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A Walk on Paint Rock
Story and photos by Brian Gibbs

In the 19th century, and maybe for long before that, Paint Rock was a well-known landmark on the Upper Mississippi River. Red and yellow “hieroglyphics” painted on its vertical rock face were visible to travelers on the river, and Indians often stopped there to honor the place.

The paint is gone, but it’s still a wonderful place to visit and explore. You can even spend the night there. The Paint Rock Unit of the Yellow River State Forest overlooks the Mississippi backwaters at Waukon Junction, Iowa, between Harpers Ferry and Marquette.

In 1805, the explorer and Army officer Zebulon Pike wrote, “Passed Paint Rock on the right of the river, 9 miles above Prairie du Chien. It has obtained its name from having numerous hieroglyphics painted on it, painted by the Indians.”

William Williams wrote a sketch about Paint Rock bluffs in 1849, noting the cultural and spiritual significance of this site to the Ho-Chunk. He depicted the site as having a large rock that was “smooth faced and has a great many animals with picture writing on it.”

When Iowa archaeologist Ellison Orr surveyed the area in 1911 he was inspired by the immenseness of the landscape viewed from atop the Paint Rock 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.”

During his work, Orr surveyed several Indian mounds there and found numerous “red smears and red petroglyphs that give to the cliff the name painted rock.”

Hiking the Bluff
Though the petroglyphs have been effaced, a journey up to Paint Rock is sure to give you a better appreciation for the magic and history of the place. To begin your adventure, turn onto Paint Rock Road, just north of Waukon Junction, and continue to the “Yellow River State Forest/Paint Rock Unit” sign. Follow the road, which has some rough spots, a third of a mile to the Paint Rock Trailhead parking lot, where a three-mile round-trip backpacking expedition awaits.

A spectacular hike-in campsite, called Camp Terry Hennessy, is three-quarters of a mile from the lot. It’s free, but you need to register first at the state forest headquarters. 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. In 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 planting and follows a level path through a mixed hardwood forest to the Mississippi Loop trailhead sign.

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

Before arriving at the overlook, the trail passes several large Indian mounds. Built during the Middle-Late Woodland period, these 1,000-year-old earthworks are some of the area’s oldest human structures. Mound building was a communal event that often required hauling soil in baskets up from the valley. Sadly, these mounds represent only a tiny fraction of the nearly 10,000 mounds that used to mark this landscape. Today, most of the mounds have been lost to plows, bulldozers, looters and even pioneer cemeteries.

Standing next to these ancient mounds is powerful medicine for the modern soul. They tell the story of this landscape’s formerly rich biodiversity, when a wide array of plants and animals — including elk, mountain lions, wolves, buffalo, black bears and prairie chickens — flourished here for thousands of years. A hike out to the timeless Paint Rock Overlook is a step into 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 feel adventurous, hike from Camp Hennessy to the overlook at night to enjoy the fantastic view of a thousand twinkling stars over the Mississippi.

In the early spring, wander the ridge to find pasque flowers or prickly pear cacti growing on the dry rock outcrops. Then 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.

In spring, peregrines, or “long-wings” as they are called, launch into remarkable aerial flights and courtship calls along the Upper Mississippi bluffs. After courtship, they nest in steep rock outcrops along the river. Falcon males are a third smaller than females.

In their affinity for peregrines, Woodland cultures built bird effigy mounds near 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 about a third smaller — 141 feet. We continue to honor the peregrine falcon, on the Iowa Hawkeyes logo.

In the 1960s, due to the use of DDT, peregrines disappeared from the Mississippi River valley. They were listed as a federally endangered species until 1999. In 2000, wild peregrines began reproducing again along the valley for the first time in over three decades. Now 21 pairs nest in Iowa, with 17 of them on the Mississippi.

A backpack trek uphill can be a physical and emotional challenge, but falling asleep fireside under a blanket of stars, then greeting the sunrise on a rocky summit is a more than ample reward. A visit to a place like Paint Rock encourages us to walk in gratitude and celebrate our connection to this beautiful and mysterious Earth. #

Brian Gibbs lives in Elkader, Iowa. This is his first story for Big River.

March-April 2018 © Big River Magazine

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