Old Sixteen Road to Highway 76:
A quintessential Driftless river blessed with swift, riffly water, gorgeous rock outcrops, rolling hills and superb wildlife, that begins in a private campground with RVs and ends at the Mississippi River past Effigy Mounds National Monument.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: May 6, 2014
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Riffles + Class I+
10.3′ per mile first 10 miles (3’ per mile for remaining 7 miles)
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Ion: ht/ft: 6.0 | cfs: 290
Ion: ht/ft: 5.75 | cfs: 127
This is a very recommendable level.
Time: Put in at 12:00p. Out at 5:00p.
Total Time: 5h
Miles Paddled: 16.75
A dozen or more wood ducks, two green herons, many great blue herons, bald eagles galore, lots of killdeer, innumerable geese, three turkeys, a half-dozen turkey vultures, many hawks and one snake (on land at the put-in I nearly rode over on my bicycle finishing up the shuttle).
This trip constituted Part II of my Yellow River exploratory (Part I is located here), although in many ways “part one” should be considered a dress rehearsal for this trip. Once again I took my lead from Nate Hoogeveen’s outstanding Paddling Iowa (although a lot of great ancillary info is found in this official trail guide brochure). Seventeen miles makes for a fairly long daytrip, so perhaps it’s not surprising that there are at least two distinct paddling environments: the upper and lower portions, wherein the former is more rugged with several light rapids and the latter is flatter but takes its time flowing entirely past public lands. This trip, while long, can be broken into shorter segments and is the crown jewel of the Yellow River and ought to be considered a must-paddle for those nearby (or from far away)!
What we liked:
Just like the upstream trip, the water here begins swift, riffly and when not crystal clear, it’s an alluring jade green/aquamarine hue, a common characteristic of blissful Driftless streams. The very first half-mile alone rewards you with exhilarating riffles and short standing waves around many bends with looming, gnarly rock outcrops hovering above. You’ll easily look past and forget about all the RVs at the private campground.* Solid boat control is important as strong currents will often will veer you into rock walls or strainers around tight bends and curves. These are easy to anticipate and steer clear of or portage around. The rock outcrops, swift water and wildlife do not let up for the first 10 miles. It’s simply a truly spectacular paddling experience!
The Iowa DNR states that the Yellow River has the steepest gradient of any “canoeable” stream in the entire state. I would argue that nowhere is this effect felt more than below the Ion Road bridge (incidentally, where the river gauge is located) about 7 miles downstream of the put-in. Here the river drops about 20’ in the next mile. The funnest riffles, rapids and standing waves on this trip are located on this stretch before the boundary of the south unit of the Yellow River State Forest. The moving water is pretty easy to read and handle but you do need to pay attention, of course. Things slow down for the most part after this but the occasional riffle will still come up and kiss your boat.
The bluffs here are just gorgeous, some rising as high as 400’ out of the valley. Unlike typical tributaries of the Mississippi River that bottom out near their confluence, the Yellow River is surrounded by bluffs and uplands til the very end. And whereas Driftless rivers typically course around one bluff then another, the Yellow River offers glimpses of half a dozen bluffs in the near distance with the effect of the landscape resembling something closer to a mountain range than individual mounds. As such, the prettiest scenery on this trip is probably in the second half as you approach the Mississippi River, even though the gradient peters out.
In fact, the lower section is such a gem in its own right you may simply wish to make a daytrip of paddling it alone, without the faster current and rock outcrops upstream. First off, it’s all public land, beginning with the southern unit of the Yellow River State Forest and continuing with Effigy Mounds National Monument (note: You do not see any mounds from the river or the site of a former sawmill that a young Jefferson Davis was appointed to oversee… you know, before becoming president of the Confederacy). Thus, you will see zero development anywhere in the final 7 or so miles of this trip. It lets you slip in a sylvan revelry of utter solitude.
The final 1.5-mile section deserves its own honorable mention. Shortly after you pass the overview on Highway 76, the river veers south and then east before its confluence with the Mississippi. On both banks are flooded fields and bottomlands. This isn’t uncommon for Mississippi River tributaries but I wasn’t expecting to come upon marsh and stands of endless trees knee-deep in the water. It isn’t mentioned in either Paddling Iowa or the Yellow River Water Trail guide. Both merely mention that at the end you will pass under a pedestrian bridge in Effigy Mounds National Monument before seeing the Mississippi River.
I mention it because it constitutes its own distinct paddling environment in such interesting contrast to the rock outcrops and small rapids upstream. Because both the Yellow River was high and the Mississippi River at flood stage, all of the backwater near the confluence made it impossible to delineate where the riverbanks were actually located. Two ponds flank the Yellow River on each side with marshes in between (on the north bank of the river there are at least four ponds in all at the base of the north unit of Effigy Mounds). A paddler could spend all day slowly threading through these backwaters. It’s a pretty scene too, as the bluffs still call the shots and dominate the background.
And yes, at the end you will finally see an attractive pedestrian bridge straddling the river with the Highway 76 and railroad bridges just a couple hundred feet downstream. It’s worth paddling into the Mississippi River for the sheer sake of the previously enclosed world of tucked-away bluffs and valleys, flooded fields and bottomlands and into the wide open of a huge world of sky and water. Seventeen miles is a long time on such an intimate stream as the Yellow River so your eyes take a while to adjust to the magnificent vastness of the Mississippi River. Plus, immediately to the north are two pretty overlooks (Eagle Rock and Fire Point) on the bluff of the Effigy Mounds north unit. It’s a heckuva last huzzah!
Some other options to tailor your trip: There are alternative accesses to shorten this trip, beginning with two rugged spots along Old Mission Drive by the Natural Gait and Ion Inn at the 8- and 9-mile marks for putting in or taking out. Also, there is a pullout along Highway 76 right at the river to take-out which would shave off 2 miles (but they’re pretty miles!). Or for something totally different, you could paddle down the Mississippi 3-4 miles to downtown Marquette to the Highway 18 bridge (there’s a landing at a big island) or in Prairie du Chien on the other side of the river.
*By the bye, I absolutely do not mean to disparage the RV-driving “campers” or owners of Scenic View Campground. In fact, I met and chatted with the owner who sold me some ice at a ridiculously cheap price and went out of his way to look up weather forecasts for me. In terms of proximity to the river, you simply cannot do better than Scenic View Campground. It’s right along the banks of the Yellow River at Old Sixteen Bridge. But it’s almost entirely an RV campground. When I told him I was staying at the Yellow River State Forest, he looked at me puzzled and stated “but that ain’t got nothing up there!” He meant amenities, which is somewhat true. There are no showers, no flush toilets, certainly no game rooms or wifi! But I myself, want to avoid all that crap when camping.
I could write a separate trip report about camping at Yellow River State Forest! But to be concise, let me say this: if solitude, simplicity and scenery are what you seek, then go a little out of your way into the state forest. I stayed three nights at site #104 at the Little Paint campground along the banks of the Little Paint River right at a deep trout pool beneath a gorgeous rock outcropped bluff where I saw a hooded merganser, owls, a woodchuck, blue heron and many eagles, all for $9 a night! (There are two primitive campsites right on the Yellow River in the south unit, but both were closed from recent flooding.)
One quick fun fact about Iowa state parks (and then I’ll shut up and get back to the river): you are permitted to drink beer, provided that it be 5% ABV or lower and wine, as long as it’s 17% or lower (though I’ve never heard of a wine that boozy), but not hard liquor such “whiskey, vodka, etc.” This isn’t posted anywhere (I read about it in the official Iowa State Parks booklet because I’m a curious nerd about such things) and I nonetheless violated the rule with deliciously reckless abandon via Dogfish Head’s Immort Ale, which is considered a barleywine at 11%, so perhaps it’s allowed as not quite a beer or a wine and under 17%. Just the same, it’s amusing to think of rangers coming round your picnic table checking to see the ABV in your beverage!
Postscript: Just a helpful FYI for y’all. Both Paddling Iowa and the Yellow River Water Trail guide refer to a ford in the river that has to be portaged. To quote from Mr Hoogeveen, “you come to a mass of concrete at a farmer’s ford – because of dangerous culvert grates, there’s a mandatory portage on the river-left over the riprap.” Well, I’m here to report that I experienced no such thing. Believe you me, I was on the lookout for such an obstacle which was supposed to be only 3 miles or so downstream from the put-in and became worried that it was taking so long to get there (considering that I’d still have 14 miles to paddle after it). There was one spot of concrete debris on the left bank I saw that may have been the remains of a former ford or culvert but had I not had a reason to be looking for this, I never would have paid it any mind. So my guess is that it’s been removed (thankfully!) since the dates of publication of the book and trail guide. Consider the Yellow River totally free of obstructions (at least as of the date of this post)!
What we didn’t like:
Except for its length and the need to figure out a shuttle (unless you have two cars), there is not a single thing to dislike about this section of the Yellow River. Just be sure you paddle it with enough water (a minimum of 80 cfs) but be careful when it’s high and that you’re a strong enough paddler to handle its twists, rapids, sweepers and strainers.
You’ll hear the sound of traffic from Highway 76 about half a mile upstream from the view of it on the left. It does detract from the scenery and vivid sense of isolation but then again, by this point you’re 16.25 miles into a 17-mile trip when you’re tired, your knees are achy and longing to stand/support the rest of your body. And you’re kind of just eager to be done and at the end, ready to head back to camp and drink beer without fear of tipping over – at least into water!
A word about the bike shuttle: I don’t recommend it. Unless you’re as stubborn or poor as I am, pay an outfitter to drive your ass, you’ll be glad you did. First and foremost, it’s not safe. Most of the 14 miles of the shuttle are on Highway 76, which is a major road with no shoulder and lots of fast cars, trucks and semis. That and you’re climbing some 400’ from the very bottom at the Mississippi River. I often had to stop pedaling and walk into a ditch when I was uphill in a curvy section and heard a vehicle driving up behind me just so that it didn’t have to swerve aside. It was a journey of sorts but one I don’t care ever to do again (thanks anyway). There are two outfitters in the area for shuttling: Bigfoot Canoe Rental and Scenic View Campground.
As for the length, that’s more of a philosophical matter. As a man in reasonably good shape who paddled this the day before turning 37, the trip didn’t tax me physically so much as mentally. Seventeen miles is a lot for the psyche to take in one outing, particularly on a river with such stunning and positively staggering scenery. With such a lengthy journey (and at no point is the foreground or background “so-so” or dull) it’s easy to get greedy and wonder about what’s next without absorbing the present. Better to dwell on and dawdle in that spectacular here and now you happen to be in before it too quickly becomes a there and then back when.
If we did this trip again:
Just like the upstream section of the Yellow River, this trip could well become an annual rite of passage, so much did I love it! But next time I’d use my 9’ crossover kayak, instead of my 15’ touring kayak. And if I had more time I’d break this trip into two sections rather than rush through it in one day.
The semi-official take-out for this trip is 300 yards or so downstream from the mouth of the Yellow River on the Mississippi, but the latter was at flood stage with a lot of debris from upstream bobbing about strong, uncertain currents. I would do this only if you have a car there waiting for you. By contrast, the Highway 76 and railroad bridges right at the mouth offered an easier, safer access, especially if you’re foolish enough (like me) to be doing a bike shuttle (which again, you shouldn’t). Depending on your paddling druthers, 300 yards on the Mississippi River might be too little or just enough to get a taste.
Yellow River I: Highway X16 to Old Sixteen Road
Camp: Scenic View Campground
Camp: Yellow River State Forest
Guide: Northeast Iowa RC&D
Guide: Paddling Iowa by Nate Hoogeveen
Outfitter: Bigfoot Canoe Rental