Posts Categorized: Driftless Trails

Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation


Photo: Chimney Rock lookout – Courtesy of INHF.

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability,
and beauty of the biotic community.” -Aldo Leopold


By Benji Nichols • Originally published in the Spring 2013 Inspire(d)

Fact: More than 90 percent of Iowa is farm acreage. Not surprising? How about this: Fact: Iowa has more native orchid species than Hawaii. Its true! Rare geologic features and natural diversity – like Iowa’s 32 species of native orchids – exist from the Loess Hills to the Driftless Region. Historic Iowa conservationists like John F. Lacey, Ding Darling, Aldo Leopold, and Ada Hayden have worked hard to keep them alive and present in our region. But with just 10 percent of Iowa land not involved in agriculture, how can we possibly protect these amazing assets?

Thankfully, organizations like the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation have stepped in, shouldering the work of early conservationists by preserving both land and resources in Iowa, as well as the access and use of them.

“The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation works diligently to protect the absolute natural treasures we have in our state and preserves them for tomorrow’s generations,” says Northeast Iowa native and long time INHF board member Kirsten Heine. “This includes remnant goat prairies high above on the Mississippi River bluffs, prairie pot holes in western Iowa, majestic oak savannahs, algific slopes that are home to some of our state’s unique flora and fauna, and in our own neighborhood the beautiful Upper Iowa River. These landscapes tell our ‘Iowa story’ and enhance the overall quality of life.”

Fact: The INHF, as a private not-for-profit group, has secured over 130,000 acres of natural resources in the state.


Photo: Chimney Rock Lookout – Courtesy INHF

Since the early 1900s, people like Iowa Congressman John F. Lacey have worked to implement conservation legislation to preserve wild places – a method that has been built upon and improved by many. But few have accomplished large, permanent preservation like INHF.

“I see firsthand the tremendous efforts of natural resource protection by INHF,” says Terry Haindfield, a Wildlife Biologist with the Upper Iowa Unit of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “Their ability to see the future with and without safeguarding the environmental treasures in Northeast Iowa inspires them to not only protect quality of life experiences for the present but maybe more importantly the forthcoming generations. Their efforts will be admired forever.”

The state of Iowa has come into a fascinating place in time, agriculture, property value, and land use. Despite being one of the most prosperous places to grow corn and soybeans, older farm owners are retiring, while young farm families are stretched to keep up with land values and crop prices. With 65 percent of farmland owned by folks 60 years and older, many young farmers are cornered into pushing conservation aside in the name of higher yields and more tillable land. As agriculture in Iowa experiences these transitions, INHF becomes even more important. They work to permanently protect unique land and resources, and improve land management and bring new conservation ideas and opportunities to the state – all while respecting Iowa’s agricultural heritage.

The entire concept of INHF – preserve natural resources permanently – may seem a little too big and audacious to grasp… until you realize you’ve almost certainly seen or experienced the work of INHF firsthand.

inhfweb“For over 30 years, INHF has been working closely with private landowners and public agencies to protect and restore some of the most scenic and ecologically diverse natural areas in Iowa,” says Brian Fankhauser, INHF Blufflands Program Manager. “For example, protection of a critical segment of South Pine Creek in Winneshiek County that supports the native strain of brook trout, and a 1,000-acre addition to Effigy Mounds National Monument are two of several significant projects INHF has helped complete in recent years for the Blufflands (i.e. Driftless) Region.”

Countless statewide projects range from coordinating large-scale land set-asides to invasive species management like pulling sweet clover or wild parsnip from remnant hill prairies to forestry projects like thinning oak woodlands for regeneration. Summer interns tackle hands-on tasks such as collecting prairie seed that will be used for future restoration projects, constructing fire lines for future woodland prescribed fires, and restoring cold-water trout streams.


Photo: Trout Run Trail – Decorah, by Benji Nichols

Fact: Over the past 30 years, INHF has helped partners create nearly 600 of Iowa’s 1,000 miles of rail-trails.

The ability of an organization like INHF to accomplish such vast goals is in no small part due to exceptional leadership. Longtime (now past) INHF president Mark Ackelson is one of the most well known faces in Iowa preservation in recent decades. One of the many areas near and dear to Ackelson is the work of coordinating, guiding the building of, and promoting the use of hundreds of miles of recreational trail systems. INHF has helped launch such trail projects as the High Trestle Trail, Wabash Trace Nature Trail, Rolling Prairie Trail, to name just a few. The technical expertise and statewide perspective that INHF brings to trail-building projects is one of the driving factors in Iowa’s effort to be known far-and-wide for its trails. It is well worth the time to visit just to see their fantastic interactive map of current trails and trail projects in the state, as well as their “Iowa By Trail” App.

But at its core, the long, steady view of INHF has been to work with private landowners and agencies to permanently conserve land for future generations. Each and every project is different, with the tools and knowledge of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation helping landowners find the right options ranging from easements to donations or sales, to best practices for sustainable land management. It was the great conservationist Aldo Leopold who said, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.” Whether it’s a family donating a piece of land for public use, or a group navigating the intergovernmental agencies involved in making sure over 1,000 acres surrounding Effigy Mounds will never be developed, the work of an organization like the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation is truly never finished. But when the list of projects accomplished looks as long and beautiful as the list of Iowa’s wild orchids, it’s easy to feel like things are headed in the right direction.


Find out more about the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and these great projects at, or by contacting them in Des Moines at: 515-288-1846 or And you don’t have to be landowner to support the INHF mission: Memberships are as little as $25 per year and include a quarterly subscription to the stunning INHF Magazine.


BluffAbout The Author
Through high school, Benji lived with his parents amidst 165 acres of woods and blufflands just above the Upper Iowa River north of Decorah. This property, owned by the Sollien family, was put into a Forest Legacy Program easement in 2005 with the help of INHF. As part of over 2.3 million acres protected nationwide, it will never be anything but trees, bluffs, and wild land. Amen.

Trails of the Driftless Region

Photo by Lauren Kraus

There are tons of great hiking, biking, and walking trails throughout the Driftless Region in Northeast Iowa, Southeast Minnesota, and Southwest Wisconsin. We’ve featured a number of them in Inspire(d) over the past few years, all written by the lovely Lauren Kraus. Check them out here!

Decorah Area Trails: Twin Springs, Upper Ice Cave Hill in Dunning’s Spring Park, and Van Peenen Park

Trails north of Decorah: Pine Bluff and Coon Creek

The Backwoods of Winneshiek County: Bear Creek and Pine Creek Areas

Falcon Springs State Wildlife Area and Lionberger Environmental Preserve

Trails at Lake Meyer (Calmar, Iowa) + Mother’s Day Trail in Decorah

Southeast Minnesota: Root River State Trail and Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail

Effigy Mounds National Monument (NE Iowa)

Kickapoo Valley Reserve (SW Wisconsin)

Map Courtesy Oneota River Cycles

Dam Good Times: Discovering the beauty of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve

By Lauren Kraus

Originally published in the October/November 2010 issue of Inspire(d)

Fall is upon us, whether we like it or not. Personally, I find it’s hard not to love this transition of seasons: from the hot, blistery summer that makes sleeping difficult unless directly positioned under a fan to the cool, crisp autumn with bright blue skies and crackly orange, red, and yellow trees. What’s not to like?

One way to really soak in this gorgeous time of year is to get out for a drive, a walk, anything to see the fall splendor. And I’ve got just the place to check out! The Kickapoo Valley Reserve (KVR) – most definitely a close neighbor in the Driftless Region – roughly 45 miles from both La Crosse, Wisconsin and Lansing, Iowa – making it an easy fall weekend or daytrip destination.

The Kickapoo Valley Reserve is a sweeping 8,569 acres of land nestled in Southwestern Wisconsin between the villages of La Farge and Ontario. Traveling in this part of Wisconsin is breathtaking with winding roads meandering up and over tall bluffs covered in rich woodlands, perfect for leaf-looking and horizon-gazing. I suggest a route that takes you through the quaint town of Viroqua, Wisconsin. Take the time to stop and enjoy some wonderful shops and restaurants. A couple of my favorites are the Viroqua Food Co-op and the Driftless Café – or stop bty Kickapoo Coffee’s roastery and say hello from Inspire(d). Kick back – it’s a leisurely drive, right?

As you continue on the route, don’t be surprised to see colorful roadside stands selling the best of their fall harvest and fresh farm eggs. At the southern entrance to Kickapoo Valley Reserve (KVR) sits La Farge, another picturesque Wisconsin town that is home to the national headquarters of Organic Valley, the largest cooperative of organic farmers in the United States. Be sure to visit in their retail store on Main Street and see what their products are all about.

My own first experience with the incredible KVR was through an adventure race called the Dam Challenge Triathlon – a 7-mile paddle, 14-mile road bike ride and a 3-mile run. It turned out to be quite the endeavor… Let’s just say waking up at 5 am and leaving Decorah early enough to make it for race time was not my idea of a peaceful Saturday morning. My friends came to pick me up on that crisp, October day before the sun was even thinking about making an appearance. We drove the twisting two-lane highway through morning fog toward the Mississippi River, sipping on black coffee and trying to get into race-mode. After crossing the Mighty River, I will never forget turning around in the minivan to look at the sun rising behind us as we climbed the bluffs in western Wisconsin. The Mississippi River Valley was flooded with fog and the bright new sun reflected on the fall-colored maples, oaks, and hickories, creating a fiery glow that has been burned in my memory.

The exhausting race served as an excellent tour of the KVR and surrounding areas. We paddled the clear, cool water, rode through dense valleys of pure Wisconsin farmland, up and over steep ridges, and ran the wooded, rocky trails. I’m convinced it will forever be a favorite place. I love that the area is rugged, full of exposed sandstone outcroppings, a mosaic of green moss, towering cliffs and the narrow, snaking Kickapoo River.

It was officially dedicated under the governing body of the Kickapoo Reserve Management Board in May of 2001. It now boasts a beautiful visitor and education center, many miles of rustic trails for hikers, bikers and equestrians, 25 primitive camp sites including some accessible by vehicle and some accessible only by canoe or hike-in/bike-in, 125 miles of canoeing on the Kickapoo River and opportunities to hunt, fish and trap. Not to mention, the Dam Challenge Triathlon every October. (The 2010 Dam Challenge Triathlon is scheduled for October 2. Sorry, registration is closed, but keep it in mind for next year!)

Upon arrival, make sure to pop in at the beautiful visitor center located on the south side of the area. They offer great information about the Reserve, a detailed history of the area, and employees who can answer questions and give tips as well as maps. You can’t go wrong with any hiking trail or any camping spot, but one of my favorite spots to camp is letter “N”. Set up here and hike on the trail that leaves from the north part of the campsite. This will lead you up a hill and to an area with some steeper climbing and scampering over rocks bringing you to an awesome lookout over the whole valley. There are numerous lookouts on other hiking trails too – it’s easy to find great vistas all over this place. If canoeing is your thing, there are bridges every mile on the river making it easy to get in and out as well as know exactly where you are on the water.

Kickapoo is plum full of potential for pure adventure – all you need to do is get there. The Reserve is accessible from wherever you may be in the Midwest making it an easy weekend expedition or even a Saturday get-outta-town trek any time of year. If you happen to miss the fall-foliage trip-window, or go and love it so much you want to go back, the winter months offer a whole new set of activities with cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and even a Winter Festival in early January. Whatever outdoor liveliness you’re into, the KVR is a stunning place to pay a visit and have a dam good time!

Lauren Kraus loves everything about fall. She plans to spend some good time in the KVR warmed by hot tea and a wool sweater tromping around in the woods or floating in a canoe. The 2010 Dam Challenge is her 3rd and not the last.

Websites to check out: