Do More in the Driftless Region

This geological wonder includes deep valleys and waterfalls in southeastern Minnesota and beyond
Afton State Park
Afton State Park

Aaron Huber/Unsplash

Much of the Midwest’s draw to the outside world is the four seasons, its countless lakes, and other bountiful natural features. But many are unaware of the area’s most unique aspect, one that can only be found in a small corner of the United States. 

The last ice age brought enormous glaciers through what is now the Midwest, but one region was left unscraped and is now referred to as the Driftless Region, named for its lack of glacial deposits, or drifts. (It’s an area that some believe should qualify as a national park, as recently reported by Racket.) To see the beauty firsthand, visit southeastern Minnesota, southwestern Wisconsin, and northeastern Iowa for deep valleys, steep hills, forested ridges, and beautiful stream-fed waterfalls.

A trail in Winona
A trail in Winona

Luke Wass/Unsplash

The Mississippi River also flows through the Driftless Region, creating the nationally designated Great River Road. Exploring the area in any season is recommended, but fall is the optimal time to take in the breathless beauty of the parks, prairies, caves, and other geological wonders.

To begin exploring the Driftless Region, start at one of the most popular spots in Minnesota’s park system, Whitewater State Park. Check out six scenic overlooks along the spring-fed Whitewater River and Trout Run Creek. Hikers, snowshoers, and cross-country skiers can access 10 miles worth of trails, and everyone can take in a show at the park’s amphitheater.

Stand Rock in Wisconsin Dells
Stand Rock in Wisconsin Dells

Ethan Walsweer/Unsplash

Frontenac State Park houses 58 drive-in campsites, two backpack sites, a group campsite, and lots of great spots for a picnic. Multiple trails overlook Lake Pepin and beautifully restored prairie land while a short walk from the main area offers breathtaking views of the Mississippi River.

The Riverview Trail in John A. Latsch State Park is a half-mile hike of more than 500 stairs up Mount Charity, but the reward at the top is worth it: a grand view of the Mississippi River Valley and the Driftless Region landscape.

The geographic wonder that is the Driftless Region contains sights that can’t be seen anywhere else. Pine relicts, for example, are remnants of pine forests that dotted southern Wisconsin more than 12,000 years ago. The Ridgeway Pine Relict near Dodgeville, Wisconsin, is home to white pines that grow in small groups along cool and rocky north-facing slopes. Find the relict via flagged walking points. 

Whitewater State Park
Whitewater State Park

Jacob Kopplin/Unsplash

Wisconsin Dells resorts are well-known getaways in the Midwest, but what exactly is a dell? The dells marking Wisconsin are small valleys, usually surrounded by trees. Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is home to many dells to visit. Take a hike along the National Scenic Ice Age Trail, following the Eau Claire River and cutting through the dells of Eau Claire Marathon County Park. 

In La Crosse, Wisconsin, 3,000 acres of trees make up the Coulee Experimental State Forest, where long-term research is conducted on forest watersheds. This research is used to create sustainable land management practices. The property is also a wildlife habitat and is open to the public for hunting, cross-country skiing, horseback riding, hiking, and more. 

View of Minnesota from Old Settler's Overlook in Genoa, Wisconsin
View of Minnesota from Old Settler’s Overlook in Genoa, Wisconsin

Photo by Olivia Curti

Back in Minnesota, the Rochester area is part of the Driftless Region, boasting the Rochester Plateau and beautiful Blufflands. The two areas take up around 2.6 million acres toward the farthest southeast border of Minnesota, a region of old plateau land covered by loess, a type of sediment. This section of the state is known for large bluffs, valleys with deep streams, and floodplain forests above large, winding caves.

While the aboveground attractions and sights are impressive, especially with fall foliage, the region’s underground caves are a wonder all their own. Mystery Cave was discovered near Preston in 1937 and is Minnesota’s longest cave, stretching more than 13 miles. Visitors can marvel at stalactites, stalagmites, streams, and underground pools. The visitor’s center at Mystery Cave State Park offers guided tours and more information on the region.

 Forget the mouth of a cave—the entrance to Niagara Cave in Minnesota, near the Iowa border, is actually through a sinkhole in the Dubuque Formation, a body of rock that has preserved fossils dating back to the Ordovician Age of 450 million years ago. The cave is home to a canyon alongside an underground stream and waterfall.

Quarry Hill Nature Center, Rochester
Quarry Hill Nature Center, Rochester

Billy McDonald/Adobe

Nearby is Wisconsin’s longest opportunity for underground exploration, Crystal Cave. With about 1 mile of passages, the cave is full of iron ore, quartz crystal, and other deposits. Visitors can putt at an 18-hole mini-golf course or try gem panning when not checking out the educational exhibits about geologic periods and locally found fossils. 

For places to stay while discovering the Driftless Region, Nature Nooks Retreat in Viroqua, Wisconsin, offers cabins and rentals among mowed trails, paved roads, and plenty of room for other activities. Also in the Viroqua area are the Driftless Café, a farm-to-table restaurant that uses the vast bounty of the land, and the Tangled Hickory Wine Bar and Cocktail Lounge. Relax in style at the Westby House Inn, a bed and breakfast located in a historic home with plenty of surrounding stores and restaurants in Westby, Wisconsin. The five-star luxurious lodgings at Kickapoo Valley Ranch near La Farge, Wisconsin, are surrounded by forest and provide a quiet getaway.

The city of Rochester has an abundance of places to stay, restaurants to try, and activities to take part in. Relax at Candlewood Suites Rochester or the Kahler Inn & Suites. Stop for a meal at Chester’s Kitchen & Bar or the Redwood Room. When not exploring the Blufflands or the Rochester Plateau, Quarry Hill Park is a scenic and quiet place for a walk among wildlife and natural habitats. 

The Driftless Region is full of verdant beauty in myriad valleys, prairies, trees, and water features—a visit that, literally, can’t be found anywhere else.