Driftless Adventures -

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: