Upper Iowa River
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Upper Iowa River

By on June 2, 2014

Chimney Rock Road to Bluffton Road
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Add one part swift water to umpteen parts spectacular limestone cliffs, rock walls, undulating bluffs and a generous heaping of pretty wrought iron bridges, mixed with a couple cups of springs and you have the making of a glorious paddling trip.

May 24, 2014

Class Difficulty:

5.5′ per mile (approx.)

Bluffton: ht/ft: 4.27 | cfs: 375

Recommended Levels:
The river was lower than average for this time of year but entirely adequate. You need more than 150 cfs to avoid scraping and dragging your boat.

Chimney Rock Road bridge, Chimney Rock Park, Iowa
Bluffton Road bridge, Malanaphy Springs

Time: Put in at 10:45a. Out at 3:10p.
Total Time: 4h 25m
Miles Paddled: 13.5

Wildlife: My first ever mink(!), lots of geese, millions of swallows, one bald eagle, two deer, lots of redwing blackbirds.
Time worth driving to: 3 hours

It’s not for nothing that National Geographic magazine lists the Upper Iowa River as one of America’s 100 Greatest Adventures. Probably the most popular section of the most popular river in all of Iowa, this trip really is a must-do somewhere in between destiny and destination. The reputation is deserved. It’s certainly one of the prettiest rivers I’ve been lucky enough to paddle. The showstoppers are the limestone bluffs and sheer-faced cliffs – the “Bluffton Palisades” section in particular (which if you have ever seen a photo of the Upper Iowa River, it’s almost certainly of the palisades).

Over 140 miles long, the Upper Iowa River begins in southeast Minnesota near Lake Louise State Park, meanders southeast to Decorah, Iowa, then springs northeast to the Mississippi River north of Lansing, Iowa. The Bluffton area is more or less the midpoint and for better or worse the most sought after section. Not accidentally, the largest congregation of outfitters and campgrounds are in the Bluffton area, too. But if you catch the river with enough water, there are over 60 miles of gorgeous geology upstream of Bluffton, plus 30-some miles of remote bliss (and even bigger bluffs) downstream from Decorah.

Paddling the most popular section on a sunny Saturday on Memorial Day weekend is probably the last time I would think to be a good occasion to do this trip but to my welcome astonishment, we encountered only three other canoes in over 4.5 hours. I had been expecting a whole lot of congestion and partygoers. Maybe because we started early, maybe because more folks were out on Sunday… who knows? But the relative isolation made this experience even more serendipitous. All in all, it was pretty much a perfect day of paddling!

What we liked:
It’s just so stinking pretty! The Upper Iowa River is the Driftless at its prettiest, the geology is gorgeous! Most of the bluffs here are limestone, some of them 300’ high, some of them sheer-faced running right into the water with stands of pine and balsam fir lining their tops. It may sound cliché but the palisades section (about half a mile long) is striking and spectacular. It may well be the most photographed part of the state of Iowa itself, at least the river. I’d never seen such a continuous, not to mention undulating, “wall” of limestone like this before. It’s breathtaking.

The water itself was mostly clear with a sand-gravel bottom. We encountered no rapids but many swift riffles added just enough excitement and enticement. The wildlife was lackluster, probably on account of all the “traffic” and human activity on the water. That said, I did see my first-ever mink during this trip. The river meanders a lot, which is always welcome, as you never know what’s around the bend. Multiple gravel bars along the way make for great pit stops or picnic breaks.

While the first half of this trip is showier and blessed with the great palisades and limestone bluffs, the second half has a more remote countryside feel to it. If or when that abates one’s attention span, there’s Malanaphy Springs towards the end to re-ignite one’s excitement. You’ll hear it before you see it on the river-left a little more than a mile downstream from the aptly named Scenic River Road bridge. The final 10’ of the springs plunges into a rocky pool at the river’s edge. I have no idea where the actual source of the springs is, as it comes out from below a rock near the top of a cliff some 80’ above the river. You can get out here and climb/hike up the cascading ledges to a couple caves inside the cliff to where the springs gurgle forth. It’s very pretty and fun. I couldn’t resist taking a quick “shower” underneath the springs, as it had been a muggy and sweaty day; refreshing yes, but caressing no – that water’s mighty cold and claps against your scalp and skin! (Alternatively, you can hike to the springs via a well-maintained trail that begins at the take-out for this trip.)

For a point of reference, this trip had the best take-out of all time precisely because it was where we were camping for the long weekend. In fact, our site and tents were no more than 15’ away from the take-out. How perfect is that!?! This had more to do with staying at Hutchinson Family Farms, who also provided the canoe and shuttle to the put-in but it made for a very convenient trip (even though I continued to paddle downstream).

Postscript: Our group was composed of four paddlers: two in a canoe and two individual kayaks. The two in a canoe were mostly beginner paddlers and it was their first time paddling a canoe without someone more experienced in the stern. Naturally, they made a couple wrong turns and bottomed out once or twice but they managed it all in good stride and had no mishaps. I mention this so that others debating this paddle can feel more comfortable and confident about doing it. The canoe and other kayak took out at our campsite at Hutchinson Family Farms, which made for an 11.5-mile trip in less than four hours. The canoeists had planned on only an 8-mile paddle ideally but due to shuttle logistics this wasn’t a reality. But when they were told that our trip would be about a 4-hour trip, they were assuaged. Again, I offer this for the sake of putting it in context, as I know that not everyone wants to sit in a boat as long as I do or take on as many miles as I want to!

Also, I can say with nearly 100 percent certainty that everyone in tents at our campground were paddlers. I chose Hutchinson Family Farms because it seemed like the most down-to-earth and least private campgrounds-ish place amongst the bunch (of which there are many), plus it’s close to Decorah itself, which we were excited to explore. I had no idea it would be such a magnet for other paddlers. Everyone had either a canoe or kayak on top of their car or on the ground next to their car – everyone! Or they had rented a canoe or kayak from the campground. It was like a paddling Mecca and I felt a little like that bumble bee-costumed girl in the Blind Melon video finally finding her people! Funny coincidence: a large contingent of these boat-brought campers was none other than MadCity Paddlers from Madison, Wisconsin. Of all the campgrounds along the Upper Iowa River on all the weekends in the calendar year…

What we didn’t like:
Despite its name, if you put in at Chimney Rock Road, you’ll miss Chimney Rock itself, a stately limestone formation that rises out of the bluff above a tree line and resembles, you guessed it, a chimney. You could paddle upstream to see this but who likes doing that? The problem is there are no alternative put-ins upstream of Chimney Rock Road for 4¼ miles. Chimney Rock, along with the Palisades and Malanaphy Springs, is one of those photogenic “hits” on the Upper Iowa River that I’m sorry I missed.

You’ll pass several campgrounds along the river in this trip, some snarlier than others, but all embracing the river and enabling paddling, so one can’t really get worked up about this. But one thing I really did not like is how bicycle-unfriendly these country roads of Iowa are. Some of them are dirt-gravel roads, which is its own bellyache but the paved roads have zero shoulder space. Lots of the vehicles on the road drive at a decent speed and are often oversized pickup trucks with trailers hauling farming machinery or are outfitters with canoes and kayaks and are careening along narrow, windy, hilly terrain. It’s just not at all safe for bike shuttles (even my friend who went out for a run at 7 in the morning felt unsafe on these roads). For this reason it’s advised to opt for paying for a shuttle, which goes against every intuitive wit in my body, but so it goes.

If we did this trip again:
Originally, I had mapped out a full-day paddle that would have begun on Cattle Creek Road, 4¼ miles upstream from Chimney Rock Road and either take-out past the palisades in Bluffton, at our campsite, or at Malanaphy Springs but our outfitter/shuttler conveyed to me the logistic difficulty in this (their established shtick is dropping folks off at Chimney Rock Road and having them paddle back down to the campsite takeout. They did offer to pick us up at Malanaphy Springs, a little more than two miles downstream but I knew that that would have been too long for my group).

So next time I would plan differently and have at a full 18-mile paddle (more sensible and less venturesome folks might want to break up that stretch in two separate days). Eighteen miles is a long day of paddling, true but such a trip would offer the “greatest hits” of the Upper Iowa River and would be worth it.

Related Information:
Article: Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation
General: Upper Iowa River Watershed Project
Guide: Paddling Iowa by Nate Hoogeveen
Outfitter: Chimney Rock
Outfitter: Hutchinson Family Farms
Outfitter: Randy’s Bluffton Store
Trip Report: GoNOMAD Travel
Wikipedia: Upper Iowa River



Photo Gallery:

  • Anonymous

    Nice article. I've canoed it three times. Bluffs are magnificent.

  • Hey,

    Thanks for leaving us a note. Feel free to share any other Iowa love with us! Cheers!


  • We are thinking of doing cattle creek rd to bluffton. will we see all of the pallisades?

  • Hey RATMescher,

    Yes, you will see the best of the best bluffs in this stretch. There are others upstream of here and downstream from Decorah, but the most famous and photographed are those along the segment you'll be doing.

    You won't see Malanaphy Springs, however, about 7.5 miles downstream from Bluffton. But it's an easy hike to the springs, definitely worth checking out if you have the time. As long as the water levels are good – more than 150 cfs at the Bluffton USGS gauge #5387440 – you'll have a magnificent time!


  • Hey Chris,
    Thanks for dropping us a line. Do you still paddle these trips? They sound like perfect little slices of heaven each! I'm hoping to paddle the Decorah stretch (fun little riffly drops) and then eventually the Lower Dam to Iverson Bridge section sometime soon. I had to miss Greg Brown at Seed Savers last weekend; otherwise, that would've been the time to do it… Hope y'all still are up to fun. Cheers!

  • My family started a yearly weekend canoe trip on the Upper Iowa. We had a 14 year stretch that brought groups of up to 20 canoes. Always camped in Bluffton. Saturday we would paddle down to Decorah and shuttle ourselves back to Bluffton. Sunday we'd put in at Kendallville and paddle back to our campsite at Bluffton. Perfect trip.

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • Anyone have experience paddling the reach from Lime Springs to Kendalville at this time of year? Can one expect fences and deadfalls? How much walking would be required due to shallow water?

  • Hey John,

    Great question. Maybe someone out in the Iowa/Minnesota ether has a personal and more punctual response to this…? But per Nate Hoogeveen, author of the excellent Paddling Iowa, he recommends 200 cfs on the Bluffton gauge (which, incidentally, is interesting since there is a separate gauge at Lime Springs).

    Anyway, he warns nothing about fences or deadfall. Rather, he mentions "long stretches of pasture" as well as "isolated wooded valleys and…some limestone cliffs and outcroppings, none rivaling bluffs downstream." Also noteworthy is this: "the river runs through a long, swift, and winding stretch along cedar thickets and scrubby banks that is like no other part of the river." Sounds intriguing, especially if one lives relatively nearby.

    Hope this helps. If you do this, let us know. Cheers!

  • Great write up! Peter and I will be paddling this next week. We’d like to do a two day paddle. What would you suggest? We’d love to have you join us if you’re so inclined. Paddle On!


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