The Upper Iowa River has multiple personalities.
The 156-mile river begins at the headwaters near Mankato, Minn., and winds through many untouched canyons and meadows in northeast Iowa before draining into the Mississippi River. More than 110 miles are accessible by canoe, kayak or tube.
In the spring, the river is fast. Salmon and white columbines accent the limestone cliffs. Wildlife, including deer, heron, eagles, king fishers and gold finch, are abundant.
The river becomes a lazy float in the summer, perfect for tubing and taking in the dramatic views while cooling down in the spring-fed river. Smallmouth bass and trout fishing add adventure to the trip.
In the fall, the river valley is painted with the changing colors of old growth trees, including ash, maple and massive oaks. Traffic on the river is slow, and isolation allows for an intimate encounter with one of the Midwest’s most scenic rivers.
Access to the most scenic stretch between Kendallville and Decorah, Iowa, about 80 miles north of Waterloo, is made easy by four outfitters. It includes 31 miles of mostly untouched canyons highlighted by limestone cliffs, palisades and waterfalls of cold springs.
The most popular route is a 15-mile stretch between Kendallville and Bluffton. Limestone rock formations rise high above the river for much of the stretch, and cold springs pour into the river in dramatic fashion.
“We had no idea how beautiful Iowa would be,” said Connie Thomson Bass of New Jersey, a staff member at the Discovery Channel. “The scenery was picturesque and the river fun and relaxing.”
The river is wide enough to skirt hazards, making it a great river for a family adventure.
River trips are a vacation budget saver. Numerous camps offer tent and RV camping for as little as $20 a day, and canoes and kayaks can be rented for $25 or less per person. Tubing the river brings access to the clear waters and spectacular views for less than $10.
“Coming from the East coast, everything felt not just reasonable, but cheap,” Thomson Bass said.
Decorah is about a six-hour drive from the Omaha area. That’s about the same distance to the Niobrara and Dismal rivers in Nebraska.
Dwayne Hruska, owner of Hruska’s Canoe Livery, started outfitting in the Kendallville area 43 years ago with three canoes. He now outfits canoe, kayak and tube trips from April 1 to Nov. 1 and hosts a campsite in Bluffton, giving visitors the convenience of canoeing into a riverside camp.
At 69, Hruska still moves like a 30-something, but with a lifetime of stories on the river for entertainment on drives to river access areas. He’ll keep doing the job until his health fails, he said while lifting a sturdy canoe single-handedly.
“I went from the Ho Chi Minh trail to the Upper Iowa River and have been here since,” said Hruska, a veteran of the Vietnam war. “People don’t associate the dramatic views on the river with Iowa.”
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