Yellow River
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Yellow River I

By on May 19, 2014

Highway X16 to Old Sixteen Road
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

A quintessential Driftless river blessed with everything you could hope for: swift, clear, riffly water, gorgeous rock outcrops, rolling hills and superb wildlife.

May 5, 2014

Class Difficulty:
Riffles + Class I

10′ per mile (7’ per mile after Volney)

Ion: ht/ft: 6.1 | cfs: 315

Recommended Levels:
This is a very recommendable level.

Highway X16, northwest of Monona, Iowa
Old Sixteen Road, northeast of Monona, Iowa

Time: Put in at 12:15p. Out at 3:45p.
Total Time: 3h 30m
Miles Paddled: 12.5

Wildlife: A dozen or more wood ducks, many great blue herons, bald eagles galore, 3 deer, lots of killdeer, a pileated woodpecker, innumerable geese and a turkey.
Time worth driving to: 2-3 hours

To make a boring story (nobody probably cares to hear about) short, I had the means and time to head out of town for a few days before my birthday, so I opted for a section of Driftless Iowa by myself. Knowing that the Yellow River drains quickly, I thought I’d choose to run it in early May and save some of Iowa’s “slower” water for later in the season. I’m glad I did! The Yellow River is a blue ribbon winner all the way through.

Taking my lead from Nate Hoogeveen’s Paddling Iowa, a seminal canoe/kayak book the way Mike Svob’s are to Wisconsin, I’ve been intrigued by the Yellow River since last year. Situated in between the illustrious Upper Iowa River and always reliable Turkey River, the Yellow is that lesser known, more capricious stream that’s sometimes overlooked (or too shallow to run). It’s a spectacular paddling experience I cannot recommend highly enough.

What we liked:
Where to begin? The water is swift and riffly the whole trip without exception. When not crystal clear, it’s that alluring jade green/aquamarine hue of Driftless-deep pools, where brown trout hint beneath. You’ll paddle past one bluff after another, some in the distance softly rolling along the horizon but most sneaking right up to the water and showing off a little rock outcrop skin.

The best rock outcrops are found in the Volney Road to Old Sixteen Road section, although it’s no less beautiful upstream of Volney. There are some farms and pastures but these lend to the view, not diminish it. If you can even see houses on this trip (and I truly don’t remember any) they’re few and far between to the point of nonexistent (there is a private campground lined with RVs but it’s right at the take-out bridge, so who cares?).

The wildlife and sense of solitude are simply exquisite. This trip is spectacular!

There are some other trip opportunities. One can paddle upstream quite a bit but you’d need the right water levels to do it. Upstream of my put-in at Highway X16 there are rumored rewards of a trout fishery, more sandstone bluffs, some caves and stands of pine and balsam fir. Notably upstream of Highway 51. It would be dicey as two other creeks feed the Yellow River only two miles upstream of Highway 51.

Also, if you opt for a shorter trip and are thinking about putting in at Volney, consider this: there’s a much better access to the river at the public park than at the bridge but there are several Class I rapids with fun standing waves in between the two, so if you put-in at the park you’ll miss these.

What we didn’t like:
Really, nothing. But if you are a poor sap like me and opt for a bike shuttle, then be prepared for a journey. Most of the roads (as in lots of places in northeast Iowa) are dirt-gravel, so the shuttle is slow going even in a car. I was smart enough to sense that this would be the case and took my mountain bike instead of my road bike but it was still an arduous ride.

Linton Drive alone has what has to be the steepest gradient (again, on a dirt-gravel road) I’ve ever encountered – even worse than the road in Wyalusing State Park in Wisconsin from the Mississippi River up the bluff. If this is not your cup of tea but you’re alone or have only one vehicle, you may want to reach out to a shuttle service. There are two in the area: Big Foot Canoe Rental and Scenic View Campground.

Let me also add that this is not an ideal trip for beginners. First off, it’s long (but can be shortened by using alternative put-ins and take-outs). Second, there are several hairpin, 90-degree turns especially in swift water that would otherwise sweep you into a downed tree or rock wall, likely with the effect of an unpleasant accident occurring. All of these turns can be avoided by portaging around the inner curve in the river.

If we did this trip again:
This could be an annual rite of passage, I loved it so! But next time I’d use my 9’ crossover kayak, instead of my 15’ touring kayak. I took the latter because I knew these daytrips would be long and that also during my time in Iowa I would be on the Mississippi River itself at some point and my 15’ touring kayak is my “Cadillac” since the ride is so smooth and comfortable. But it doesn’t handle hairpin turns too well! I’ll definitely check out the W60 to X16 section next time though!

Related Information:
Yellow River II: Old Sixteen Road to Highway 76
Camp: Scenic View Campground
Camp: Yellow River State Forest
Guide: Northeast Iowa RC&D
Guide: Paddling Iowa by Nate Hoogeveen
Outfitter: BigFoot Canoe Rental


Photo Gallery:

  • Anonymous

    Very nice post with good pics.

  • Thanks a lot! We always appreciate feedback. Unfortunately, the pics don't truly capture how gorgeous the river and landscape are. I absolutely love this river and look forward to returning to it next year! All the best…



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