Most visitors think of the mighty Mississippi when traveling to Allamakee County, the northeast tip of Iowa. They plan around cruising the Great River Road and spending time on the river. Allamakee County is more than just water and the shoreline of Ole Man River. Northeast Iowa, and Allamakee County in particular, is the Driftless at its finest.
For those that have never heard the term 'Driftless Region,' it is an area that has escaped the reach of glaciers. Due to its escape from glaciation, the Driftless Region has a multitude of picturesque bluffs and deeply carved river valleys. The area is roughly diamond-shaped starting just south of the Twin Cities down to Savanna, Illinois and across from Mason City, Iowa to Madison, Wisconsin. In the heart of this sits Northeast Iowa and Allamakee County.
The diversity of the landscape, coupled with the beauty of the Mississippi River, make this area attractive for artists, photographers, hikers, kayakers, fisherman, hunters, tourists and heritage travelers.
The shops and stores found in Allamakee County are in distinct relation to the area's Driftless landscape. One can find many shops with local artwork and photography, much of it done to a very high quality. Additionally, the area's landscape diversity somehow relates to Allamakee County's myriad of interesting and other eclectic shops.
For a countywide shopping trip, grab a map and head up Highway 26 to New Albin. (Hint: pack a cooler and stop in to the famous City Meat Market & Grocery) The second leg of the journey is all about the ride, so find the Upper Iowa River Drive and head west. Enjoy this ride and use your map or GPS to find Dorchester. Enjoy Dorchester for what it is, a small burg tucked into a valley of Iowa's Driftless.
Next up, find your way back to Highway 76 and head south to Waukon. Preplanning on this part of the cruise is key to visiting the Steel Cow and the works of artist Valerie Miller. It's not to be missed, so visit the Steel Cow website and prepare to be impressed!
While in Waukon ask about the Empty Nest Winery and other local treats, shops and restaurants. Many stores and much to see so plan ahead. As you leave Waukon, make sure to get pictures with the giant cowboy and bull on your way out of town.
Onward to the southwest corner of the county and Postville. Visit the shops here and inquire with the locals about must-see venues. Postville stays in step with the area's diversity of bluffs and valleys by having a community with a wide mix of cultures.
Head east on Highway 18 to Monona and turn left on the X26. Take this north to Rossville. Next, set your GPS for Waterville and enjoy the ride through rolling farm fields coupled with bluffs and valleys. Hint: Hidden treasures can be found in both these small towns so some preplanning to research business hours can make it worth the stop.
Head north on Waterville Road and set your GPS for Harpers Ferry, our next stop. Great elevation change as you wind down towards the Mississippi River and Harpers Ferry. Harpers is a peaceful river town with a popular Friday afternoon farmers market.
Next, let's take the Great River Road up to Lansing. This is a superb drive with bluffs on one side and the mighty Mississippi on the right as you meander up to Lansing.
As you round the bend, the expanse of the river will appear with the Black Hawk Bridge set upstream a piece. Lansing has a three-state overlook in Mt. Hosmer City Park that is popular for photo ops. Be sure to check for access availability due to summer 2015 road repairs. Snap some pictures, tour the war memorials or just ponder decades past as you look down at the bridge and the great flowing Mississippi.
Next, head to downtown Lansing and enjoy the shops, galleries and artists. Lansing's Main Street was recently deemed a historic district and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Main Street buildings' character reflects. Horsfalls Lansing Variety Store is known in the region much the way Wall Drug is known in the Dakotas. It should be experienced by all. Hint: Peruse Front Street at the east end of Main for Gracie's Hutch and The Painted Lady. Both stores have riverfront porches to take a breather on and both stores' rolling inventory make them regular stops for most.
This route can be done in a day, but not at the correct leisurely pace. Give yourself a couple of days and enjoy the heart of the Driftless Region, Allamakee County. As with many river or rural towns, shopping is best mid-week, Fridays and Saturdays. Sundays will have a few open signs but less than the day before.
For more info and help with your preplanning, give Allamakee County Economic Development and Tourism a call at (563) 568-2624. Val, Ardie and Terry will be happy to point the way or you can visit their website.
Photo courtesy of Daniel M. Fisher