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  • Evan Postier

An Oasis of Natural Beauty and Culture: Viroqua and the Driftless Region

Updated: Jan 29, 2019

While traveling, people often want to know where you're from. As I tell these people that I'm from Saint Paul, Minn, I can frequently see images sweeping across people's minds of either a solitary tractor in a field of corn, or people so bundled up that they resemble the Michelin man shoveling snow from driveways. If only they actually knew how cool the mid-west is; the thriving art scene in the twin-cities, the incredible variety of truly great restaurants, and the stunning natural-beauty of the Upper Midwest. For example, the rugged splendor of the North Shore of Lake Superior, with it’s sheer cliffs and jagged shoreline plunging into what should rightly be called an in-land sea, and hectare upon hectare of unspoiled raw-forest goodness to explore and let conquer you. However, when you're a local, the North Shore is pretty-much thee go-to outdoor region for 95% of people when they consider where they want to go camping, hiking, etc. I know it was the unquestioned destination for our childhood camping trips, of which I look back on with the fuzziest of warm memories. Beyond this stunning area of natural beauty, however, nothing too unique is readily found.

So imagine how it felt to find a vast realm of new, unique outdoor splendor to explore in my adulthood- it seemed almost too good to be true. This is the Driftless region of South-East Minn./South-West Wisc./ North-East Iowa: A geological rarity, this section of the country is full of sharp, steep hills and valleys featuring carved bluffs overlooking lush, fertile valleys and often virgin trout streams with water so clear, it would be hard to see if it weren’t moving. A different kind of beautiful compared to the rocky, rugged, quasi-inhospitable North Shore; but beautiful none-the-less. It’s undulating landscape and pristine flowing waters are so readily found, it just makes you feel like you’ve traveled back in time to a land before pollution- I have personally drank out of the springs while hiking with no ill effects. In fact, it this area is so naturally beautiful that I’m often confused whenever I’m there as to why the North-Shore seems to be the only place that people from the Twin-Cities flock to in droves and not to here- I've found that it’s not uncommon to feel like I’m the only one around, besides the locals and the occasional motorcycle rider cruising the many sculpted curves and bends of scenic pavement that wind through the peaks and valleys.

My wife had the good fortune to grow up in this natural gem of a region, she being from the small town Viroqua, Wisc. It is the home to a truly impressive amount of culture for it’s relatively modest population. There is a natural, hippie vibe easily found here, no doubt heavily influenced by the fact that it's home to one of the largest organic foods companies: Organic Valley. You see their buildings everywhere in the area, and not in the typical Goliath-corporation way that you may have become accustomed to with other companies. Another notable feature of the this earth-friendly atmosphere in Viroqua is the fact that a town of under 5,000 has it’s own organic food CO-OP bringing huge variety of natural foods that make both the mouth and body happy. Little Viroqua also offers legit gourmet cuisine with, of course, an emphasis on fresh and natural, and even has a third-wave coffee shop to satisfy the elite at Kickapoo Coffee Roasters.

Explore the rolling hills around the Driftless region, and you will see off-the-grid living done right: solar panels helping to power charmingly-cozy yet still very modern, civilized homes often perched halfway up tree-lined hills capped with limestone bluffs that proudly overlook the lush valleys with streams running through beautiful meadows of gold and green.

These settings abound throughout the Driftless region, and exploring them on a bicycle is hard to beat for outdoor activities in the midwest (or, anywhere, in my opinion). Sunny skies washing over mile upon mile of near-perfect asphalt. Lush, verdant trees connecting high overhead from both sides as sunlight trickles down through them. Trout streams at nearly every turn, usually without anyone fishing them. Amish produce stands offering their goods at corners under the honor-system of taking what you want and leaving money in a box.

Hairpin curves that slowly wind up steep slopes which skirt the ins and outs of the hills above, offering spectacular views for miles. On a hot summer day, strip to your skibbies and take a dip in nearly any of the pristine streams around you, or plunk down on the side of the road in the shade of a towering Maple and enjoy the vibrant yellows, whites or violets of the wildflowers growing right along the side of nearly any road.

Leaving pavement to go for a hike or mountain bike ride in the abundant trails lets you feel alone in all of the best ways. And once that beautiful white blanket covers the ground, these trails abound with snowshoeing and cross-country skiing bliss. It’s in winter that I feel the truest sense of wonder here on the many paths that wind in, out, up and down the stunning forested-valleys that teem with unspoiled beauty, the many countless tree branches enveloping you all around and overhead, each fragile twig covered with the most delicate layer of snow or frost.

Sure, if you live in the Upper Midwest, there's always the North Shore of Lake Superior. But for me, my outdoor compass doesn't only lead me North.