After some steady rain on Sunday, we were fortunate that it stopped sooner than forecast and we were able to hook up the RV after it had dried off. With more rain in the forecast for Monday we headed southwest out of Wisconsin Rapids towards LaCrosse on the Mississippi River. We ran through some sprinkles along the way but had enough time to get set up at our new location, Blackhawk Park Corp of Engineers campground, right alongside the main channel of the Mississippi River. The most amazing part of the trip was the change in topography. Most of the trip was through rolling hills, until we got to within about 10 miles of the Mississippi River. At this point the topography became very hilly with steep sided valleys. As we learned at a Wayside stop we pulled into, this is the Driftless Region that extends through the southwest corner of Wisconsin into Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois. Due to some very hard rock formations the last ice age bypassed this area flowing instead to the east and west of the region. The glaciers scoured off the tops of the hills to the east and west, but left this region alone which is evident by the lack of glacial drift and thus the name. Most of the area is dominated by limestone from ancient seas and over time hot springs had forced lead and zinc into the porous limestone. The native Indians had been mining the lead for hundreds of years and French voyagers knew about the lead deposits way back in the 1700s. This led to an fascinating history of the region that we will explore more fully in the future. Once we got to the Mississippi River Valley south of LaCrosse, we entered a different world with 400 foot bluffs on both sides of the river and just a narrow strip of land for the highway and railroad right alongside the Mississippi. This was certainly not what I expected!!
After a nearly 3 hour drive, we timed it just about perfect, pulling in at 2:00 when their office opened up. We pulled the RV down to the site I had reserved only to discover that it was going to be too small to park the truck with the RV. In addition, it was angled backwards on their one-way road around the campgrounds and a large tree right at the entrance was going to make it VERY difficult to back the RV in. Fortunately, one of the rangers saw us pulling in and met us at the site. He agreed that it was not going to be easy to get into the site and offered any of a number of open first-come, first-served campsites. Again the advantage of traveling on Mondays came to our rescue. Since it was already threatening rain, we wanted to get set up quickly and pulled the RV around to a one of a very few pull-through sites they had. We were able to pull easily into the site and get hooked to the electric, which was 50 amp instead of the 30 amp I had reserved. Unfortunately the flush toilet bathroom and showers were on their other loop and all we had on this loop was a pit toilet. Since we have our own showers, this was no problem and we were fine all week with their pit toilet. We also had a very nice view from our site of the Mississippi River and the barge traffic as the channel wound around the many large islands in the area. Bottom line was that we were very much happier with this site then the one I could reserve and thankful they let us move. Soon after we got hooked up, the skies opened up with intermittent thunderstorms all afternoon. As we found out over the week, it was definitely the monsoon season along the upper Mississippi River as we had only two days without rain all week. On Monday, the heaviest rain fell in LaCrosse which had flash flooding that evening as the storms “trained” over their location.
The weather on Tuesday was no better, as we had storms literally all day and it was our turn to be “trained” in the evening. We had over 8 inches of rain on Tuesday and thankfully the campgrounds was not prone to flash flooding. The town of Coon Valley, that we had passed close to the day before, had serious flooding in the town and the rain closed WI 35 to the north, cutting us off from LaCrosse. It also caused major damage to the train tracks along the river, interrupting a VERY busy train track most of the week. Even though we did not suffer a “flash flood”, the rain was heavy enough to create a 3 inch deep lake directly off the steps. Thankfully the gravel pad was high enough that we maintained a 3″ wide path to the front of the RV, from which we could circle around the road to the truck which was parked at the back of the RV. We did manage to drive south to cross the Mississippi into a grocery store in Lansing, Iowa before the heavy rain hit in the afternoon, so we were well supplied for an extended period if necessary. We also checked with the rangers about the danger of flooding from the Mississippi which would force us to move. Generally, they have about a week’s warning for any flooding of the Mississippi and projections at Fleming showed a peak of a couple of feet below the level where they would evacuate the campgrounds and this would not be until Thursday. So we felt somewhat safe staying where we were.
Wednesday was cloudy and cool with only a slight chance for more rain. The highway north was still closed, so our only option was to head south. This was fine with us, since we were very interested in exploring Effigy Mounds National Monument which is just north of Marquette, Iowa that is across the Mississippi from Prairie du Chen. Since the Effigy Mounds are on top of the bluff we figured they would still be accessible after all the rain. As we expected, we had full access to the Effigy Mounds. After exploring the exhibits in the Visitor Center, we headed out on the trail to the mounds. Of course, since the mounds were on top of the bluff, this meant an arduous trek up a series of switchbacks to the top 400 feet above the river. Once we got on top of the bluff the trail was essentially level. The Fire Point Trail is a loop trail, so we decided to first hike along the edge of the bluff to get some great views of the Mississippi River Valley before checking out the mounds. The Little Bear Mound Group begins with a small bear shaped Effigy Mound and then is a long series of about 20 circular mounds leading out to Fire Point. Thankfully, they keep the entire area mowed as the mounds are no more than a few feet tall and would disappear under any ground foliage. It is interesting that they use of burial mounds in the shape of animals, i.e. Effigy Mounds, is primarily restricted to the corner of where Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois come together, extending east to Lake Michigan. While the simpler circular burial mounds date back thousands of years to the Early Woodland Periods, the use of Effigy Mounds dates back to the Late Woodland Period from 1400-750 B.P. They often used older mounds, simply adding to them as archeological evidence of artifacts found in the few mounds that have been excavated. There is quite a confusing history of mound building that they do a good job explaining in the Visitor Center. From the start of the Little Bear Mound Group it is only an additional 0.25 miles to check out the Great Bear Mound Group. The main attraction of this group is the Great Bear Mound which 42 meters long and about a meter high. Even then it is a little difficult to make out on the ground and pictures just can not do it justice. The trail then goes nearly all the way around a smaller bear mound which is more easily seen because of the changing perspective. At this point we were both ready for lunch so we made the hike back to the truck which was must faster heading downhill.
After lunch we explored another interpretive trail from the Visitor Center along the Yellow River. This boardwalk was a nice easy walk along the banks of the Yellow River. Along it we learned that the Visitor Center is actually on the site of an Indian village which at one time had a large number of mounds where the parking lot is today. Unfortunately, farms had already destroyed all but three of these mounds before the land was set aside for the National Monument. This is also the case for nearly all of the thousands of mounds that once dotted the landscape all the way to Lake Michigan. The bluffs in the Driftless Area made this area unsuitable for farming and thus protected the mounds overlooking the Mississippi and is the reason the National Monument is at the extreme western edge. There are some other trails to more mounds, in particular the Marching Bear Group to the south, but since the trail to the top of the bluff goes straight up we decided strongly against it. Both of us had had enough of climbing for the day.
Thursday was another beautiful day and now that the highway to LaCrosse had opened one lane, we decided to head into LaCrosse in search of one of the Visitor Center for the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge is the largest refuge in the lower 48 states encompassing 240,000 acres along 261 river miles. It is part of the very important Mississippi Flyway for migratory birds and this is its primary purpose. It extends from Wabasha, Minnesota to the north to Cordova, Illinois to the south on both sides of the Mississippi. In fact, the COE campground we stayed in is about halfway through the refuge in the LaCrosse District. The Visitor Center for this district is just north of LaCrosse. We had some trouble finding it, since our GPS took us to a small office in LaCrosse instead of the new Visitor Center. They gave us a map to the Visitor Center, from which we found it with no problem. It is a very new facility and had some nice exhibits about the river habitat and wildlife. It also had information about restoration efforts to recover the islands in the river. For shipping purposes, the upper Mississippi has a series of dams to maintain river levels of 9 feet for barges. This has created a series of “pools” which has been a great benefit for some migratory species. However, other species depend on the island habitat which was destroyed erosion caused by these pools. They have had marginal success in restoring some of the islands with more work to come. Unfortunately, when we asked the volunteer at the desk about hiking trails, we got basically a blank stare. Since most of the recreational activities on the refuge is by small boats, I guess there is not much interest in walking. After a few minutes he told us about some local hiking trails in the area, but none of them were on the refuge. However, with all the rain, he was concerned about the accessibility of the trails and so were we. Therefore, we decided to limit ourselves to a 2 mile loop trail they had at the Visitor Center through their restored tall grass prairie. While I greatly appreciate their efforts to restore an important habitat that was very prevalent pre-settlement, I must admit that it sill looks like just an abandoned field. I suppose part of this impression was due to the proximity of industrial buildings and a residential area next to the river which ended up in most of the pictures we took. In any case we saw a lot of beautiful yellow goldenrod, black-eyed Susan, and sunflowers alongside tall stalks of Indian grass and big bluestem. After eating lunch in the truck, Kal complained again about the tires. Once I got out of the truck and watched the tires, I could clearly see the driver side tire wobble. Kal found a distinctive bulge in the tire indicating belt separation. So we headed into a Tire Plus store in LaCrosse and got two new front tires. She was certainly correct about the tires as the ride got noticeably smoother. Instead of returning immediately we splurged further and bought a new lawnchair and hat at Gander Outdoors before finding a Mexican restaurant for supper.
After two clear days, Friday was the beginning of the next round of storms over Labor Day Weekend. The rain was suppose to start in the afternoon, so in the morning we drove over to Lansing, Iowa to check out Mt. Hosmer City Park that had been recommended. After an uphill climb in the truck around some switchback that were too tight for the truck without backing up, we reached the top of Mt Hosmer, 450 feet above the river. We were rewarded with a panoramic view of the Mississippi River Valley!! It was spectacular.
Since there was not much else to do on Mt Hosmer once we took all the pictures we wanted, we headed back south again to Marquette, Iowa. By this point it had started to rain lightly again, so we did not feel guilty about checking out the Casino Queen. The Casino Queen is a replica of a large steamboat that carried passengers and freight up and down the Mississippi River back in mid 1800s. It is three floors of slot machines, gaming tables, and even a restaurant. We spent our time on the third floor which gave some great views of the river out the windows in the front of the ship. While the river could be distracting, we managed to spend a couple of hours in the casino. While Kal had a miserable time, I could not seem to lose. She spent her stake while I was still on my first $10, having won enough that we came out in total ahead by about $50. That they way it often goes with one of us having a great time while the other wonders why we bother.
As forecasted the entire Labor Day Weekend was a bust due to the weather. It rained a good part of both Saturday and Sunday maintaining our lake in front of the camper all weekend. Thankfully, the rain was not heavy for the most part so there was no additional flooding in the area outside of a few short flash floods and we never could tell the Mississippi had risen at all during the week. We were lucky that the Auburn-Washington football game was on TV, so were able to watch the game without traveling anywhere on Saturday.