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Exploring the lore of the Upper Mississippi at Paint Rock

Story and photos by Brian Gibb
From the Summer 2018 issue of 
Iowa Outdoors magazine
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Take a weekend escape along the bluff tops of the Upper Mississippi River, load the car with backpacking essentials and hike to camp at one of Iowa’s most revered places: Paint Rock. | Iowa DNRTake a weekend escape along the bluff tops of the Upper Mississippi River, load the car with backpacking essentials and hike to camp at one of Iowa’s most revered places: Paint Rock. 

Historically, the Paint Rock area was a sacred Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) village and gathering site. The site was also a landform marker for European voyagers coming up the Mississippi. In 1805, explorer Zebulon Pike wrote, “Passed Paint Rock on the right of the river, nine miles above Prairie du Chien. It has obtained its name from having numerous hieroglyphics painted on it, painted by the Indians.” Furthering the cultural and spiritual significance of this site to the Ho-Chunk is an 1849 sketch of these bluffs by William Williams. Williams depicted Wthe site as having a large rock that was “smooth faced and has a great many animals with picture writing on it.” As more European settlement increased in the area, more archeological studies of the site would soon follow.

Iowa archeologist Ellison Orr first surveyed the area in 1911 and quickly became inspired by the immenseness of the landscape from atop the bluffs. 

“From this high point, one looks out on the miles and miles of jumbled bluff, river and island, wonderful in the ethereal beauty of their spring verdure; majestic in summer sunshine and storms; and stern as winter snowstorms sweep over them in their frozen whiteness,” he says.  

During his work, Orr surveyed several Native American mounds and found numerous “red smears and red petroglyphs that give to the cliff the name painted rock.” Though the petroglyphs are weathered, a journey up to Paint Rock is sure to give you a better appreciation for the magic and history of the upper Mississippi at Paint Rock. 

To begin your adventure, turn onto Paint Rock Road, just north of Waukon Junction, and continue until you see the “Yellow River State Forest/Paint Rock Unit” sign. Follow the access road about one-third mile to the Paint Rock Trailhead parking lot where a three-mile round-trip backpacking expedition awaits.  

From the Paint Rock parking lot, it’s a three-quarter-mile, 250-foot hike up to a spectacular walk-in campsite called Camp Hennessy. The trail begins by following an old access road and promises to jumpstart your heart as you wind around the base of the towering hillside. During the spring or summer, take a break on your ascent to listen for cerulean warblers and red-shouldered hawks, two state-threatened birds that nest in this densely wooded area. After summiting the bluff, the trail veers south next to a white pine tree planting and follows a level trail through a mixed hardwood forest until reaching the Mississippi loop trailhead sign.

Under a canopy of tall oak trees, trek the well-marked Mississippi Loop Trail until you reach Camp Hennessy. After setting up camp, wander down the trail to a spectacular wooden bench that overlooks the Mississippi River. Prairie grass carpets the ground and cedar trees serve as the perfect frame on this picturesque view of the upper Mississippi. Continue ambling down the trail, intermittently catching views of the river’s two-mile-wide floodplain along the way. At the junction for the Paint Rock Overlook trail, take a left to visit one of the most inspiring views of the Mississippi found in the Upper Midwest. 

Before arriving at the overlook, walk beside several large Native American mounds that were constructed for ceremonial and burial purposes. Built during the Middle-Late Woodland period, these 1,000-year-old formations are some of the area’s oldest human structural designs. Mound building was a communal event that often involved the laborious task of transporting soil in baskets 200 feet up from the Mississippi River to build the giant mounds. Sadly, these mounds represent only a tiny fraction of the nearly 10,000 mounds that historically marked this celebrated landscape. Today, most of the mounds have been lost to plows, looters and even pioneer cemeteries.  

Take a weekend escape along the bluff tops of the Upper Mississippi River, load the car with backpacking essentials and hike to camp at one of Iowa’s most revered places: Paint Rock. | Iowa DNRStanding next to these ancient mounds is powerful medicine for the modern soul. These marvels tell the story of this landscape’s once incredibly rich biodiversity found in its abundant forests, prairies and rivers. Historically, a wide array of plants and animals including elk, mountain lions, wolves, bison, black bears and prairie chickens interconnected here and allowed native people to flourish for thousands of years. This diverse scene is almost mythical, for the Iowa we know today is dramatically different. Yet, a hike out to the timeless Paint Rock Overlook allows one to re-trace their footsteps and re-visit what Iowa may have felt like 1,000 years ago. 

The panoramic scene is best captured in the early morning or late evening when the sun turns the surrounding bluffs into a gilded paradise. If you are feeling adventurous, depart from Camp Hennessey and head out to the overlook during the night to take in the fantastic view of a thousand twinkling stars over the Mississippi.

In spring, wander the ridge to find pasque flowers in bloom, or be amazed to find prickly pear cacti growing on the dry rock outcrops. Following your search for these floral beauties, kick back and soak up the sun on the ridge top in a sea of prairie grass. Keep your eyes focused on the big blue skies for the fastest bird on earth, the peregrine falcon.

Along the upper Mississippi bluffs, peregrines—or “long-wings” as they are called—participate in remarkable aerial flights and courtship calls. After courtship, the bird will use steep rock outcrops along the Mississippi to nest on. Interestingly in falcons, the male is one-third smaller than the female. Because of this, a male bird is aptly called a “tierce.” In their affinity for peregrines, Woodland cultures built bird effigy mounds by historical peregrine eyrie sites. 
Two effigy mounds north of paint rock closely resemble a pair of raptors side by side with one of the birds having a wingspan of 227 feet, while the other is only 141 feet. Just as the mounds provide an essential story about Iowa’s history, so too does the peregrine falcon. 

In the 1960s, due to the use of DDT, peregrine populations were extirpated from the Mississippi River valley. On the brink of extinction, the bird was listed on the federal Endangered Species Act until 1999. It wasn’t until 2000 that wild peregrines began reproducing along the valley, the first time in over three decades. The banning of DDT and re-introduction of these revered birds along the river bluffs are two critical components of why there are now 21 known nesting pairs in Iowa, with 17 of them occurring on the Mississippi River.  

No matter if you are from the flatlands or hill-country, this backpack trip can be a physical and emotional challenge. Yet, falling asleep fireside under a blanket of stars, then greeting the sunrise on a rocky summit overlooking the Mighty Miss offers willing adventurers infinite youth and promise.

Take a weekend escape along the bluff tops of the Upper Mississippi River, load the car with backpacking essentials and hike to camp at one of Iowa’s most revered places: Paint Rock.  | Iowa Outdoors magazine

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