Chaffie Hollow Road to Potosi Point Recreational Area:
The final miles of the Grant River to its confluence-kiss at the Mississippi River, this trip has fewer rock outcrops and slower water than the two more popular trips upstream, but it’s abundant in rolling wooded bluffs, clear water, a couple riffles in the beginning, outstanding wildlife, and the wild and reckless merging onto the Big Muddy. Admittedly a long day trip, this won’t appeal to most paddlers. But for intrepid souls and those who’ve already paddled the spectacular upstream sections of the Grant, this trip offers plenty of rewards in its own right.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: May 11, 2020
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
≈ 3′ per mile at the beginning, then ≈1′ towards the end.
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Burton: ht/ft: 6.28 | cfs: 260
Burton: ht/ft: 5.40 | cfs: 175
We recommend this level. Water levels are usually reliable.
Time: Put in at 11:45a. Out at 4:05p.
Total Time: 4h 20m
Miles Paddled: 14.5
Bald eagles, pelicans, trumpeter swan, turkey vultures, hawks, green heron, songbirds galore, mink, two otters, beaver, painted turtles and a leatherback turtle.
12.25 miles. Not great for bikes, but no horrendous either. Vehicles preferred, however.
Chances are good that you already know about the Grant River. We’ve written about our experiences on it a couple times (including whole revisions from our very first experiences), plus there’s a lot of info on it in other blogs, books, etc. Most of these concentrate on the 20 miles between Shortcut Road and Chaffie Hollow Road, which is completely understandable since that is arguably the prettiest stretch of the whole river. As we’ve confided on this site, we’re river completists, often seeking to link one section to another, exploring obscurities both up- and downstream the mainstream. We’ve long wondered about the Grant River below Chaffie Hollow Road, roughly 14 miles until its confluence at the Mississippi River. Lots of Mississippi tributaries will flatten out in a sprawling backwater long before their mouths, and the Grant is not necessarily an exception. But it does remain ruggedly hilly until the end, which intrigued us.
It’s also become a de facto birthday destination trip on three occasions in the last five years. Make a wish, Grant a wish. There’s something just exquisitely perfect about paddling in the Driftless Area in mid-spring, when the air is still cool but the sun feels truly warm for the first time, the trees are beginning to bud but the bluffs behind them are still visible. The long lockdown of winter is over, and life burns anew with a flaming resurgence.
A few years ago, we paddled an impromptu trip on the Grant from Camel Ridge Road to County Road N, a fun junket to allow for some of the best geology before Chaffie Hollow (including that awesome overhang/seep) and also some of the beguiling unknown after Chaffie Hollow. Trouble is, County N is not a truly viable access (although it can be done in a pinch), and then there’s nothing for the next 8.25 miles until the next bridge at Highway 133 (which also is not truly viable – and, frankly, by that point you might as well venture another two miles to the Mississippi, right?).
But we love to explore the obscure, especially when it also involves completing a link AND being gifted a birthday wish/tradition to paddle the Mississippi.
The land along the river at Chaffie Hollow Road is fairly vast, and there really is no designated, specific area to put in at. Basically, launch a boat wherever it makes sense on the upstream side of the bridge on river-left. (That said, see “Didn’t Like” below.) Gorgeous clear water and riffles to keep you giggling await you right away. So too do wooded bluffs, small islands to braid the river into side channels, and handfuls of attractive rock outcrops. It’s a very auspicious way to begin a long trip.
Like so many rivers in the Driftless Area, you’re never far away from farm fields. Indeed, you’re often paddling cheek-by-jowl. But the consolation prize at least is that just as often it’s a 50/50 split – meaning, on one side is a monotonous sprawl of industrialized cropland of corn or soybeans, but on the other are trees, ravines, springs, natural features. The paddler’s equivalent of glass half-full or -empty. It reminds me of something H.L. Mencken once penned: “All men are frauds. The only difference between them is that some admit it. I myself deny it.” And I myself deny dwelling on homogenized, subsidized agriculture.
After three-and-a-third miles the bridge at County Road N appears, and it’s a doozie of a view, for just behind it, downstream, is a towering bluff, a quintessential scene in the Driftless. It’s roughly around this point that the river will widen, get deeper, siltier, and slow down. I hear what you’re wondering: but isn’t there another eleven miles to this trip? Yes, yes there are. We don’t always paddle places with somewhere else to be or something else to do afterward… Sometimes what you do is just paddle, period. That’s what you did that day. Something to consider.
The river continues to be a case in point of Driftless dichotomy: on one side is bludgeoned totalitarian agriculture, squeezing out as many ears of corn as a vice grip can no matter how much soil gets eroded in so doing, while on the other it’s all steep banks leading to wooded bluffs and who knows what wonders embedded in the hillside. You’re playing the long game here, teasing out the finality of a beloved river. A couple miles here, a couple miles there – after awhile it all begins to blend in… especially if-and-when the current slows to a crawl and you have to paddle vigilantly. But when you’ve given yourself all day to just saunter around meanders and hollers, it truly is all about the journey, not necessarily the destination. That said, the wildlife was wonderful for us – and likely is in general – so at no point were we bored. It was the first time Scotty and I had gotten together to paddle in over a month, so we had a lot to catch up on.
Soon enough, past a couple farm buildings and whatnot, you’ll see Highway 133. At this point, you’ve lost all current – but not hope! So, keep on keeping on.
Below the highway bridge you’ll begin seeing signs for the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge, which is pretty cool to think about that you’re now in after miles of John Deere entrapments. After some bottomlands and what we dubbed “beaver boulevard” (given the audacious display of teeth-tapered stumps), you’ll come upon a railroad bridge that runs parallel to the river, a subsequent harbinger of trade and commerce in the history of American commodities and capitalism. (We missed timing the train passing over us by 10 minutes!) On the upstream side of the bridge, river-left, are two attractive aesthetics: a caged retaining wall of fairly epic proportion, and above it exposed sandstone outcrops on a bluff. On the downstream side of the bridge the river splits in two: the right channel is shorter and free of obstacles; the left is… well, we don’t know because we went right. Actually, Scotty had been on this part of the river before and he recommended going right, as the left channel was poxed with obstructions.
Before you know it, you’ll see Iowa on the other side – even before you discern the feint outlines of the Mississippi itself. But as you get closer to the confluence, boy howdy! – the big river can look like a conveyer belt of moving water perpendicular to the Grant itself feebly adding its volume to the near oceanic mega stream. Honestly, the effect is awesome! On the one hand, it’s just cool-as-hell to get on the Mississippi River A) at all, B) by way of naturally entering it from one of its gazillion tributaries. But there’s seriously just nothing like the Mississippi. Nothing. It’s so huge and vast and unwieldy and temperamental and fundamentally historic and quintessentially Americana. Any dip into it is worth the effort. But to do so naturally via a tributary stream and then continue on for even one mile, let alone more, is inexpressibly magnificent. Turn left, head downstream, and hope that the wind is favorable. (For us, mercifully it was – at our backs even.)
On your left is a quaint undeveloped bay where, dollars to donuts we’re willing to bet you’ll see a flock of pelicans. Around that point and jutting southward, towards Iowa, is a spit of land called Potosi Point Recreation Area. There’s a modest fee ($3) to leave a vehicle. It’s probably for motor boats and the like, but who knows? We don’t like being ripped off, but we no less don’t want to come off as cheapskates or freeloaders. Besides, five bucks is a bargain to ride the Mississippi. We landed our boats on the north-facing side of the spit, near where we left a vehicle.
What we liked:
The first segment of this trip (Chaffie Hollow to Highway N) is arguably the prettiest. If nothing else, it’s the most reminiscent of the essential Grant River trips that paddlers will be most familiar with found upstream. The clear water with that classic jade green hue in deep pools, the riffly current, the undulating bluffs with rock outcrop wiles – it’s a truly beautiful stretch. For paddlers who already know and love the Grant but have wondered what it’s like further downstream, Chaffie-to-N offers a very pleasant sense of continuity.
At 8.25 miles, the next segment (N to Highway 133) is the longest and certainly long enough to merit its own trip under ordinary circumstances. It’s always fun to explore new places, even if they don’t necessarily pan out as hoped for or simply result in fool’s gold. It’s predominately ag country down here, but the valley remains deep and sweeping.
For me personally, I loved the wild unknown of the final segment (Highway 133 to the Mississippi). The backwater sloughs and bottomlands of the Mississippi River – anywhere on the upper river – are just enchanting haunts, a veritable border between the developed world and a primordial plane, between trains and barges, commercial lanes, railroad tracks, and roads. It’s been said before that the soul of the Mississippi River is found in its backwaters, not the mainstream. I can attest that it’s a positively empowering, overwhelming, just awesome experience to have spent several hours on one river that opens up to the mighty Mississippi and then continue onto that quintessential stream of Americana lure, in all its beauty and braun.
So, while a long day on the water, to begin in the beguiling wiles of the Grant at Chaffie Hollow and then end up in the grandeur of the Mississippi – this trip makes for a pretty epic experience.
What we didn’t like:
This was my fourth time at Chaffie Hollow Road bridge/landing in something like eight years. Unlike in the past, there was a nasty sign – two signs, actually – posted in no reticent fashion stating in no uncertain terms that the area was private property and not a public access, that trespassers would be prosecuted if they did not first receive permission and signing a waiver. Problem is, permission from whom? There was no name or number. And what’s this about a waiver? Deep sigh… We hate this BS. It’s a sliver of land along a river next to a bridge. Why all the hassle? Fear of litigation, that’s why. But, come on!
Spoiler alert: we did launch from the banks here, relying on asking forgiveness, not permission. But we did so quickly and traceless, and left one of our cars far away from the bridge (although a Subaru with a roof rack and bumper stickers parked near a bridge is a pretty dead giveaway that it belongs to someone paddling on the river).
That’s the main complaint; the rest is nitpicking. For a nearly 15-mile trip, most of the rock outcrops and riffles appear only in the first few miles. After County N things start to feel subdued. But it’s wrong to criticize something for what it lacks, especially if that’s in comparison to other sections and previous experiences upstream. Nothing should be defined by what it isn’t or doesn’t have, and rivers are no exceptions to this. The slack-to-nonexistent current towards the end isn’t exactly desirable, but it wasn’t surprising either; that’s generally a truism for any tributary, but especially those of the mighty Mississippi.
If we did this trip again:
Frankly, this was more of a one-and-done exploration, something I’d been curious about for years. Now that it’s out of my system, I can’t really say I’d do it again. That said, I surely wouldn’t talk another out of doing it; but I would want to make sure they’d already paddled the upstream Grant first.
I’d be remiss if I kept the following to myself. When our friend, Rachel, and I paddled the aforementioned Camel Ridge Road to County Road N trip, we not only had a wonderful time, but ended up with a great story. The plan was that I’d do a bike shuttle, since it was just the two of us in one car. Trouble was I packed the wrong set of keys for my bike lock (which, to make a long story short, I didn’t realize until we were done paddling and I was ready to ride). Even though the original plan was for Rachel to hang out by the boats while I bike-shuttled, now with the shuttle off the table, it just made sense for Rachel to join me on the long damn walk back to the car. Road to perdition. Or humility. So, we started, but before we made twenty paces a friendly fellow in a pickup truck who lives in the farmhouse off Highway N comes up to us and asks us if we need a ride. Well, as stubborn and self-determined as I am, I sure as hell wasn’t going to turn that offer down. This angel gave us a ride back to my car and refused to take money for his time, gas, and inconvenience. He did, however, accept a cold beer from my cooler! It was just one of those simple acts of random kindness, but it meant the world to me and has stayed with me now for four years.
Miles Paddled Video: