Iowa : Safety by City
- Arnolds Park
- Cedar Falls
- Cedar Rapids
- Clear Lake
- Council Bluffs
- Des Moines
- Fort Dodge
- Fort Madison
- Iowa City
- Mason City
- North Liberty
- Pleasant Hill
- Polk City
- Sioux City
- Spirit Lake
- Storm Lake
- The Amana Colonies
- West Des Moines
I had to become somewhat of a geological expert to be able to write this article about Decorah, Iowa.
It started with seeing what I considered an odd tourism brand “Drift Less.
Then I saw a reference to the city being driftless.
I was even more intrigued.
As it turns out, being in the expanse of the Midwest known as the “Driftless Area” makes it all that more of an exciting place to visit.
The “Driftless Area” dates back to the ice age, when the entire section of the globe was covered in ice and when it melted, “drift” was left behind.
Except – there is no drift in this part of Iowa and the “Driftless Area” stretches into Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota.
Since this is a safety article and not a geology white paper, I have to move on.
I promise you, learning about the “Driftless Area” is fascinating.
You do get to experience a special benefit of it in an ice cave.
This is also a Norwegian cultural hotbed in the northeastern part of Iowa.
The city of 7,500 people was settled by Norwegians in the 1850s.
There’s an annual Nordic Fest in July that celebrates this rich history.
Decorah is also closer to Minnesota and Wisconsin than it is to Des Moines.
If you have a car of your own here and are an outdoor enthusiast, a tri-state adventure awaits.
No matter what small town in Iowa you’ve seen before, you haven’t seen anything like Decorah.
In fact, they even grow their own pizza here.
Decorah Fun Fact:
Soap Opera fans might recognize Decorah’s hometown actor, Mark Pinter.
He was a staple on Another World in the 90s and won the Best Villain Award in 1996.
One of his daughters is married to Carson Daly.
Warnings & Dangers in Decorah
OVERALL RISK : LOW
Decorah could also be a "Crimeless Area." Aside from a handful of crimes, this is among the lowest crime cities I've ever seen. Even more shocking, the crime that did happen in 2021 is - for the most part - much lower than in the previous pandemic year.
TRANSPORT & TAXIS RISK : LOW
There isn't a traditional bus route in Decorah, but you can call Earl Public Transit if you need a "dial-a-ride" service. Fares cost anywhere from $2 a ride to $2 a mile. Taxis and rideshares are going to be hard to come by and some require booking 24 hours in advance. Having your own car is ideal and almost necessary.
PICKPOCKETS RISK : LOW
There's a low risk. This is a very small town with incredibly friendly and safe people. There were 27 thefts in 2021, so there's a small chance. You should still use good common sense when visiting.
NATURAL DISASTERS RISK : MEDIUM
There are risks throughout every season here, but nothing that is out of the ordinary for an Iowa town. There are severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, flash flooding, winter storms, blizzards, and ice storms. You also don't have bigger cities nearby if you need to evacuate, so always keep the car gassed up. There's a medium risk throughout the year.
MUGGING RISK : LOW
There were no robberies in 2021, so you can feel safe that you won't get robbed. However, never let your guard down. That's the one downside when I report a "safe" city is that I'm concerned people will throw caution to the wind. Low risk doesn't mean it's impossible.
TERRORISM RISK : LOW
There's no risk here. It's a rural area surrounded by wilderness. I'm sure no terror group even knows Decorah exists.
SCAMS RISK : LOW
There are scam advisories here, but they are the run-of-the-mill kind that impacts residents mostly. You have a low risk of being scammed here.
WOMEN TRAVELERS RISK : LOW
Women have a low risk when visiting Decorah. There has just been one sexual assault in the past few years and other crime rates are very low. There are a lot of attractions that might specifically appeal to women here, too.
TAP WATER RISK : LOW
The Decorah Water Department issued the 2022 Water Quality Report. The detailed report shows no violations in the tap water tests and low risk when using the water for drinking or bathing. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is doing ongoing testing statewide for PFAS in the water, also known as the "forever chemicals."
Safest Places to Visit in Decorah
The tourism people in Decorah came up with this great tagline:
“Glaciers missed us, so be sure you don’t.”
Download the Visitors Guide for some hidden treasures like an easy-to-read map of the biggest attractions and trailheads in the city.
You might want to make the first stop at Decorah Bicycles to pick up rental bikes for the whole family.
You can also get a mountain bike or fat-tire bike for more rugged adventures.
Bicycling is very popular in Iowa and it’s a great way to get around a small town without burning gas or wearing out your walking shoes.
The Vesterheim Norweigan-American Museum & Folk Art School brings the traditional museum to life with interactive and innovative exhibits.
You can schedule a folk art class online.
Admission is $12, but the second Saturday of every month is free for everyone.
For another historical tour, stop by the Porter House Museum to walk through a Victorian home with historic artifacts and treasures.
Downtown Decorah has plenty of unique shops and dining experiences.
Most of the food and spirits here are locally grown and farm-to-table fresh.
The Decorah Chamber of Commerce is here, so stop by to ask any questions you have.
The city and surrounding county have an extensive trail system for hikers and bicyclists.
Before I tell you about any of the cool stuff, I have a warning for everyone.
Not all trails are listed on the maps.
If you aren’t an experienced hiker, consider booking a tour guide or at least do extensive research before going.
Ice Cave Park is one of the most unique park trails you’ll find.
There is no admission to enter the ice cave but you enter “at your own risk.”
You might think visiting here in winter makes the most sense, but that’s actually when it’s most dangerous.
The safest time to tour the ice cave is in summer and early fall.
This is a small, tight space, and you’ll have to crouch in some parts of it.
Bring a flashlight.
There are also warnings about falling rocks inside the cave, so a helmet isn’t a bad idea.
For more trail information, visit VisitDecorah.com.
The Seed Savers Exchange looks like a typical Iowa farm, but there’s nothing typical about this place.
This is located right outside Decorah.
The exchange offers plenty of walking tours around different kinds of produce, plants, and flowers.
Some seeds grow food that is nearly extinct.
One of the main goals of Seed Savers is to keep at-risk seeds from becoming extinct.
They call them “Heirloom Seeds.”
You can also order seeds online if you don’t want to carry around the purchases.
I bet you’re still wondering how you grow your own pizza, right?
Stop by Luna Valley Farm to see. This organic farm grows plants and raises animals.
On pizza nights, you don’t have the traditional menu.
The farm offers pizzas based on whatever is fresh on that particular day.
There is also “glamping” (fancy camping) offered here if you want to spend your trip away from the city and take in the night stars.
For those who love road trips, check out the Driftless Area Scenic Byway.
There are so many hidden gems along the way, you’ll need a map from the Chamber of Commerce to see where they are all located.
With more than 180 stops along the byway, it’s important to plan your trip before you hit the road.
Water lovers, anglers, and bird watchers will need to check out the details of the water recreation options in Winneshiek County.
There’s Cardinal Marsh, Trout Stream in pristine waters, the Turkey River, and the Upper Iowa River.
I could go on even more about the things to do here.
I’m not sure if I’ve seen a small town have this much to do.
Places to Avoid in Decorah
There aren’t any bad parts of town or neighborhoods to avoid.
This is a safe community where you can travel freely.
I once lived near Lake Tahoe, and too many times I thought I knew how to adventure on my own and never asked for guidance.
I missed out on a lot and ended up in some precarious situations.
Don’t make that mistake in Decorah.
There are maps and online things to research to learn about the safety of the area, but the best information is going to come from the locals.
They can give you specific areas that get swampy after rain, where it is too dangerous to hike, or where the best and worst bike trails are located, depending on the season.
You need to get this guidance because there’s a good chance you won’t have phone service in the wilderness.
Dress for the weather here.
Winters can be as low as 9°(F) on average and wind chills can bring temperatures below 0°(F).
You will need a lot of layers, crampons, walking rods, studded boots, and clothing for all extremities if you’re going into nature.
If the area is getting hit by a major winter storm during your visit, either arrive early or wait until after the roads have been cleared before you visit there.
This is a remote location in northeast Iowa and if you get stuck on the side of the road you might be there a while.
Safety Tips for Traveling to Decorah
- Even Decorah being a safe town doesn’t keep it from feeling the impact of drug crime related to the opioid crisis. Drug crimes are the second-highest category of incidents reported here, after shoplifting. If you see any illegal drug activity, don’t intervene. Just call the police. The non-emergency number is (563)382-3667.
- The city averages 45 car vs deer accidents a year, and that’s just within the city limits. While it’s already illegal to drive distracted in Iowa, there’s that extra pressure of knowing a deer could jump out at any moment. Always keep your eyes on the road and check for wildlife on the side of the road.
- To deter deer from being in the city, don’t feed them or leave food outside, hoping they’ll come close enough for a picture. It’s illegal to feed deer in Decorah. It’s also illegal to host a bullfight in Decorah, just in case you were going to try. 🙂
- For any hunting and fishing here, you’ll need specific licenses with strict qualifications. As soon as you know your travel dates, check out the Iowa Department of Natural Resources website for all the specific details. There are some places to fish where reciprocity agreements are in place with neighboring states, so even if you cross a state line, you might be able to fish there with an Iowa license.
- In winter, you should know the right places for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. The Decorah park website details the many trails available in the winter. Blue trails can be used by anyone, and red trails are for skiers only.
- Follow the Decorah Street Department on Facebook to keep up with construction projects, weather-related road closures, and snow parking information. You don’t need a Facebook account to access the page, and this is where emergency information will be posted throughout the year, not the city website.
- During a snow emergency, you have to watch where you park. For the plows to adequately clean the streets, there needs to be a clear path for them. You can park on the even-numbered side of the street on even-numbered days, and on the odd-numbered side of the street on odd-numbered days. For example, if it’s February 3, you have to park on the odd-numbered side of the street. On February 4, you’d need to move to the other side of the street.
- Decorah has several traditional hotels, but there are also rental homes through VRBO and Airbnb. There are bed & breakfast inns, cabins, campsites, and glamping. Be sure when you book a rental you do so through an official site. Don’t look for good deals on Craigslist or the Facebook marketplace. There are just too many scams that can happen. You should never have to wire money to book a reservation and ask the landlord to show proof of a rental permit. When in doubt, reach out to the Chamber of Commerce to verify a rental is legit.
- You might smell fire while you’re there because people can do controlled burns outdoors. If you suspect a burn might be illegal, or just want to verify it is a controlled burn and not a wildfire, call the fire department at (563)382-3472.
- During warmer months, you should protect yourself from mosquitos and ticks. Wear bug spray and full-length shirts and pants if it’s not too hot. Do a full-body search when you’re back from the woods to make sure there aren’t any ticks on you. Check the delicate areas too, because they like to hide in armpits and groin areas.
So... How Safe Is Decorah Really?
Honestly, there are more natural dangers than criminal dangers here.
There were seven violent crimes reported in 2021 and they were all aggravated assaults.
There were no homicides, rapes, or robberies.
You do need to lock your car doors and roll up the windows when you park.
Keep all personal items out of plain sight.
There is no city safe enough to forget these basic personal safety steps.
You should study emergency management plans for Winneshiek County on the Emergency Management section of the county’s website.
Emergency Management also has a Facebook page you should bookmark as it will cover the weather forecast for each day and any hazards in the county.
You can also sign up for “Alert Iowa” weather alerts and emergency notifications.
I can’t stress enough that you should never think you “know better” than the locals about the weather and wilderness risks here, no matter how experienced you are with outdoor adventures.
How Does Decorah Compare?
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- Visas - There's a three to four-month window to get a U.S. visa, so plan ahead. You'll need to give a lot of personal information, do an in-person interview, and reveal all the social media accounts you've used in the past five years. Once you are in Iowa, you don't need your Visa until you go to the airport to return home. Store it in a safe place during your travels.
- Currency - Exchange currency for the U.S. Dollar (USD) at the airport, because this is a rural area and currency exchanges are hard to come by. You might want to bring some cash in case you find places that don't take credit cards. Store your cash inside a jacket pocket or in a sock to keep it from being visible when you pull out your wallet.
- Weather - You'll want layers throughout the year, but mostly in winter when the temperatures get cold. Spring and fall can still get chilly, so bring warm layers with some mild-weather clothing. Summer is going to be humid, so plan to sweat a lot. Bring electrolytes with you when traveling to keep up with the nutrients you are losing when you sweat.
- Airports - There are shuttles available from Decorah to Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport and Rochester International Airport. When booking a trip through the Rochester airport, make sure you are booking the airport code of RST and not ROC. ROC is the airport in Rochester, New York, which is 805 miles away from Decorah. The Minnesota airport is called "Rochester International Airport" while the New York Rochester Airport is named "Frederick Douglass Greater Rochester International Airport." It can be a bit confusing. Rochester, MN is about 90 minutes away and Minneapolis St. Paul is a three-hour drive.
- Travel Insurance - It can just take a small amount of ice or an average amount of snow to leave the roads impassible or delay air travel, so be sure to get travel insurance to protect your travel investment.
Decorah Weather Averages (Temperatures)
Average High/Low Temperature
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