The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge protects more than 240,000 acres in four states and is the longest wildlife refuge in the contiguous 48 states, stretching 261 miles along the Mississippi River from the Chippewa River in Wisconsin almost to Rock Island, Ill. Steep bluffs, interesting islands, ancient burial mounds, unusual flowers and migrating birds are just some of the photographic subjects waiting to be discovered. The Great River Road, a National Scenic Byway, runs along both sides of the refuge, providing easy access to the refuge and adjacent public lands. Many public boat landings offer photographers with watercraft more options for exploring the area.
Summer highs are often in the 80s and low 90s F with high humidity. Winter frequently sees lows below zero and occasionally drops as low as minus-20. Autumn and spring are moderate, with pleasant days and cool nights. Locals say that if you don’t like the weather, just wait a few hours—it’ll change. And it usually does.
It’s easy to explore and photograph the refuge for weeks without duplicating subjects since it’s so large. Favorite spots for photographing landscapes of the refuge include: Great River Bluffs State Park and Millstone Landing in Minnesota; North Marquette Access and Pikes Peak State Park in Iowa; Wyalusing State Park in Wisconsin; and Mississippi Palisades State Park in Illinois.
The area hosts hundreds of bald eagles, with more than 130 active nests. During the coldest parts of winter, the Mississippi River freezes over, except for areas immediately downstream from the Army Corps of Engineers dams. In winter, bald eagles congregate around these open pools of water to feed.
When exploring waterside wildlife refuges, the Trek-Tech TrekPod monopod/tripod/hiking staff
Thousands of tundra swans migrate through the refuge, usually in March and November. In addition, two-fifths of the continent’s entire waterfowl population uses this flyway during migration, and half of the world’s canvasback ducks stop here. The refuge also hosts more than 5,000 nests in 15 heron rookeries.
The federally endangered northern monkshood blooms in mid-June on several slopes adjacent to the Mississippi River. Later in the summer, water lilies bloom in profusion in lowland areas and offer wonderful opportunities to photograph vast seas of color from watercraft.
Spring and fall host the migration of not only waterfowl, but dozens of species of songbirds as well, with the peak of migration normally from mid-March to mid-May and from mid-October to mid-November. During summer, morning valley fog adds wonderful mystique to the landscape. Autumn color normally peaks between October 5 and 20, when sugar maple, basswood, oak and hickory display vibrant colors on the bluffs surrounding the Mississippi River. Winter reveals interesting ice and snow patterns on the frozen river, along with occasional hoarfrost and active bald eagles.
Contact: Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge Headquarters, (507) 452-4232, [email protected], www.fws.gov/midwest/uppermississippiriver/. District offices are located in LaCrosse, Wis., McGregor, Iowa, and Savanna, Ill.