Unlike the surrounding, glaciated regions that were plowed by mile-thick glaciers that dumped deep layers of sand, gravel and rocks on the terrain, the Driftless Area landscape has had its rivers and streams left to carve deep valleys over the past 1.6 million years. The result is a scenic landscape of steep bluffs with limestone and sandstone cliffs and valleys that form dendritic (treelike) patterns. In 2012, the Huffington Post declared the Great River Road Scenic Byway in Wisconsin the prettiest drive in the nation, edging out a highway in Hawaii for the title.
Because of this undisturbed status and other factors, some geologists believe that the Kickapoo River may be the oldest active river in the world.
The area repeatedly has served as a refuge for animals and plants during the glacial assaults to surrounding areas. As a result of this refuge status, coupled in some instances with a bizarre geological formation known as an algific talus slope, arctic-type species continue to thrive in the Driftless Region but not in surrounding areas.
The land’s diverse topography harbors many globally-imperiled natural communities with amazing contrast, spanning the gamut of hot-dry sites with prickly pear cactus to Ice Age holdovers like Pleistocene snails and beautiful northern monkshood wildflowers sustained by air chilled and vented from subterranean ice caves and rock fissures.