Wisconsin doesn’t have the towering peaks of the Rockies or the ocean-swept beaches of the coasts. There are no rainforests, deserts or glaciers.
Most people assume Wisconsin is endless acres of flat farmland, dotted by cows and red barns. Pastoral? Sure. But not exactly a scene that takes your breath away. Let them assume. All the better for protecting one of the state’s bestkept secrets: the Driftless Region. Anchoring the southwestern corner, the area’s topography is so unlike the rest of Wisconsin, it’s hard to imagine how they exist alongside each other. Where the rest of the state lies prone, the Driftless Region seems to jump above and dive below the horizon. Steep hills and rocky bluffs plunge into deep valleys, where two-lane roads and twisting rivers wind like tree branches. The most rugged part of the region is in Crawford and Vernon counties, bordered on the west by the Mississippi River and dramatic bluffs along its banks. The hills in this area are known as the Ocooch Mountains, which seem like a misnomer for those who have seen larger mountain ranges. But standing among the Ocooch creates the same effect: a sense of awe, as if you’ve stumbled on a land before time—or at least a land before glaciers. When the last glaciers covered Wisconsin, this pocket of land escaped their bulldozing ways, leaving the picturesque hills and valleys free of glacial drift (the stones, sand and other debris left behind by the ice mountains). Some of those hills are covered in neat rows of cultivated land, but most are blanketed in trees that create cloaks of green in the
summer and burn with the colors of fall in September and October. Amish buggies rattle along twolane roads, and the area’s most populous city, Prairie du Chien, has fewer than 6,000 residents. It’s not surprising that the area has attracted back-to-the-land types. There’s the Driftless Cafe, featuring farm-to-table food, in Viroqua. And there’s Soldiers Grove, which became the nation’s first “solar village” in 1983 when it relocated its downtown out of the Kickapoo River floodplain and decreed any new buildings be solar-heated. Vernon County is home to the highest concentration of organic farmers in the country. Many of them are members of Organic
Valley co-op, which counts 2,043 farms in 35 states as members. But larger companies are the exception in the quiet Driftless Region, where those who are wise to its ways come to find tranquility among the trees. Relaxation is easy to come by at the Kickapoo Valley Ranch outside La Farge. The ranch is owned by Cowboy Joe and Cowboy David, who spent time out West and wanted to bring that dude-ranch feeling to another special place. Cozy cabins have gas fireplaces, hand-sewn quilts and porches from which visitors can watch horses graze while enjoying free cookies from Cowboy David’s Bake Shoppe, also run by the duo. The ranch sits alongside the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, an 8,600-acre preserve with dozens of miles of trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding and camping, and the Kickapoo River, a favorite for canoeing and kayaking. This slice of unspoiled nature was almost doomed to being buried under water. The Kickapoo is a narrow, shallow river that’s prone to flooding. In the 20th century, villages such as Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills sought a way to avoid the constant destruction. As early as 1930, a dam was proposed as a solution. In 1962, the La Farge Dam project was born. The plan was to build a floodcontrol dam on the river at La Farge, behind which a lake would form for recreational opportunities. Farmers were bought off their land, and construction began. But when an environmental impact survey was conducted, the dam seemed to create more problems than it would solve—from water-quality issues to escalating costs. By 1975, the controversial dam project was dead. The area remained a federal government no man’s land until 1997, when part of it was transferred to the Ho-Chunk Nation, the region’s original human inhabitants, and another part was given to the state of Wisconsin to develop into the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. The dam project’s failure was a win for nature. On a bluebirdsky day in summer, canoe flotillas bump between the scenic river’s sandstone-bluff banks in the reserve, and fly fishermen cast for trout in rippling waters. Campers set up in tree-shaded groves and families hike to the top of the steep hills for sweeping vistas. The Ocooch and its twisting rivers might fail to live up to mountain standards in terms of altitude, but when it comes to stunning natural landscapes, this slice of the Driftless Region is near the top of the heap.
“On a bluebird-sky day in summer, canoe flotillas bump between the scenic river’s sandstone-bluff banks.”
Sunlight streams through an ancient pine relict in Rockbridge.