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Explore the Lore of the Upper Mississippi at Paint Rock
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Explore the Lore of the Upper Mississippi at Paint Rock

ALLAMAKEE COUNTY-- Wanting to have a weekend escape along the bluff tops of the Upper Mississippi? Then load the car with backpacking essentials and hike up to camp at one of Iowa’s most revered places: 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 0.3 miles to the Paint Rock Trailhead parking lot where a 3-mile round-trip backpacking expedition awaits. 

From the Paint Rock parking lot, it’s a 3/4 mile, 300-foot hike up to a spectacular hike-in only 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-shoulder 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 for this picturesque view of the upper Mississippi. Continue ambling down the trail, intermittently catching views of the river’s 2-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 American Indian 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 artistic designs. Mound building was a communal event that often involved the laborious task of transporting soils in baskets several hundred 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.

No matter if you are from the flatlands or northeast Iowa bluff country, this hike 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 Mississippi offers the willing adventurer infinite youth and promise.

More information about Paint Rock and other hiking trails in Yellow River State Forest can be found here.

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