Guest Post: Decorah, Iowa

001 Water Street

It is my honor to bring to the viewers of Puma’s Bluff some information about my favorite town in the Midwest. Below is a list of six must-see parks and a few other tidbits about Decorah that I hope will entice you to traverse the moderate drive down U.S. 52 that takes you directly into this beautiful bluff-laden town. -C.G.


Map for reference


Twin Springs Park. On the west side of Decorah, hidden underneath a curious grove of towering evergreen trees, lies Twin Springs Park. Perhaps the toughest park to locate of the six highlighted parks, Twin Springs is a great and easily accessible example of an artesian well in karst topography…actually two artesian springs within mere feet of each other. Hence the name Twin Springs. Circling up and behind the limited parking is a moderately difficult yet well-groomed hiking trail that takes you from the creek bed to the aforementioned grove of mature evergreens. Finally, don’t be afraid to journey further south on Twin Springs Road, past even where the pavement ends…only two more bends in the road from Twin Springs…to McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita, a gem of a restaurant hidden away from the populace on a quiet country road only minutes from downtown Decorah. I recommend the seafood manicotti.

004 Twin Springs

005 Twin Springs

Twin Springs Park

003 Twin Springs

Twin Springs Park


Stop 2 is Will Baker Park. Known as Pulpit Rock colloquially, this small park’s most prominent feature is the obelisk-like rock formation (known geologically as a “stack”) that stands precariously off of the tip of a small bluff. With a small picnicking area at the parking spot and easy vehicle access there is no reason not to stop and appreciate this natural wonder. A steep yet short climb on impressively constructed steps will quickly take you to eye level with the top of the stack. This overlook allows you to look eastward and over the Upper Iowa River. If you look due east you will see an opposing cliff several hundred yards away. This is a park I will describe later known as Phelps Park.

007 Will Baker

Will Baker Park


006 Will Baker

Steps at Will Baker Park


Stop 3 on our tour: Dunning’s Spring, perhaps the most famous and frequented park in all of Decorah’s parks system. While Twin Springs Park offered a serene pair of artesian wells, Dunning’s Spring’s powerful year round spring flows with ferocity from the base of an 80 foot cliff. Many local “senior pictures” have been taken in front of this majestic spring and waterfall combination. The small park has enough parking to supply demand on most days and there are friendly manmade steps to take you and your companions up to the mouth of the gaping spring. The park also allows for some wading in near-still waters so bring an extra pair of socks! Additionally there is an extensive series of hiking paths up and to the right of the parking area. The trails lead all along the bluff that essentially makes up the northern edge of Decorah often leading to hidden and lesser known overlooks.

008 Dunning's Spring

Dunning’s Spring


010 Dunning's Spring

Dunning’s Spring


Right down Ice Cave Road heading eastward is (surprise) Ice Cave Park. Although on the surface this park may be the least exhilarating, somebody who has as intimate of a knowledge base of Decorah such as myself knows of the secrets hiding behind the actual cave itself. First off the cave is mildly interesting. Bring a flashlight or have a flashlight application ready on your smartphone. The cave only goes about 40 feet in and is not guided in any sense – it’s just for those who want to brave their way into the dark damp depths by themselves. The real excitement awaits those able-bodied enough to work their way up and behind Ice Cave Park.


The area I am about to detail is located above and west of the cave itself. I must take this moment to warn readers that ascending the hillside behind and next to the cave is not an easy task. There are steep, completely un-manicured trails not meant for the general population to ascend. This area is very much inside legal park boundaries and meant to be enjoyed by citizens. For those willing to venture “off trail” awaits a natural playground of cliffside fissures large enough to fit a giraffe, numerous cave vents where one can feel a cool breeze emanating from, limestone cliffs, and even a hidden limestone monolith the size of a small building with a crack in it allowing for an average sized person to summit with ease. Of all of the sights to see within Decorah city limits this is my favorite.

011 Ice Cave

012 Ice Cave

The Ice Cave


The next to last stop on our tour of Decorah Parks to see is number 5: Palisades Park. Continuing east on Ice Cave Road will take you to a four way stop. Straight ahead of you is a dead end road that will lead you to the Palisades Park loop. This park will require the least of you physically but may be the one that costs you the most breath…the breath you will lose taking in the magnificent overlooks provided at Palisades Park. The most walking you will do from the ample parking space is a level 40 foot walk to a cliff’s edge. There are two one-car parking spots before you get to the main overlook area that are worth their own stop if they are unoccupied, too. From any of the vantage points in this park there are great views and photo opportunities as well as an ability to see main street (Water Street) from an elevated position.

013 Pallisades

View from Palisades Park


Our final stop on the tour is my personal favorite park: Phelps Park. It is a large park with bathroom amenities, a playground, and plenty of open spaces for picnics. Couple these benefits with the spectacular overlooks and nature trail. Phelps Park is situated on a cliff’s edge that faces west towards Pulpit Rock. The cliffside overlook is adorned with manmade rock walls and even a small pagoda built exhilaratingly close to the 100+ foot vertical drop over the Upper Iowa River. The manicured trail that leads west from the park descends and meanders through the bluffs and across two very impressive pedestrian bridges tucked away in the hardwood forest. You’re sure to cross paths with busy squirrels and perhaps even spook a deer or two along this trail.

016 Phelps

Phelps Park

There are many ancillary parks in and around Decorah worth checking out too. Malanaphy Springs just northwest of town is an easy but long walk to a remote spring. Upper and Lower Dams are short drives from Decorah. The latter is well worth the rural drive.

018 Eagle's Nest

Eagle’s Nest

017 Eagle

One of the Eagles

The world famous eagle’s nest ( is located next to Siewers Spring State Park, home to yet another scenic and well groomed park with yet another very impressive natural spring as well as a fish hatchery that is open to the public. Decorah is also home to Luther College, a scenic college campus.

019 Siewer's Spring

Siewers Spring

Decorah has recently invested in making their town a bicyclist’s paradise. Along with far-reaching, county-crossing trails connecting nearby towns, Decorah now has a very impressive intra-city trail system. With old trails connecting new ones and pedestrian trails repurposed as multi-use trails and the addition of a couple of impressive bicycle bridges, one could conceivably hit all of the aforementioned parks from their hotel without the use of internal combustion engines but with foot power instead.

021 Bike Bridge

Bridge on the Bike Trail


Most people, when asked about what they think of Iowa, will simply reply with something along the lines of “flat, filled with corn.” Let Decorah shatter your perception of Iowa and cement its place as a jewel of the Driftless Area.

020 Canoe


For more about the Driftless Area, check out Landscapes of the Driftless Area, and thanks for reading!

Effigy Mounds National Monument

In early July, my grandparents took me on a day trip to the Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa. This would involve a long drive down the Mississippi (which I talked about a little bit in my post Landscapes of the Driftless Area), passing through scenic river towns on the way. We would go there, hike one of the two major hiking paths, and drive back.

Effigy Mounds National Monument preserves more than 200 mounds built by prehistoric Native Americans, with shapes ranging from lines and slightly raised domes to representations of animals such as bears and birds. More information on the specifics is available on their website. We wanted to hike to the South Unit, which has more of the bear and bird mounds clustered in one area.

Effigy Mounds South Unit Sign

When it is this late in the summer people have to go up to the mounds and mow around them, or they don’t stand out amid the tall grass. They are just a few feet high. We didn’t know for sure until we got there if they had mowed the grass at the South Unit or not, but luckily they had. It was a comfortable day, warm but not too hot, so we could hike without worrying about getting overheated. It was also a very quiet day there. We did not see one other person on the hike, so the whole time was peaceful and secluded.

Hiking Trail


It was a 2 mile hike out and 2 miles back, making our way up to the top of a bluff, and as we went we came to some open areas like this surrounded by sumac (which grows much larger down here). The path was wide and pretty good quality. Apart from the carefully maintained path, with the sense of seclusion we had from seeing no one else this felt like we were out in the wilderness.

After hiking for awhile (and stopping to look at various insects and plants we weren’t familiar with) we were nearing the mounds. We came to an open area with only scattered trees, with thick growth off to either side. It felt like a place to relax, like a city park at the end of this long path, and stretched out among the trees were the mounds.

Marching Bear Mounds


Here are the Marching Bear mounds. The mounds were very difficult to photograph, even though in person you could clearly make out the shape of the bears. This is a line of, I think around six, mounds representing bears. They connect up to the first bear mounds you see, a circle of four, and they lead to the final two bird mounds.

The first bird (near the circle of bears) was large, so I could not find any angle to photograph it from. It was visually impressive though. Particularly interesting was that it was pointed directly at an overlook of the valley below. If you stand behind it, it looks like the bird would fly out over the valley.

I do have a picture of one of the second bird mounds that turned out decently.

Bird Mound


The closest part of the shape is the birds left wing tip, the next prong to the right of the overall shape is the birds tail, and in the distance you can see the right wing, with the head being the point to the left of the image.

We spent at least an hour just wandering around the mounds and observing the area. There were many walnut shells on the ground, and some fresh walnuts that were aromatic when cracked open. I also have a picture of one of the Linear Mounds, with my grandfather all the way at the end of it for scale.

Linear Mound

Eventually we had to get going, so we headed back, but did want to go off to an overlook we noticed on the way up, to Founder’s Pond.

On the way to the lake overlook

Founder's Pond

This was really a beautiful overlook, and it highlights the terrain of the region nicely. Apparently ponds are rather rare around here though, because the soil is so well drained.

There isn’t much more to talk about past this point, we had a nice walk back to the car and then a long but scenic drive back home.

If you want to learn more about the Effigy Mounds, pull up the link from above: Effigy Mounds National Monument and if you would like to learn more about the Driftless Area, the geological area the Effigy Mounds are in, you could read my post that has a lot of links to locations in the Driftless Area: Landscapes of the Driftless Area





Landscapes of the Driftless Area

The Driftless Area is a region of primarily Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa which did not experience glaciation in the most recent glacial period. This means that, in contrast to the rest of the Upper Midwest (except areas around the Great Lakes which have hilly terrain) it has a large amount of bluffs and deeply carved river valleys. It is generally located in Southeast Minnesota, in cities such as Red Wing and Winona; in Southwest Wisconsin; Northeast Iowa; and a little bit of Northwest Illinois. It extends down the Mississippi River into Iowa. The map below, from the Driftless Area Restoration Effort, shows its extent.

The Driftless Area harbors some unique ecosystems, such as the Algific Talus Slope (a fascinating read, this ecosystem only occurs here). On a day trip to Effigy Mounds National Monument, which is located in the heart of the Driftless Area in Iowa, there were some great opportunities for landscape shots.

On our way down, we stopped in Winona, Minnesota, to look at the Garvin Heights Scenic Overlook. It was a nice, quick stop with only a short walk to these vistas. The first picture is looking north, back the way we came down. The second is looking south, on towards Iowa. And, there is one there that shows part of the city.

View North from Winona


View South from Winona




River Bluffs

I took this from the car, I am unsure if it was in Minnesota or Iowa, I suspect Minnesota.

Large Bluffs

The Mississippi is very wide down here, punctuated with countless islands.

Rural Scene

I cropped this picture down a lot, hence the funny shape. I think this was in Iowa, on our way back.

We visit areas in the Driftless Area fairly often, normally Red Wing. These photos highlight the terrain further south, and capture some of the overall feeling of the Driftless Area. We were constantly bordering the Mississippi, so it was fun to pass through the small river towns on our way down. I will get a post up sometime on the Effigy Mounds as well, it was a very nice place to visit.

While reading about the Driftless Area, I found an interesting organization called the Driftless Rivers National Park Foundation. Their goal is to establish a large national park in the Crawford County area of Wisconsin, which would preserve part of the Driftless Area and provide a nearby National Park for the Midwest. I don’t know about the underlying politics and ramifications of that, but it is a neat idea, and their website does have a lot of information on the Driftless Area if you want to read more.

Another website you could visit to support and learn about the Driftless Area is the Driftless Area Land Conservancy.

Here are just some of the many attractions in the Driftless Area.




If you know somewhere else that should be in the Driftless Area attractions list, let me know in the comments and I will add it!