Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Camping the Iowa Driftless Region in My Airstream Basecamp

Pulpit Rock Campground, Decorah, Iowa; Airstream Basecamp
Arriving at Pulpit Rock Campground
With the windshield wipers futilely slapping at the deluge of rain, I'm driving at 25 miles per hour on a country road to visit a city campground at Kendalville, near Decorah, Iowa. The storm was so severe that I was truly having trouble seeing my path, yet the county road fell off on both sides without a chance to pull off. Welcome to the Driftless Region, I told myself, and was at least happy that my Airstream Basecamp was safely back at Pulpit Rock Campground in Decorah, and that I wasn't towing the narrow road, pulling the travel trailer, imagining myself Noah with his ark.

The Driftless Area in northeast Iowa was missed by the last glaciers, so the area is more hilly than much of the Midwest. The entire Driftless Area extends beyond Iowa, capturing parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and a bit of Illinois. Wikepedia describes the area as follows: "Never covered by ice during the last ice age, the area lacks the characteristic glacial deposits known as drift. Its landscape is characterized by steep hills, forested ridges, deeply carved river valleys, and karst geology with spring-fed waterfalls and cold-water trout streams. Ecologically, the Driftless Area's flora and fauna are more closely related to those of the Great Lakes region and New England than those of the broader Midwest and central Plains regions."

Bluffton Road, near Decorah, Iowa
Bluffton Road

Bluffton Road, near Decorah, Iowa
My eight days of camping in the Driftless certainly highlighted the unique beauty of this area. I did finally make it to Kendalville Park and Campground, the rain slackening enough so that I could make a quick walk around the campground and providing a chance for the rain-drenched ground to soak my sneakers. On the way back to camp, the rain stopped so I turned onto Bluffton Road, which eventually narrowed to gravel and even a one-lane bridge. It was a great drive, and I saw several private campgrounds along the road that I would have checked out except for the continuing possibility of more rain. 

Pulpit Rock Campground
Trout Run creek at Pulpit Rock Campground
Pulpit Rock Campground
Pulpit Rock, a short hike from the campground

Pulpit Rock Campground
Camping at Pulpit Rock Campground in Decorah was enjoyable. I would call it more of an urbanright at the edge of Decorah, campground, even though the area is rural. The campground is skirted by US Highway 52, right at the western edge of town, so road noise is a reality. It's a busy city park and campground with a trout stream running through. I chose the park to be my basecamp for four days, and from there I'd take day trips in my car to see more of the area. I wasn't disappointed; the campground provided me with exactly what I needed. Decorah is a town of over seven thousand people and hosts Luther College. It has a progressive vibe, and there's quite a bit of refurbishing going on in the downtown area. During my four nights there, I was able to familiarize myself with the campground, hike a bit to Pulpit Rock, which is just beside the campground, and to set up my folding Montague Allston bicycle and ride about half of the 10.5-mile paved bike trail that circles the town. If I owned a kayak or canoe, I could have navigated the Upper Iowa River that runs through the town. It's a beautiful town and area, with many recreational opportunities, including a Farmers' Market, which I didn't get the opportunity to visit.

Yellow River State Forest, Little Paint Campground
At Little Paint Campground

Yellow River State Forest, Little Paint Campground
One day trip that I was eager to take was a long-awaited trip to Yellow River State Forest. A forest in the Driftless Area with only primitive camping, I wanted to camp for at least a couple of nights there, enjoying one of the greatest forested areas in Iowa. The Iowa DNR website describes the forest as "home to stunning views, beautiful woodlands and meandering trout streams." Irresistible! However, with heavy rains followed closely by a heat wave, I chose after all to resist the lure of the forest. The humidity would have been extreme, and the primitive, non-electric campsites would have disallowed the use of air conditioning. I'm either getting too civilized with my Airstream Basecamp or getting too old--or both! At any rate, I plan to visit again in the early fall. I'm sure the colors will be spectacular then. I found Little Paint Campground to be especially beautiful, with its trout stream and two shallow fords to get to some sites.

The sculpture "Walking with Birds" on the Trout Run Trail in Decorah, Iowa
"Walking with Birds" sculpture on Trout Run Trail

Pulpit Rock Campground, Decorah, Iowa; Trout Run Trail
Upper Iowa River, with the ribbon of bike trail
Pulpit Rock Campground, Decorah, Iowa
Downtown Decorah, Iowa
"That camper of yours has been causing a lot of talk," the camp attendant told me as he and a co-worker cruised by in their John Deere Gator. Explaining the history of the unit, I asked about Trout Run Trail that crosses the park, and the attendant mentioned that I should get going to beat the rain. I headed out on my bike ride in the morning because rain was expected that afternoon. The trail is pavement or blacktop and is well maintained. It was a beautiful ride with just a cooling breeze and enough clouds to keep the day cool. Quite a bit of the part of the trail I road skirts the Upper Iowa River, so lush trees were on one side and the sparkling river of the other. One characteristic of the Driftless Area is that the creeks and rivers are not muddy, the bottoms gravel and sand. Of course, after heavy rain, the water flow did become murky. As I traveled along, I noticed the build-up of dark, roiling clouds, so the last twenty minutes of my ride was a "cardio" experience as I spun back to camp to miss the rain. I arrived before the rain, put the bike away, and took a nap, waking up to heavy winds and rain. Later I found out that there was a tornado watch, but Decorah just received strong gusts of wind. I was glad that I'd taken down my awning, though. 

Pulpit Rock Campground, Decorah, Iowa; Airstream Basecamp
At Pulpit Rock during a heat wave, awning up for some shade
I stayed at Pulpit Rock on Sunday through Wednesday nights, but the campground was still busy even though it wasn't the weekend. With no reservation, my arrival on Sunday afternoon still allowed me to capture a campsite; however, that may not have been the case on a weekend. Decorah was a perfect place for me to situate myself for exploring the local Driftless Area. I could have spent more time and discovered more, but after four nights, I packed up and moved south a bit to Backbone State Park--but that will be another post!

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