What is the Driftless Area?
The Place the Glaciers Missed
Many people think of the upper Midwest as flat. Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois were all ironed out by more than a million years of glaciers scraping over them, depositing ‘drift’ like boulders, sand, silt, and clay as they melted. But in the heart of this region, there’s a place the glaciers missed – what we now call the Driftless Area.
What is commonly referred to as the Driftless includes the hilly region of southwestern Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa, and northwestern Illinois. It spans about 24,000 square miles – an area the size of West Virginia. This region has a unique topography of rolling hills, wide plateaus above sandstone bluffs, and narrow valleys carved by coldwater streams.
Geologically speaking, only southwest Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois are truly “driftless” – meaning the glaciers never touched them. The area west of the Mississippi River was covered by the first of three glacial events in this region, so from a geological perspective it is not strictly “driftless.” However, the landscape, ecosystems, and human communities are similar, and all feel a part of a colloquial “Driftless Area.”
This map is from “The Driftless Area: The extent of unglaciated and similar terrains in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota” (Carson et al, 2023), a publication of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey. You can read the full pamphlet here.
Past, Present, and Future
The broader Driftless Area served as a refuge to plants and animals when thick ice sheets covered much of northern North America, and still harbors rare and fascinating species. Since European settlement, as much of the Midwest has been converted to agriculture and development, the steep, rocky slopes of the Driftless have become a modern-day haven for dwindling native species such as grassland birds. The region’s clear, cold, spring-fed streams also provide phenomenal habitat for native trout, which are threatened by warming waters caused by climate change.
But the Driftless Area isn’t just defined by lack of glacial deposits, geography, or ecosystems. It also has a long history as unique and valued place for human residents. Today, the Driftless is full of productive farms, groundbreaking architecture, local food movements, art communities, state parks, hiking trails, and people who love and steward the land.
For these reasons and many more, the Driftless Area is a special place.