A Brief Introduction to the Driftless Area

I-90 Crosses the Mississippi

The Driftless Area: 16,200 Square Miles of Awesome

A significant portion of the Earth Day celebrations in the region will focus on the fact that we live in the Driftless Area. The Driftless Area is a unique geological region that spans four states and covers a little over 16,200 square miles. Traveling to the northernmost part of the Driftless Area we would find Menomonie, Wisconsin. Going southward we could find ourselves in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and still be in the Driftless. West? The Driftless stretches to Mason City in Iowa and Austin in Minnesota. To the east the Driftless reaches Baraboo, Wisconsin. The northwestern tip of Illinois is also part of the region.

Economically diverse, the region is well-known for agriculture, forestry, dairy farms, cheese production, winemaking (the Upper Mississippi River Valley American Viticulture Area is the largest designated winemaking region in the country and encompasses the entirety of the Driftless Area), year-round outdoor recreation, fishing, and hunting. The largest city entirely within the Driftless Area is our very own La Crosse, Wisconsin.  

A Distinct Lack of Glacially Deposited Drift

Driftless? We get way more than our share of drifts! That’s true, if you’re talking about snow drifts. Although the story of the Driftless Area revolves around ice and snow, the word “drift” means something quite different in this context. The word “drift” in the name “Driftless Area” refers to material left behind by glaciers such as clay, silt, boulders, and rocks. Long story short, this region has not experienced glacial activity in recent times. I do mean it’s a long story. This area hasn’t experience glacial activity within the past 500,000 years according to Wikipedia. No glaciers means no drift. Hence, driftless!

Features of the Driftless Area

The Driftless Area is characterized by deeply cut river valleys (including the Mississippi River Valley), densely forested hills, bluffs that can reach 600 feet in height, wetlands, hilltop prairies, winding roads, and rolling farmlands. Books are – and have been – written about the Driftless Area’s unique geological properties and ecological diversity. One of those unique geological properties is the Kickapoo River Valley.

The Kickapoo River flows through the heart of the Driftless Area from its sources near Wilton, Wisconsin. A popular canoeing river and trout fishing destination, the Kickapoo empties into the Wisconsin River at Wauzeka, Wisconsin. Twisting and turning, the total length of the river is 125 miles despite its source and mouth being just 60 miles apart. That’s not even the coolest thing about the Kickapoo. This river system is considered the oldest river system in Wisconsin and some argue it could be one of the oldest in the world. How so? The Kickapoo River and the bulk of its contributory system has never been altered by glacial activity or by significant human interference (such as the now-defunct dam project at La Farge).

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