USGS - science for a changing world

Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

  Home About NPWRC Our Science Staff Employment Contacts Common Questions About the Site

Checklists of the United States

Upper Mississippi River
National Wildlife and Fish Refuge

Winona, Minnesota
Savanna, Illinois
McGregor, Iowa
La Crosse, Wisconsin

The upper reaches of America's mighty Mississippi River have seen many changes since their exploration by French missionaries and traders. Cities and towns now occupy the sites of historic Indian villages and trading posts.

Modern highways have replaced ancient trails along the river banks. Legions of small watercraft, yachts and ponderous barges travel the waterways. A lock and dam system maintains a 9-foot navigation channel. Yet the visitor viewing the great valley from the bluffs today still notes much of the Upper Mississippi's wilderness beauty as the early explorers saw it. The great cliffs still loom above the river. A carpet of woodlands shrouds the cities and other evidences of man's presence. Fish and wildlife still abound in many places, and the Father of Waters continues to roll ever southward to the Gulf of Mexico.

For more information about the refuge, stop by the Visitor Contact Station located on Highway 18 on the north edge of McGregor, lowa.


The refuge was established by Act of Congress on June 7, 1924. Original acreages for the project were acquired through purchase, donation and by withdrawal from the public domain. The area was later enlarged by additional land acquisitions of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for navigational improvements. These additional tracts are managed as part of the refuge.

Today, the Upper Mississippi Refuge consists of about 200,000 acres of wooded islands, waters and marshes extending more than 260 miles southward along the river bottoms from Wabasha, Minnesota to nearly Rock Island, Illinois. The river bottoms forming the refuge are from 2 to 5 miles wide. This great river refuge demonstrates man's ability to preserve scenic, recreational and wildlife resources amidst the needs of modern civilization.

A Unique Area

The Upper Mississippi Refuge is unique among wildlife conservation areas. Its boundaries are the longest of any refuge in the lower 48 states, for it extends hundreds of miles along the river in four states-Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. Containing differing life zones and climatic conditions, some 270 species of birds, 57 species of mammals, 45 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 113 species of fish are found here.

Eleven dams and locks within the refuge boundaries form a series of pools that vary from 10 to 30 miles long. The dams have raised water levels, creating a maze of channels, sloughs, marshlands and open lakes over the bottomiands. Excellent stands of aquatic plants have developed, creating habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife.


The Upper Mississippi Valley is a major migration route for birds. Among the more spectacular seasonal flights are those of the waterfowl. Thousands of tundra swans stop at favorite resting areas during the spring flight. Large numbers of canvasbacks use the refuge, especially during fall migration. At times, up to 75% of the canvasback continental population may be seen on Pools 7 and 8 alone. Other diving ducks - principally lesser scaup, ringnecks, redheads, buffleheads and ruddies - gather on open pools above the dams. Mallards, wigeon, gadwall, teal and other surface-feeding species are found in the shallow backwaters along the river banks.

The Mississippi River bottoms are a favorite haunt of the wood duck. Thousands of these brilliantly marked birds feed in the protected sloughs and shallows and nest in the hollow trees along the islands and bluffs.

The bald eagle, our national emblem, winters in numbers on the Upper Mississippi Refuge. These majestic birds concentrate below the dams or near the mouths of tributaries where fish provide a ready food supply. Spectacular migrations of other birds are noted during spring and fall when hordes of warblers, vireos, thrushes and sparrows drift through the trees and shrubs of the river islands and bluffs. Whip-poor-wills and pileated woodpeckers call in the remote woodland areas.

The refuge bottomlands harbor myriads of marsh and water birds such as herons, egrets, bitterns and rails. Many large rookeries may be observed in more remote reaches where hundreds of great blue herons and egrets raise their young.

Major furbearers along the Mississippi include muskrat, mink, beaver, otter, raccoon, skunk, weasel and fox. A few nutria have appeared in recent years. Other mammals include gray and fox squirrels, cottontails, jackrabbits and white-tailed deer which are abundant in the timbered areas, plus about 40 smaller non-game animals.

Visiting the Refuge

The Upper Mississippi Refuge offers unsurpassed opportunities for sightseeing, outdoor recreation and nature study. It accommodates some 3 million visitors annually for such activities as wildlife observation, environmental education, boating, fishing, hunting, bird study, and sightseeing.

The river valley is rich in historical lore. Traces of ancient mound-building tribes are found along the bluffs and bottomiands. Signs and markers point out the sites of old Indian battlegrounds, villages, forts, trading posts and the routes of early explorers. Black Hawk, the famous Sac and Fox chief, fought here. Names like Marquette and Dubuque recall early French settlement and influence in the valley.


Year-round fishing for walleye, northern pike, sauger, bass, perch, crappies, sunfish and catfish is popular below the dams, in sloughs and in channels between islands. A state fishing license is required and state laws apply. Commercial fishing is also important on the river with 5 to 10 million pounds of carp, buffalo, sheepshead and catfish harvested each year.


Many river visitors bring boats by trailer or carriers. Excursion trips and boat rentals may be obtained at marinas, landings or municipal boatyards along the river. The navigation locks will pass your boat through the dams to the next pool. Safety regulations of the U.S. Coast Guard and bordering states should be observed.

Scenic Drives

A continuous system of highways designated as the Great River Road closely follows the refuge boundaries. Superb views of the river valley are afforded from river bluffs at Winona and La Crescent, Minnesota; Alma, La Crosse and Cassville, Wisconsin; Lansing, McGregor and Dubuque, lowa; and Savanna, Illinois.

Camping and Picnicking

Modern campgrounds are available at various state and municipal as well as at commercial parks on both sides of the river. Primitive camping on the refuge islands and beaches is permitted for periods not exceeding 14 days. Thousands of visitors use the sandbars and beaches along the main channel for picnicking and swimming. Campfires or hot charcoal may not be left unattended or buried. Please carry a litterbag in boats as well as cars. Remove all refuse from camp or picnic sites and dispose of it at home or an authorized facility.

Nature Study and Photography

There are excellent opportunities for enjoying natural life on the river. Lists of refuge birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians are available at refuge offices.

Hunting and Trapping

Much of the refuge is open to public hunting during state seasons. Fourteen designated areas at intervals along the river, totalling some 41,000 acres, are closed for the protection of migratory waterfowl during the hunting season. These closed areas are open to trapping and upland and big game hunting according to state and federal seasons following the final day of duck season. Hunting and trapping are subject to state licensing, with special use permits and tags also required by the refuge for the fur harvest.

Additional information may be obtained by contacting one of the following refuge offices:
Refuge Headquarters:

                 Refuge Manager
                 Upper Mississippi River NWFR
                 51 East Fourth Street
                 Winona, Minnesota 55987
                 Telephone: 507/452-4232
District Offices:

                 Upper Mississippi Refuge
                 51 East 4th Street, Room 101
                 Winona, Minnesota 55987
                 Phone: 507/454-7351
                 Upper Mississippi Refuge
                 P.O. Box 415
                 La Crosse, Wisconsin 54601
                 Phone: 608/784-3910
                 Upper Mississippi Refuge
                 Office/Visitor Contact Station
                 PO Box 460
                 McGregor, lowa 52157
                 Phone: 319/873-3423
                 Upper Mississippi Refuge
                 Post Office Building
                 Savanna, Illinois 61074
                 Phone: 815/273-2732

Return to Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge

Accessibility FOIA Privacy Policies and Notices

Take Pride in America logo logo U.S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
Page Contact Information: Webmaster
Page Last Modified: Friday, 01-Feb-2013 18:50:00 EST
Sioux Falls, SD [sdww54]