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Notes @ Noon: A fall day trip to the Driftless should please leaf-peepers

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It’s official, I guess. This past weekend I joined the unofficial club of leaf peepers during a visit to my home state of Wisconsin.

While that was not the main motivation for my trip, I enjoyed searching for — and finding — pockets of vibrant foliage Sunday on my drive along U.S. 61 to Viroqua, Wisconsin.

Citing recent weather abnormalities, Bruce Blair, a forester for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources based at Yellow River State Forest, called it a “weird year” for predicting peak foliage. He initially expected the leaves to change color early this season because of excessive heat and drought in September.

“Now I think it’s going to be late,” said Blair, who noted oak trees should begin turning red and bronze in the coming weeks.

Walnut, elm, aspen, cottonwood and basswood trees began turning yellow last week in northeast Iowa, according to the DNR’s most-recent fall color report.

"The fall color show is in full swing here in the Driftless Area," the report said. 

The bright colors I saw this weekend in the heart of the Driftless, the region of the Upper Midwest untouched by glaciers during the Ice Age, were just an added bonus. I traveled 150-plus miles to Viroqua to meet up with my sister, Sarah, who recently returned home from studying abroad.

We spent Sunday afternoon tooling around the quaint artsy/foodie town about 30 miles southeast of La Crosse and 30 miles northeast of Lansing, Iowa. We grabbed lunch at the community co-op, watched the Green Bay Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys at a bar on Main Street and caught an evening show at this old tobacco warehouse-turned-bookstore, Driftless Books and Music.

The historic building now hosts half a million books and a small stage for visiting artists. We saw Natty Nation, a Madison-based reggae band, perform an unplugged set two days after the group played the Redstone Room in Davenport.


The stage at Driftless Books and Music in Viroqua, Wisconsin.

On Monday morning, we shared breakfast with a family of four from central Iowa at the Viroqua Heritage Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in an English Tudor-style home built in the 1890s. 

“This is our family weekend,” said Kathleen Geiken, who sat between her two daughters, Liz and Jessica, and across the table from her husband, Lynn.

Every October for the past 10 or so years, the family has journeyed to northeast Iowa and southwest Wisconsin for a mix of scenery, apples and antiques. It has become their tradition.

“We always see something different,” Lynn said, calling on other Midwesterners to follow suit. “It doesn’t get much better than this.”

On my way home to the Quad-Cities, I decided to stop for apples at Hillcrest Orchard, a roadside market in Gays Mills, Wisconsin. Near there, I briefly ventured off my route down Sleepy Hollow Road to catch one more glimpse of the fall splendor.


The roadside apple market off U.S 61 in Gays Mills, Wisconsin. 

When I returned to the newsroom, my colleague, Jennifer DeWitt, said she was not as impressed with the leaves she saw this weekend. She and her family drove to the Mississippi River towns of Marquette, Iowa, and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, about 60 miles south of Viroqua.

“I don’t think it’s coming,” she said, referring to the blast of fall colors. "But it's more about the adventure." 

Editor's note: Look for reporter Jack Cullen's Notes @ Noon Tuesday, Thursday and Friday online at noon. He will capture various sides of life in the Quad-Cities. Contact him at or 563-383-2363.


Jack Cullen covers health and the outdoors for the Quad-City Times.