In the Midwest, where a 200-foot-tall bump is considered a mountain, you get used to pancake-flat land and sluggish prairie streams. Yet tucked away in an isolated corner of northeast Iowa is a cliff-lined gorge that the glaciers forgot to flatten: the Upper Iowa River valley.
Winding through one of the wildest and most unspoiled regions in the state, the Upper Iowa River can be paddled for 110 miles, from Lime Springs, near the Minnesota border, to its outlet into the Mississippi River near New Albin, Iowa. But the most intriguing section for canoeists is a series of small-scale canyons between the towns of Kendallville and Decorah, where cliffs, palisades, and chimney rocks tower 100 feet above the water.
The best spot to put in for this 31-mile, two-day float is the Highway 139 bridge at Kendallville (you can leave your vehicle in the adjacent county park). The current is fast and there are a number of riffles, but paddlers with even a modicum of canoeing experience should find the river easily within their ability.
Fifteen miles from the start, after you pass through forested bluffs broken occasionally by crop fields, the tiny town of Bluffton comes into view. Here you'll find a small restaurant and a couple of nice private campgrounds. Rise early the next morning-the canoeing only gets better.
The 16-mile stretch from Bluffton to Decorah carves lazy S-turns through what geologists call “entrenched meanders.” These horseshoe bends cut down through bedrock, where the outside of the bend is a high vertical limestone wall and the inside loop is either fields or floodplain forest. One minute you’re careening toward a fossil-bearing cliff created layer upon layer by ancient seas, the next instant you’re tight against a tangle of low, dark trees. Anchored to the impressive chalk-white escarpments are white pines, red cedars, and balsam firs, coniferous trees normally associated with cooler climes to the north.
Camping is available at nine locations along the river. Most are private campgrounds, and a fee is charged for a tent site. Smith Falls State Park is located about halfway between the put-in at Cornell Bridge and the Norden Bridge take-out. Call (402) 376-1306.