The Driftless Area: Wisconsin's strange geology

Image: The Baraboo Range, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from crisp_air's photostream

On Wednesday, I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin, to give a talk based on my book, Before the Lights Go Out. I took the train to get there, traveling south from Minneapolis along the Mississippi River before jumping the border into Wisconsin at the town of La Crosse.

This isn't a region I've spent much time in before, and I was struck by the landscape, which felt exotic and foreign—adjectives that are seldom applied to southeastern Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin. The Mississippi here looks less like a river and more like a series of interconnected lakes dotted with sandbars, narrow peninsulas, and forested islands. Looking across the water, into Wisconsin, a line of strangely shaped tall hills (or maybe small mountains) run along the shore—all severe, sharp angles covered in a fuzzy looking blanket of trees. It almost looks like somebody cut a patch out of Appalachia and dropped it into the middle of the prairie.

This is the Driftless Area, a part of the upper Midwest that combines some wonderfully weird geology with a truly kick-ass name. I did a little research on the region during the rest of my trip and I wanted to share a couple of the cool things that I learned.

First, about that name ...

Image taken by Dandog77. Found on Wikipedia and used via CC license.

The name "Driftless Area" has nothing to do with snow. Instead, it’s referring to a different kind of “drift”—a mixture of rocks and gravel, boulders and residue that’s normally left behind by retreating glaciers. The geology of the upper Midwest owes much of its shape to the movement of glaciers. Minnesota’s 10,000+ lakes, for instance, are largely divots scraped out of the Earth by these massive walls of ice. The depressions later filled with water and became lakes. But the most recent glacial marches to the south—"recent", in this case, meaning things that happened 100,000 years ago—seem to have bypassed the Driftless Area entirely. Because of that, the geography here looks very different compared to the glacier-shaped land around it.

Image: Babson Aerials 9-29-09 Tunnelville Road, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from usfwsmidwest's photostream

The Baraboo Range is a big part of what makes the Driftless Area look so unique. Here’s a fun, new vocabulary word: monadnock. The word refers to solitary mountains, or huge masses of rock rising up out of the middle of a plain. You can find examples of monadnocks all over the world. Basically, they're just places where a hunk of hard, not-particularly-easy-to-erode rock was surrounded by a lot of weaker material. After everything else has washed away over hundreds of thousands of years, you're left with a knob of the hard stuff sticking up all alone.

The Baraboos are a whole collection of monadnocks packed into an area about 25 miles long and less than 10 miles wide. They are the tops of an ancient mountain range—hard quartzite from 500 million years ago that was buried beneath layer upon layer of softer rocks like limestone and sandstone. That material buried the Baraboos, and then it slowly disintegrated, leaving the peaks of what were once massive mountains exposed.

Pictured: Wisconsin. Seriously. Photo taken by Emery. Found on Wikipedia and used via CC license.

For more information:

Check out "Mysteries of the Driftless Zone" a documentary by Untamed Science, which is a production company made up of both scientists and filmmakers. The film is currently in production, but you can watch a couple of preview videos on the site—including one about the cave system in the Driftless Area, which I didn't even get into here.


  1. I just learned “monadnock” a month or two ago, while reading about Mount Roraima after its photo was featured here.  Neat to have it come up again!

  2. The Chicago Olympic bid was forced to plan their bike races to be in the driftless zone because the rest of the midwest is too flat.  There are some seriously excellent rides to be had there: good hills, scenic woods, happy cows, beer at the end.  Escape to Wisconsin!

  3. If you’re interested in landscape like this, you should take one of the public or private boat tours of the Wisconsin Dells.  While you’re there, you can read up on H.H. Bennett, and his famous photograph that features his son jumping from one of those outcrops of rock to the other (  

    If you spend any time at all in that area, you’ll see some of the most interesting weather.  I’ve been about a half-mile away from a water spout, as it danced over a small lake, and lightning flickered in the clouds above.

  4. Thanks for sharing this perspective on a beautiful and under-appreciated region of the country. BTW, that last picture is the view looking south from Granddad Bluff in La Crosse, Wisconsin, a landmark that was mentioned in Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi”.

    1. I can only assume that the World’s Largest Six Pack was painted over or something, because Maggie could not have possibly been in La Crosse and not mentioned this.

      Of course, since Old Style is brewed elsewhere now there’s no use asking her to find the hitchhiker on the can . . .

      1.  The six-pack is still there, but the brewery produces beer under the name “La Crosse City Brewery” or something like that. You can get it on tap at Bodega (downtown) at a ridiculously low price.

      2. It’s also not on the route that the train takes through La Crosse. For the 6pack you want to have a jaunt down 3rd street, and from the train station you might be a bit blurry eyed by the time you get to the 6-pack.Unless your driver is good about locking the doors to keep passengers from stopping at every bar…

  5. Come for the topographic anomalies stay for the pie. And the bratwurst.  And the kringle. And the beer. And the cheeses. And the pasties in Mineral Point. And the fudge. And the lake perch on Friday night…

    Anyway, it looks like it’s time for a road trip.

    1.  The extra-sharp cheddar at the Westby Co-op Creamery is to die for…

      Just another reason this is “God’s country.”

  6. Growing up in Illinois ( and never really leaving) my first camping trip to Baraboo was amazing. Here in the flatlands you forget that the Earth is well . . . the Earth and not just endless suburbs. My trips there have left me with an intense wanderlust that has never eased. God help me if I ever take a trip out west.

  7. I live in La Crosse also and was surprised to see a post on my town. I love when that happens on the internet. La Crosse is a very beautiful place and sometimes you take for granted where you live and what is around you. Thanks for reminding me. Plus you I never knew what a 
    monadnock was. 

  8. That area of Wisconsin also has the best camping in a 300 mile radius. 

    There’s a decent Amish population as well, which means you can get some really tasty food. 

  9. I’ve passed through here many times going between Minneapolis and Chicago. Megabus is truly the only way to see it.

    1.  Assuming this is a joke. If you’ve only seen it by Megabus, you haven’t seen it at all.

  10. Wow, I find your article more and more interesting while still clear and easy to read! You’re turning into a kind of Mr. Rogers for adults!

  11. Great post on a beautiful area! I live in Viroqua, WI – which is in the heart of the Driftless Region. There was a recent, excellent article in American Way Magazine on this area. Here is the link: This area is extremely unique not only in geology and topography but also in the inhabitants! There was a large “back-to-the-land” movement in the 70’s here. Lots of earthy hippies moved in – the result is Vernon County, where Viroqua is has the highest % of organic farmers in the US. Also there is an awesome Co-op (  ), Organic Valley is located outside of Virqoua, there is an awesome Folk School ( ).  PLUS there is a Waldorf School ( ) in Virqoua – one of the very few Waldorf schools in a rural area. Also – affordable housing! A friend is selling a four bedroom house on a 1/4 acre, in town, for 98k. It is an amazing area – with best potlucks anywhere… Great local music scene too…

  12. This geology makes the Driftless Area a spectacular place for motorcyclists. All those twists and turns and drops and hidden valleys are fantastic on two wheels.

    And the fact that the dairy industry is so strong means all those little podunk roads are PAVED… the better to get the milk trucks in and out. This in contrast to nearby Iowa and Minnesota, also parts of the Driftless, but with gravel roads instead.

  13. growing up in this area, but having since moved west (to CA), has always presented an interesting challenge.  the responses i receive after saying i’m originally from IL are typically: “ah, flatlander”, “cornfields as far as the eye can see”, or “from the prairie!”.  

    well, no, see, actually, about 100,000 years ago the glaciers missed the most northwest county…oh, never mind…

  14. A great introduction to a region’s geology. Hopefully it opens the door to more and an appreciation for the immense timescales and enormous volumes on which the planet operates. A great beginning is to pick up John McPhee’s “Annals of the Ancient World”; literary journalism at its best. Cheers

  15. If  you can make it past the air-brushed t-shirt shops and all of the other touristy places, the Dells of the Wisconsin River are amazing. Going on a Duck tour is a lot of fun. It has its own microclimate and a number of rare species. The stone formations are almost surreal, looking a little bit like something in the Grand Canyon, but much smaller, of course, and they’re green with plant life.

  16. My wife’s folks were from that area, south of  La Crosse, in Genoa. They didn’t miss the hills too much when they moved to Portland, OR, though. We took the Empire Builder, too, visiting relatives and smelling Wisconsin’s dairy air. Helped with the milking. (Don’t stand behind a coughing cow.)

    You went there and didn’t have a Butter Burger!?

  17. as an avid fly-angler in chicago, i spend many weekends in the driftless fishing world class spring creeks for wild trout.  it is a mecca for fly anglers.

  18. Maggie, thanks for reminding the general populous that America is made up of more than just 2 coasts.

  19. This area is also the setting for Stephen King’s “Black House” and Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods”.

  20. I always assumed the Monadnock building in Chicago was named after someone. Now that I know what it means, the name makes perfect sense.

  21. As a native Wisconsinite, I would just like to say that this is all lies. Wisconsin is flat and boring. There is nothing to see here. Please just keep flying over our ugly state on your way to more exotic locations like Portland and um, other places.

  22. Love, love, love this part of WI, MN, IA — especially Effigy Mounds in northeast Iowa.
    A National Monument, Effigy Mounds is an amazing park with dozens of pre-columbian earthworks, from 20 to 150 feet across and up to 6 feet high, shaped like animals, mythic creatures, and more. The mound builders created thousands of these mounds all across the middle US, but most (almost all) were plowed up, leveled off, or otherwise removed and forgotten. Effigy Mounds is one of the largest remaining mound sites we have left.

  23. Monadnocks are named after Mt Monadnock in southern New Hampshire. It is, of course, a monadnock.

    1. As is the Monadnock building in Chicago.  We now refer to it as one building, but it was actually built as 4 parts, and each part was named after a mountain in New England.

  24. Maybe I’m just a freak, but I totally knew what “monadnock” meant. *Pats self on back

    Seriously though, wonderful post. I never would’ve imagined there was such beautiful landscape in Wisconsin. And while you’re there: CHEESE!

  25. city of baryboo is the name of the ship, and the second novel, of barry longyear’s circus world trilogy.
    monadnock to me first sounds native american, but it isn;t because i know what a monad is. what;s a nock? oh, the end of an arrow?

  26. Cockpit karst!   That’s the next geology term to learn here… love that area of MN, and WI too I suppose.  

    The bike trails near La Crosse are a worthy way of seeing the area- even if you are not a particularly fit cyclist.   

  27. OK,  you are telling secrets we like secret but if you move here real quick you can help throw out our Governor .  A 30 day residency rule and the Recall is 6/5/12.  Recall Walker

  28. Another driftless area resident here, appreciating your appreciation of the region. I’m about a mile from the Wisconsin River here, and it is indeed gorgeous and often stunning.
    and OOOOHHHHHH YES !!!! There’s caves in them there ancient mountain remnants.

  29. Thanks for doing a geology article, Maggie, and something this geologist wasn’t familiar with too :)

  30. My wife said that County WC north of Spring Green and Hwy E north of Boscobel both look they go right through Middle Earth.

  31. You should visit Georgia. It is literally bits of two different continents glued together by a half billion year old plate collision. You can still see the seam where they met. You can also see all the relics of the original volcanism that opened up the Atlantic.

    Every place is fascinating in some way. Even Kansas and Nebraska have some interesting geology.

    1. Your post reminded me of the book PrairyErth by William Least Heat Moon.  It’s an 800-something page book about one county in Kansas that is at the geographic center of the continental US.  I know it sounds crazy, but it’s a great read.  As you say: every place is fascinating in some way.  You just have to have eyes to see.

      1.  That’s a great book.

        I was put in mind of John McPhee’s series of books collectively called Annals of the Former World.  He reconstructs the geologic history of North America by driving around it with geologists and seeing what they can see from the road. I haven’t looked at a road cut the same way since.

  32. Maggie, make sure to get to Devil’s Lake at some point.  It’s one of the most geologically interesting (and pretty!) parts of Wisconsin.

    1. Devil’s Lake is an endorheic lake. Thanks to the glaciers, it’s a closed drainage basin and one of only a handful in the US east of the Rockies.

  33. Noting the number of “Driftless” residents… Isn’t it time that we schedule a meetup in the La Crosse Area?

  34. My father was a geology professor and being in Illinois absolutely loved the driftless zone. Devil’s Lake State Park near Baraboo is fantastic and is a great campground with lovely trails mostly made by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 30’s. It’s a great base to explore the area.

  35. I’ve always been struck by just how different Wisconsin’s terrain is to Minnesota’s. It’s one of my favorite transitions in the Midwest.

  36. Just in case anyone is curious, and I haven’t seen this addressed yet, it’s pronounced Bear-a-boo. And not Buh-raboo or something similar.

    1. Yeah, and remember: You can’t serve a bear a beer in a bar in Baraboo on a Sunday.

      If the meet-up is on a weekend, I’ll bring kringle.

  37. There is so much to like about the Driftless region – glad you liked it. We don’t live there (I do work in the Monadnock Building though) but visit all the time. Just don’t y’all visit it all at once.

  38. Wow, this is a wonderful description of the area where I live and love.
    My husband and I had our first date biking out into the Driftless, and were married a year later on Earth Day 34 years ago.  Today we are building a very green house using a number of natural building, as well as shiny green technologies. 
    Underhill House is intended to be a demonstration of mindful building practices like passive solar design, unmilled whole timber frame construction, slipform stone walls as part of the foundation, cutting edge solar infloor heating technology and a sod roof.
    You can follow our progress, if you wish, at
    We are hoping to create a home worthy of this amazing Driftless Area.

  39. If any reading this thread every travels to the area, consider visiting Effigy Mounds National Monument in northeast Iowa, which is also part of the Driftless Area. It’s one of my favorite places in Iowa: Thousand-year-old animal-shaped earthen mounds, and spectacular views over the Mississippi River.

    If you’re into paddling, the Upper Iowa River — which is completely unrelated to the similarly named Iowa River, which is emphatically not in the Driftless Area — is a great trip. The nearby Yellow River State Forest has what is probably the only long-distance non-rail-trail hiking route in the state. (About 25 miles, IIRC.)

    A big industry in the area used to be button manufacturing. Beds of mussels used to blanket the Mississippi River bed. The industry took off, and mussel numbers declined.

    I grew up in Iowa and the area is one of my favorite places. There was a restaurant (whose name I forget, and it had closed down the last time I visited) that stored its beer in a 200-foot-long tunnel bored into the side of one of these monadnocks. I think it was outside of Marquette, Iowa.

  40. I think I prefer ‘inselberg’ to ‘monadnock’. And if the butte is sticking up above a lava plain, it’s a ‘steptoe’.

  41. every drive across the country I’ve swung through this area. It’s pretty enough to make the sidetrack

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