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Iowa can be summed up to two distinct areas, the Driftless Area and everything else. During the last glacial retreat over 10,000 years ago, glaciers bypassed a small area within 4 different states. Glaciers act like bulldozers carrying soil, cobble, and even car sized boulders and those effects are what caused Iowa and much of the Midwest to be flat, featureless, and covered with fertile soil. This area where glaciers missed wasn’t filled with the glacial drift, leaving the topography in its prehistoric form, characterized by deep forested valleys, Karst stone (porous limestone or sandstone), steep rocky bluffs and outcroppings, and thousands of cold freshwater springs. The lack of glacial drift gave the name ‘driftless’. There are many types of fauna and flora that are only found in this small region.

The characteristics of this area make it one of the best and most beautiful place to kayak, camp, and recreate, anywhere in the state of Iowa. The Driftless Area is about 24,000 square miles spread within the corners of 4 states and almost all of the rivers and streams within are almost totally crystal clear. Fishing here is absolutely amazing and the water is clean and cool enough to sustain naturally reproducing brown trout, walleye, smallmouth bass, and other species of warm water fish who make their way up from Mississippi River. The watersheds in this area are generally small and flash flooding is very common after summer thunderstorms. My dad and I were caught in a particularly bad flash flood while camping at Yellow River State Forest. Some rivers would remain swollen and turbid for weeks but these small rivers and streams usually clear up within a few days.

Kayaking Iowa’s Scenic Driftless Area

The main Driftless rivers in Iowa are the: Upper Iowa, Turkey, Little Turkey, Yellow, Volga, and the Maquoketa River, along with hundreds of spring fed cold water streams. The most noteworthy being the Upper Iowa and Yellow River. The Yellow River is Iowa’s fastest flowing river and has trout populations of almost 2,000 trout per mile in some areas. The Yellow is also Iowa’s only designated Scenic Waterway. The majority of all those rivers are designated water trails with easily accessible access at some of the more popular areas. Although these rivers are designated water trails, many have very little paddle traffic leaving huge stretches totally available to paddle without running into everybody else. I rarely ever seen anybody floating the same stretches that I float. Access at some areas can be difficult but nothing too challenging for someone with experience river fishing.

I highly recommend kayaks such as the Bite and Coosa’s due to their maneuverability in these small rivers. It’s common to come across sweepers and other dangerous areas where portaging is about the only safe way to pass. The grab handles on both ends of the Bite make it super convenient to haul over some of these obstacles. The internal storage of the Coosa’s make it super easy to fill with dry bags, small coolers, and fishing gear. There are few classed rapids in Iowa and a few of them are located in the Driftless.

We are very fortunate to have such a wonderful area, and I highly recommend making it to Iowa to paddle its amazing Driftless Area.
You will not be disappointed with the beautiful scenery and the midwestern hospitality. If you have questions about the area, feel free to message me on Facebook and I will try to help as much as I can.

Tight Lines!

-Tanner Speidel

Here’s some of the highlight footage from 2022: