The often-photographed chimney rocks tower over the Upper Iowa River, adding to the public wildlife area’s picturesque scenery. Photo courtesy of the Iowa DNR.
DECORAH - Nestled in the heart of Bluff Country in Winneshiek County, the Upper Iowa River Chimney Rocks Wildlife Area offers visitors scenic views of its namesake chimney rocks, reconstructed prairie and a high-quality trout stream emptying into the legendary Upper Iowa River.
“Whether your hunting, hiking, fishing or birdwatching, Chimney Rocks checks a lot of boxes,” said Troy Anderson, wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Visitors come from across Iowa and Minnesota to the 440-acre public area hidden in the countryside, 10 miles south of the Minnesota state line, for its quality pheasant, deer, turkey, dove and squirrel hunting, and to test their skills against rainbow and brown trout in Coldwater Creek and smallmouth bass and walleyes in the Upper Iowa River.
“I’ve encountered anglers on occasion willing to make the mile plus hike from the parking lot back to the mouth of Coldwater Creek, looking for big brown trout,” Anderson said. “It’s a very popular trout stream.”
There are closer parking lots to the trout stream – one a few hundred yards north of the Chimney Rocks boundary and one with a canoe access one-half mile south of the mouth of the trout stream on the Upper Iowa River, but access is temporarily restricted due to bridge construction.
Chimney Rocks is a popular area with paddlers who float this section of the Upper Iowa specifically to see the chimney formations and this summer was one for the record books.
“Usually paddler use depends on river conditions and weather, but this year it didn’t matter – it was busy the entire summer. I can’t even guess at the number of paddlers,” Anderson said.
For example, he said the local conservation officer checked 106 vessels in one day – three canoes, 103 kayaks. With two miles of the river flowing through Chimney Rocks, paddlers have used the sandbars on the wildlife area as places to hangout or to camp.
“The chimney rocks are something cool to see; it’s picturesque. That’s why this stretch is so popular,” he said.
The area is also home to algific talus slopes – rare north facing cool-air bluffs only found in the driftless region. They stay cool all season and are a unique and fragile ecosystem. A showy lady slipper, an orchid listed as threatened in Iowa, has been found on the algific talus slopes.
West of the river, Anderson has been overseeing the results from an oak regeneration project on a ridgetop and a 100-acre prairie reconstruction. The oak regeneration project was part of the forest wildlife stewardship plan written in partnership with the district forester.
“We removed the elms, hackberries, ironwood and basswood and other non-target trees to allow for oak regeneration. Once you open up the understory and give the floor some sunlight, we see oaks sprouting from acorns and from cut stumps,” he said. “It’s responded really well.”
The prairie was reconstructed using a local ecotype prairie plant mix including rattlesnake master, blazing star, New England aster, native sunflowers and more. The prairie attracted rusty patched bumblebee which Anderson found here last year. The bumblebee, with a rusty patch centrally located on the backs of workers and of males, was listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2017.
On the bottomland, the Iowa DNR partnered with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation in 2006 to purchase 130 acres on the inside bend of the Upper Iowa River.
This area was planted with bur oak, swamp white oak, hackberry, silver maple, cottonwood and green ash trees adjacent to four rows of ninebark, hazelnut, silky dogwood and wild plum shrubs to create a floodplain forestland and buffer near a native prairie.
The planting was part of a floodplain protection grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s nonpoint source pollution program providing floodwater storage and retention, sediment and pollutant retention, riparian corridor protection and riparian forest habitat for a wide variety of wildlife.
Heading south on the gravel road along the west side of Chimney Rocks, monarchs were lining the trees as the annual migration was getting underway.
“There’s a variety of wildlife species here on many different landscapes and that’s pretty special,” he said.
Media Contact: Troy Anderson, Wildlife Biologist, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, 563-379-5725.