Scale the Heights of Pikes Peak on Wisconsin/Iowa Border

Article excerpt

Byline: Mike Michaelson

Government surveyor Zebulon Pike had a head for heights. Although best known for the Colorado peak named after him, he also made his mark in Iowa.

In 1805, following the Louisiana Purchase, the government sent him to explore the Upper Mississippi Valley and select locations for military posts. Lt. Pike suggested a fort be built on bluffs rising 500 feet above the Mississippi close to what now is the town of McGregor. Although the fort was built elsewhere, these soaring bluffs remain, encompassed within Pikes Peak State Park where overlooks and observation platforms provide some of the finest views along the Upper Mississippi River Valley.

Sweeping, panoramic views take in the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers and twin suspension bridges that connect Iowa and Wisconsin. The park offers hiking and nature trails, 77 camp sites and picnic grounds with shelters. Scenery incorporates the forested hills and valleys of this so-called "driftless region" that escaped the ice age glaciers that flattened and molded much of Iowa. The park's topography includes sheer limestone walls and a pretty waterfall.

Prairie du Chien, Wis., (population 6,018) and its 71-resident alter ego, McGregor, across the Mississippi River in Iowa, are chock-full of splendid scenery, historic sites and one-of-a-kind shops and eateries. You'll find boat rides, fishing expeditions and canoe and kayak trips. McGregor, where pretty brick buildings house clusters of antique shops, also is home to the Isle of Capri Casino.

A calendar of lively events includes historic re-enactments, an old-time chautauqua and - on St. Feriole Island, along the Mississippi River at Prairie du Chien - free Friday-night performances by the Mississippi Blackhawks Water Ski Show. Performed by a national champion team, the show includes barefoot skiing, water-ski jumps and pyramids of skiers stacked four high.

Natural attractions include Effigy Mounds National Monument, an outstanding example of prehistoric mound-building culture. The site, operated by the National Park Service, also incorporates a beautiful tall-grass prairie, with waving stands of bluestem grass and a sea of purple and yellow coneflowers along with tall, yellow- flowering compass plants (with edges oriented north and south) and the delicate lavender blossoms of wild sweet william.

Wildlife ranges from wild turkeys and bald eagles to white- tailed deer. The bluffs are heavily forested with a mix of deciduous hardwoods, including oak, maple, walnut, shagbark hickory, birch and aspen.

Explore the National Monument via Ranger-led tours and through self-guided walks, first stopping for orientation at the visitor center. You'll learn that effigy mounds, created between 750 and 1,400 years ago by American Indians, are low-relief shapes that take the form of birds, turtles, lizards, bison and, most commonly, bears. Although the origin and meaning of effigy mounds remain a mystery, speculation is that they might have been religious sites or clan symbols used in seasonal ceremonies.

Within the preserve are 206 known prehistoric mounds, 31 of which take the form of animal effigies. The remainder are conical, compound or linear shapes. …