ciders and different types of sangrias (you can have a flight of any of those three). They also have free popcorn and a game cart, so my kids were happy while my husband and I samples a few of their wines.
Where to stay for an enjoyable vacation
My first visit to the northeast region of Iowa included staying at a familiar chain hotel, and while there was nothing wrong with the stay, I have a different option to recommend: Stay in a cabin (or camp, if you like to rough it). A cabin is going to get you closer to nature, and closer to breath-taking views the Driftless Region is known for.
I stayed for two nights at a two-room cabin at Upper Iowa Resort & Rental in Dorchester, and without a doubt, I’d stay there again. We were there in the fall, so off-season for a summer-time resort like Upper Iowa. My kids decided we must return in the summer so they can enjoy the resort’s swimming lake and little beach (and so I can paddle on the river that flows next to the resort!).
The resort is fairly remote, which isn’t a problem since our cabin had a full kitchen. And while it’s located in Dorchester, it’s only about 13 miles from Waukon. And as a bonus, a camper staying next to our cabin gave me a good tip about our location: It’s near an excellent trout fishing spot.
Wherever you choose to stay, allow yourself more than a day to explore the region. You won’t regret the sights you’ll see and the people you meet.