Mainstream Adventures

When You Constantly Push Your Limits You Will Never Reach Them

Canoe the Upper Iowa River

I first heard about the Upper Iowa River from an article in National Geographic Magazine.  This article listed canoeing the Upper Iowa River as one of the top 100 adventures in North America.  Upon reading this, I instantly found it hard to believe.  I have canoed in Iowa my whole life and never found anything to rank it as one of the best Adventures in North America.  However I had never canoed the Upper Iowa before.  I started researching and planning my trip in 2016.  Right away I noticed something very different about this area,  It just did not feel like Iowa.  This section of the state is made up of several smaller towns, and the landscape is unlike the rest of the state.  Decorah is the largest city in the area, but it even has a small town feel to it as well.  The city is packed full of adventure, with the ice cave, the fish hatchery, hiking trails and 3 waterfalls all with 20 minutes of each other.  Highlandville is also located nearby, and is surrounded with rolling hills packed with trees.  This small town has some of the nicest cabins I have ever seen, (Bear Creek Cabins) as well as the top 2 trout streams in the entire state!  Kendallville and Bluffton are also nearby and have several wild caves, tall bluffs, and miles after miles of trees.  There is so much to see and do in the area, I felt like I could spend an entire month exploring and still not see everything this area has to offer.  As awesome as this would be,  I came to explore the river not the land.

Our Cabin at Chimney Rock Campground and Canoe Rental

The Upper Iowa River runs for 156 miles, with the headwaters located in southeastern Minnesota, and continuing into Iowa and eventually flowing into the Mississippi.  The stretch of river from Granger Minnesota to Decorah Iowa is about 45 miles long, and offers some of the best scenery the Midwest has to offer.

Malanaphy Springs

We decided to spend the night in Bluffton, at a place called Chimney Rock Campground and Canoe Rental.  This campground was extremely hard to find and that deep in the backwoods, cell service, and GPS where unavailable.  Finally after stopping and asking for directions twice!  We managed to find the campground, way off the beaten path.  Knowing I was a writer, the owner quickly upgraded us from campsite to cabin, and even threw in a huge steak to cook on the grill.  (So far I’m very impressed!)

After giving me a key and a map, i followed a gravel road into the woods, that quickly turned to dirt, after a few more turns, I found our cabin.  As soon as I stepped out of the car I was blown away.  We where surrounded with wilderness and completely  alone.  Our back yard was gigantic, with at least 100 yards of wooded plain between our back porch and the river.  On the opposite bank was a huge 200 foot high limestone bluff overlooking the entire river valley.

The next morning I woke up early and went outside and climbed into my hammock, it was still dark out, but laying there all alone starring into the night sky really helped me appreciate the moment.   In my fast paced world of adventure sometimes its hard to relax and really enjoy things.  To often I’m chasing my next adrenaline rush, and I miss out on the moment in front of me.  Well on this day I decided to live in the moment.  Watching the sunrise come up over the limestone bluffs was breathtaking and helped get me excited for the days upcoming adventure.

After packing everything up, the staff at Chimney Rock, took us up stream to the city of Granger.  Granger is a small town in southeastern Minnesota.  We dipped our canoes into the river and we were off.

Day 1  The Upper Iowa River is a little different then most of the Iowa, and Illinois rivers i have canoed.  For starters it seems to be very cut off from the rest of the world.  You can paddle for miles without seeing any signs of life.  There are very few bridges crossing the river, and the ones you do see are seldom used.  The isolation you face on this river is part of what makes it so great.  This river seems to be running a little high for this time of year, and this has the current moving at a fast pace.   This makes the paddling easier but it also adds some hazard to our trip.  Every couple hundred yards we are running into mini-rapids, which adds excitement to our day but is also causing some concern.  As the river begins to calm we come around a corner and all of a sudden the river is lined with towering 200-300 foot high bluffs creating a majestic river corridor.   We spot a deer drinking from the river, and a bald eagle flying high above.

We spent the night at Kendallville Park, which is a public campground just south of the Minnesota border.  We had to pack light so instead of tents, we spent the night in hammocks.  For me, sleeping in a hammock not only feels great on my back, but there is just something about sleeping under the stars that makes for an unforgettable night.  After a hearty dinner we spent the night, sitting around the campfire under a nearly full-moon well into the early morning hours.

Day 2  We shipped out a little later then we had planned, but getting some rest was just as important as getting an early start.  I woke up a little sore this morning after a long day of sitting in a canoe paddling.  Today we are planning on paddling another 15 miles to take us back to Chimney Rock, where we spent our first night.  Our days travels took us past an old bridge, that looked to be falling apart a bit, we also past several trees that had fallen down into the water.  Hitting some rapids we lost control of our canoe and ended up pinned against a tree flipping our canoe over into the water.   After chasing down all our gear, we managed to find a sand bar and flip the canoe over.  Right away we noticed, we had lost 2 smart phones and a camera, but more importantly I had lost all my photos.  Luckily everything else was safe inside my water proof pack.  We pulled into camp around 6 pm,  and decided to hang our hammocks up next to the river.  I layed down around 9 pm  and woke up around 7 am but it felt like I had just closed my eyes.

Day 3  We started our third and final day feeling a little sluggish.  I was sore from all the time spent bent over sitting in a canoe.  I was annoyed that I had lost my camera.  I was ready for the trip to be over.  About a half hour in we passed a campground, someone was cooking breakfast,  Good Morning I yelled towards shore.  You hungry?  Someone yelled back.   Now I have a firm policy I always follow when meeting strangers in the woods, be friendly, and never ever turn down food.  We pulled onto the bank, and enjoyed a nice breakfast of bacon, eggs and hot dogs.  Not a bad way to start the day.  After this my mood had changed and I was again enjoying the trip.  After another long day we finally made our way to Malanaphy Springs,  the springs is a beautiful state preserve located just north of Decorah.  We decided to pull our canoe over to shore and do some exploring.  We followed the water trail up a short but very steep bluff, upon reaching the top we found a cave where the water was pouring from.  Climbing the bluff we had worked up quite a thirst so we cupped our hands and  took a taste of the natural spring water.  It was so cool and refreshing.  After making our way back down to the canoe we spent another hour splashing around underneath the water fall.  This was a perfect ending to our 3 day adventure.

Several things came together perfectly to make this float so special.  For one the weather was perfect for late July.  The scenery in northern Iowa and along the Upper Iowa River makes you feel like your somewhere much more exotic.  The current and rapids we faced also helped in turning the adrenaline dial up compared to other rivers in Iowa.  But more then anything, the trip was special because of who I was sharing it with.  My daughter is 13 and this was her first overnight canoe trip, and she really seemed to love it.  For us spending the weekend in the woods is an every weekend occurrence.  But somehow this was different.   I walk away from this trip convinced that canoeing the Upper Iowa River, deserves its place as one of the top 100 adventures in North America.

Bear Creek Cabins

A special thank you to Chimney Rock Campground and Canoe Rental,  this place is one of the most beautiful campgrounds in the Midwest, and the staff went out of there way to make sure we would have an unforgettable experience.  While we where in Northern Iowa we also took a visit to Bear Creek Cabins, and The Niagara Cave, in Harmony Minnesota.  Both locations where outstanding,  Niagara Cave was one of the most beautiful caves I have ever visited, and  Bear Creek Cabins is also a very special location.  Do yourself a favor and take a visit to Northern Iowa and most importantly canoe the Upper Iowa River.  This is a trip you will remember for years to come.

Niagara Cave, Pictures do not do it justice.

As mentioned in the article my camera was destroyed, so some of the pictures used in this article were supplied by Chimney Rocks Campground and Canoe Rental.

 

 

94 Comments

  1. This sounds like a great vacation, I may have to visit next summer.

  2. This sounds like a really fun trip we have never canoed this part of the river before looks beautiful.

  3. This section of river is beautiful and so wild. Does not look like Iowa. Brings back memories. Sometimes i miss living in the United States.

  4. Sounds like a great trip.

  5. Chimney Rock campground is my favorite in Iowa. Never floated down river but love camping here.

  6. Great adventure sounds like fun.

  7. This sounds like a bad ass trip

  8. This sound like a white person activity. What you got for people of color???

  9. We just too our visit to chimney rock campground great place to visit nice cabins friendly people and beautiful scenery

  10. Sounds amazing! Sorry to hear about your camera!

  11. Best canoe trip in the midwest right here. Floated this many times with my man, beautiful everytime.

  12. C’est l’information fidГЁle
    Rexuiz FPS Game

  13. This story brings back memories, canoed this section many times.

  14. Beautiful stretch of river right here!

  15. Next spring for sure sounds amazing!

  16. I’m jealous dude for real

  17. Sounds fun! you need to plan a group outing sometime and show some of us these locations you always visit

  18. Love hearing your adventures bro, keeps me entertained while sitting at a desk all day

  19. I need to take a visit down to Iowa and take this trip.

  20. This sounds amazing!

  21. Looks rad!

  22. Wish summer was not over, sounds like an amazing trip.

  23. Chimney Rock is the best, we visit every summer and always enjoy ourselves. This article brings back a lot of memories.

  24. Damn! Looks amazing!

  25. Never canoed this section before, may need to make the trip up that way.

  26. Travel Adventures

    October 11, 2017 at 12:51 am

    Sounds like a great experience. Nice website, shared your story on my page.

  27. We decided to take the exact same trip! Chimney Rock campground is great, this area is beautiful. I highly recommend this trip to anyone who loves the outdoors.

  28. Need to visit this place.

  29. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at chimney rock campground. Thanks for sending us in that direction!

  30. Niceadventureyourtripsoundsfun!

  31. Great storytelling, not so great grammer. Love the page though.

  32. White water canoeing sounds awesome bro.

  33. I love this trip, done it many times. Very descriptive writing.

  34. This section of river is so beautiful, canoe it every summer. What a great experience!

  35. I have camped and kayaked with chimney rock many times over the years. This is a very nice campground surrounded with natural beauty. The kayak service they provide is very accommodating and straight forward. Can’t wait to go back in the spring. This story brings back a lot of memories.

  36. Wish I was out on the river right now, its cold as fuck tonight. Missing me those warm summer days out kayaking and swimming and fishing on the upper iowa. you got me dreaming of july.

  37. Great post. I want to plan a visit.

  38. Nice post, brings back some memories of summer on this cold ass winter day.

  39. This sounds like a great father daughter experience I have been thinking about taking an annual trip with my daughter and did not really have any ideas on were to go. This sounds like a pretty trip.

  40. One of the best float trips in the Midwest. Beautiful section of river here.

  41. A lovely float was had by all, the end!

  42. Is there a rental in the area, or do I need my own canoe.

    .

  43. I love that you involve your family in all these adventures. I wish I could my wife and Kids to enjoy these sort of things.

  44. Dude! I used to totally rock it on that river man, your tripping me out with all the memories this brings back. Need to get back to iowa and relive some of my glory days.

  45. What a great time you must of had, I love this story, I can almost see the rock bluffs in my head as I read along.

  46. So which float trip is the best in Iowa? Monticello? Chimney Rock? or Seven Oaks? I see articles on all 3 and they all sound great.

    • Great question. They all offer something different. Monticello Canoe Rental, is a very well run operation and everything flows very smooth from start to finish, the staff really takes care of everything. Chimney Rocks has this amazing wild feel to it. You are in the middle of nowhere surrounded by wilderness with 200 foot high bluffs and beautiful scenery all around. Seven Oaks is also great, and the trip takes you past Ledges State Park, and is also beautiful. You really cant go wrong floating with any of the 3.

  47. Princeton Floats

    January 26, 2018 at 2:29 pm

    Love the coverage you are giving to the local kayak scene in Iowa. Lots of great locations some of us may have forgotten about over they years, are being brought back to life on this page. Spring cant get here soon enough.

  48. стоматологическая клиника. Мы первая в Краснодаре стоматология для деловых людей, ценящих свое время и хороший сервис. Наша клиника специализируется на эстетической стоматологии и лазерная стоматология цены Стоматологические услуги европейского качества. Александр Дантэ принимает только одного клиента в день. Благодаря этому доктор полностью фокусируется на проблеме отдельно взятого пациента. Лечение

  49. i see you took a child, so my question is how old do you think is needed to canoe this section of river? My son has never canoed but loves the outdoors. I would love to take him but he is only 10. I would value your opinion.

  50. cool web site

  51. we are going this spring

  52. Great read and a great canoe trip. Taken it many times.

  53. This sounds like a very nice canoe trip. I wish my husband was still around he would enjoy this sort of thing very much.

  54. Iowa Paddling Society

    February 13, 2018 at 5:50 pm

    Nice feature! You should cover some of our events!

  55. Nice article well written fun float trip

  56. Sounds like a great adventure with your daughter!

  57. Chimney Rock campground is our favorite. Never canoed with them but it sounds like fun. Great article.

  58. I absolutely love reading your articles and learning about new places. This page came along at just the right time in my life. I have just gotten a divorce and was trying to find myself. The only place I felt good was alone in the forest. It had been years since I had been camping, and I missed the feeling of being out under the stars. Your page has brought me peace and helped me get back to my roots. I love what your doing and check back often for the next adventure. Thank you for providing a much needed balance in my life. I will be taking this very same canoe trip this spring and can’t wait to experience all the sights you so elegantly described. Keep up the good work, you are really making a difference in peoples lives.

  59. Very nice article and a beautiful stretch of river!

  60. Sounds like a trip!

  61. Sounds fun!

  62. This sounds like so much fun! love the article i can almost picture the area you described.

  63. this trip sounds enjoyable i will be contacting this chimney rock place in the spring to take a trip with my son thank you for this great share

  64. AWESOME TRIP!

  65. I can almost see it in my head, great story telling here.

  66. Sounds like quite a trip!

  67. Is it Kayak season yet? Can’t wait much longer.

  68. When do they start offering canoe trips? This would make for a great kickoff for summer!

  69. I need to visit Chimney Rocks sounds like a great trip.

  70. We are planning on taking this trip when it warms up a bit. Thanks for sharing your adventure with us!

  71. I would be so scaried camping out along the river, trip sounds fun just scary.

  72. This has to be one of the best kayak trips in the Midwest, the water was running high and we hit several rapids, it was amazing. Thanks for sharing your article.

  73. This sounds so fun!

  74. Need to take this trip!

  75. My friend took this same trip last year, almost killed her but i think she enjoyed it.

  76. need to take this exact trip sounds fantastic.

  77. will u be doing this trip again? i would like to do it with someone more experienced, as i do not have a lot of survival skills for setting up a campsite or cooking and cleaning fish but i would love to share this with my kids and wife i could even pay a small fee for ur time thank you

  78. Wow, awesome blog layout! How long have you been blogging

  79. I like what you guys are up too. Such clever work and reporting! Carry on the excellent works guys I have incorporated you guys to my blogroll. I think it will improve the value of my website.

  80. Beautiful pictures!

  81. I love Chimney Rock! Spent my whole senior year there.

  82. Beautiful stretch of Iowa River. Love this section of the state.

  83. Wow sounds like a crazy long trip.

  84. I have spent most of my life in this area, its truly a beautiful section of the state.

  85. We are heading to Chimney Rock in a few weeks. Our plan is to paddle from the campgrond to Huctchinson campground. it sound like a 4 hour trip. Do you thik=nk this is a good protion of river to explore?

  86. Здравствуйте!Вы уже стали родителями или вскоре планируете стать?Тогда рекомендую Вам ознакомиться с полезной информацией по грамотному выбору детских товаров без лишних переплат

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