Kendallville to Bluffton: Tall chalky limestone bluffs towering above clear swift water in an almost entirely undeveloped environment, this section of the stunningly picturesque Upper Iowa River showcases the best of its best rock formations that should be on any paddler’s bucket list.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: May 29, 2017
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Class I
≈4′ per mile
We strongly recommend these levels, although the river could be paddled lower, too. To avoid scrape city, don’t paddle below 200 cfs.
Time: Put in at 11:15a. Out at 4:00p.
Total Time: 4h 45m
Miles Paddled: 16.5
Turkey vultures, bald eagles, geese, swallows, a yellow finch and oriole, deer, beaver, an otter and a woodchuck.
11 miles. Unfit and actually unsafe for bicycle shuttling due to narrow country roads that are crumbling and have no shoulders and/or are dirt-gravel roads, with heavy traffic from farm machinery or trailers shuttling other paddlers. Note: As of 2017, the bridges at Cattle Creek Road and Chimney Rock Road are both closed off and have no slated date yet proposed for being repaired or replaced. On account of this, the shuttle route is presently indirect. The access at Chimney Rock Road (upstream river-right, on the west bank) is still plenty accessible, even if you’re coming from the east; you just can’t drive on/cross over the bridge. As for Cattle Creek Road, the whole thing is gone; all that’s left are the foundations on each bank. This is especially tragic, as the former elegant trestle bridge had wooden planks. They don’t make that kind of bridge anymore… and probably won’t ever again.
This was our second visit to the mighty Upper Iowa River – long overdue after our initial trip there three years ago almost to the day. Sometimes in life you remember something with inestimable nostalgia – it could be a book, a song, a place – only to return to it later on and still appreciate it, but feel less impressed by it. Our second trip to the Decorah area in general and on the Upper Iowa River in particular was not one of these times. Rather, it was just as glorious as the first time. As scenic, as fun, as awesome.
If you’re not familiar with this river, allow us to recap it for just a moment. It’s so impressive that it bears a little redundancy. The Upper Iowa River is the Driftless Area at its prettiest and most exquisite! Clear water, swift current, surrounded by chalky limestone bluffs – some of them 300′ high, some of them sheer-faced and running right into the river, with stands of pine and balsam fir lining their tops. As is mentioned everywhere about this river, it’s on National Geographic’s list of top 100 greatest adventures in America. For good reason. The geology really is just gorgeous. Add to that multiple put-in/take-out choices and virtually zero obstacles to portage, this river is a kind of Mecca for kayakers and canoeists alike.
Right off the bat, the park at Kendallville Park Canoe Access is excellent. Plenty of parking, restrooms, a dedicated boat launch, riffles upstream, and rock outcrops down-. In fact, the rock outcrops are pretty much nonstop for this entire trip. Just a hundred yards or so below the put-in you’ll come across a modest cluster on the left that looks like a giant’s building blocks stacked on top of one another or resting at water’s edge after calving off from above. And then, just at the end of this trip, are the glorious Bluffton Palisades – possibly the most scenic sweep of all the Upper Iowa River. Those are the bookends; in between are riffles, clear water, cliffs, caves, gravel bars, sand bars, forests, pastures, and rock outcrops. For sixteen freaking miles!
Yes, for those keeping score at home (or even care about this), there are pastures. It’s Iowa. It’s the Midwest. But what’s truly remarkable is the juxtaposition. Sometimes the pastures will be on both banks, but usually on only one. And on the other side is some ridiculously gorgeous-awesome rock outcrop, or cliff, cave, weeping seep, or bubbling spring a couple hundred million years old. You’ll see this contrast of terrain and ecosystem in a lot of northeastern Iowa’s Driftless Area. It’s mostly (but not exclusively) limestone that lines the banks and signs the cursive landscape here. It’s crumbly and weathered the way a medieval building’s façade is, much of it layered stack upon stack, stratified shelves of chalky white, gray, cream. That you might hear the incongruous moo from a cow nearby adds to the amusement.
Probably because this is such a popular river – indeed, within this arguably long trip (16.6 miles) lies the most popular segment of the Upper Iowa, which is probably the most popular river in all of Iowa.
After passing a quarry with towering mounds of sand on the left, below the put-in, you’ll come upon a hidden little recess of rocks also on the left that are then followed by the aforementioned building blocks rocks. The valley will open shortly after that, but only briefly. Soon you’ll approach a 30′-tall rock outcrop on the right, then a stretch of steep-banked woods, a taller, showier flank of rock outcrops, and then woods again. It’s a heluva one-two punch. That’s pretty much the pattern for this trip, mile after mile.
W14 is the first bridge (after the immediate one at the put-in) you’ll see at the 3.5-mile mark. Half a mile later, on the right, there’s a very adequate access to the water as an alternate put-in/take-out, located off 303rd Avenue, which is located off Coldwater Creek Road. It’s not at a bridge; it’s more of an easement off the road. Between the bridge and the access are rock outcrops aplenty, now on the left; some at the water’s edge, others towering above you 100′ tall. After the bridge at Coldwater Creek Road, the next glorious “block” of rock outcrops are on the right… and then on the left… and then on the right again. Really, I’m not exaggerating. It’s one after another after thank-you-may-I-have-another? An island or two in this stretch would make for a great overnight camping spot, which is permitted here along public land.
In one of the prettiest sections of this quintessentially picturesque trip the river will turn right in a sharp horseshoe bend, the sweep of cream-colored rock outcrop bluffs on the left just an appetizer for the palisades at the end of the trip. On your right (and left) you’ll see what in Donald Rumsfeld’s impenetrable words one might call “the evidence of absence,” which is to say naught but the concrete abutments to the former bridge at Cattle Creek Road. Only earlier in the month (i.e., May 5th, 2017) the bridge collapsed under the weight of a semi hauling feed that was five times the maximum weight limit of the bridge itself! (See here for a couple truly incredible photos of the debacle.) To say nothing of the stupidity of this inconsiderate act or the annoying inconvenience to drivers who need now to drive long detours to cross the river, the loss of this bridge truly is a tragedy, as it was a historic beauty: almost a full 150 years old, metal trestle and wood-planked. You should be able still to access the river here on river right (the south bank). This is just past the 8-mile mark, or roughly halfway on this trip.
Shortly downstream another towering rock outcrop bluff awaits you on the right. After this, keep your eye on the right, at the base of the bluff itself. There are three – count ‘em, three – springs of wholly unknown origin bubbling from below… or behind… or somewhere. It is truly a fascinating marvel to behold. Underwater cave?
After this the river makes a long northward arc. Approaching the “tip” of its horseshoe-shaped bend, rock outcrops will be exposed again, another extensive line of them, on the left. It’s here you’ll see the photogenic promontory called “Chimney Rock” a little offset from the monolithic wall of rocks. It’s a stunning sweep.
As you head south you’ll approach appropriately named Chimney Rock Road bridge – closed to traffic after flood damage in autumn 2016, but it’s still accessible for paddling purposes; you just can’t drive over it. For point of reference, it was here that we started our trip in 2014. It’s a little muddy, but otherwise convenient. The bridge itself is another wrought-iron trestle type so picturesque in the countryside. This is approximately the 12.5-mile mark. From here to Bluffton are another 4-ish miles.
Below Chimney Rock Road, frisky riffles take you to a short but long wall of exposed rocks lining the right bank. This is followed by a tall row of chalky-white cliffs on the left covered in fir trees. You’ll pass a private campground on the left, foreshadowing what’s to come in Bluffton. A flank of 30′-tall rock outcrops await you on the right, some woods, and a couple great gravel bar picnic spots. Look for fossils along these gravel bars; we found two without looking for them.
After a mile-long straightaway the river will bend to the right, and here on the left you’ll see the iconic image almost always associated with the Upper Iowa River: the Bluffton Palisades, a rippling curtain of limestone from the water to a height of some 300′ above. It’s breathtaking.
After catching your breath, you’ll see the modern bridge at W. Ravine Road. For us, we took out at Hruska’s (pronounced “HUR-ska’s”, fyi) campground, on the right, where there’s a boat launch, since that’s where we rented our canoe. On the opposite side of the river is yet another boat launch for a different campground. Super easy, super simple. We handed off the canoe, walked 20′ to our car and drove away. Like rockstars. Done and done. Seriously, it was so easy – and cheap at $35. Totally worth the price, especially considering the shuttle. Plus, canoeing with another is a lot of fun – and distinctly different than kayaking. There’s just something about the Upper Iowa River that calls out to a canoe especially. Of course it can be paddled in a kayak, too. Any boat you have, really. Hell, a trough or bathtub or kiddie pool would do. But for a river as iconic as this, an old school canoe is a pretty cool way to go.
What we liked:
Um, everything. May I just say “everything” and leave it at that?
For point of reference, the water was still higher than average, but nothing on this trip rated higher than a Class I rapid – of which there were maybe one or two. In general there are lots of sweet riffles. As for the rock outcrops, good lord, one could have an entire website just about them! Suffice it to say that on this trip they are constant. Constant! For 16+ miles! That’s incredible!
Each bridge you paddle under has a sign telling you the name of the road itself as well as how many miles there are until the next bridge. It’s a thoughtful touch. And I might as well mention now that but for two kayakers we passed in the first mile and then a group of five kayakers who passed us as we were taking-out, we had the entire river to ourselves. I don’t know how to best convey how utterly unlikely solitude is on a river as popular as the Upper Iowa, but it’s all but unheard of. True, the weather was kind of crappy. And it was Memorial Day itself, not the Saturday or Sunday of the holiday weekend, which would’ve been crowded. Make no mistake about it: the dreaded Monday morning of a 3-day holiday weekend, be it Memorial or Labor Day, are great times to paddle, if your schedule allows for it. Take advantage of the campsite exodus if you can. (Also, we were able to rent a canoe and be shuttled with no hassle, hesitation, or waiting. It was awesome.)
Truth be told, on this trip we stopped paddling at Chimney Rock Road bridge because we were traveling too fast. The river was higher than normal, the current brisk. Plus a steady 15-20 mph wind was at our back for almost all of this trip. We were cruising, but we didn’t want it to end just yet. So instead we just steered, letting the current and wind whisk us along, soaking up the last of the stunning scenery.
It’s been many said many times before, but the Bluffton Palisades are simply stunning. Iowa, baby!
What we didn’t like:
In terms of the essentials, there’s nothing we disliked! Sure, it was cloudy, windy, chilly and a little sprinkly, but none of that is a reflection of paddling the river. If there is any one thing we don’t like about paddling the Upper Iowa River, it’s the shuttling. As stupendously pretty as this nook of Iowa is, its roads leave many things to be desired. Even the driving can be a little dicey sometimes – narrow, dirt-gravel, potholes, crumbling crack crevices, no shoulders, etc – but it would be just awful on a bicycle. It’s easy to get disoriented here, too, as many of the roads bend and twist through the valleys and hollows, not all of them marked with signage. So expect the shuttle to take a little longer than it normally would. But whatever the minor inconveniences shuttling out here necessitates, it’s oh so worth it while you’re on the water!
If we did this trip again:
We would do this trip again in a heartbeat. And honestly, I don’t think we’d do anything different. Because we rented a canoe at Hruska’s, there was nothing easier or more convenient than taking out right there, sauntering to our car, and driving away back to our campground, no shuttling back and forth. But if we weren’t renting, then next time we’d take out at the Bluffton Road bridge (W20) another mile downstream in order to sweep past the impressive Bluffton Fir Stand State Preserve.
Upper Iowa River I: Chimney Rock Road to Bluffton Road
General: Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation
General: Upper Iowa River Watershed Project
Guide: Paddling Iowa by Nate Hoogeveen
Outfitter: Chimney Rock
Outfitter: Hruska’s Canoe Livery
Outfitter: Hutchinson Family Farms
Outfitter: Randy’s Bluffton Store
Wikipedia: Upper Iowa River