Ranging north to south near the Missouri River, the Loess Hills (pronounced “luss”) are imposing reminders of the ice sheets that once covered much of present-day Iowa. Silty debris left behind after the ice melted here was piled high by the wind into dunelike drifts — some as tall as 200 feet. Thanks to a group of Iowans who banded together to establish the Loess Hills Scenic Byway, this distinctive landscape can now be toured in the comfort of your car.
1. Waubonsie State Park
Begin your survey of the Loess Hills at this 1,200-acre preserve, where three towering bluffs afford views into four states: Iowa and neighboring Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri. Here, too, you’ll catch your first glimpse of the Missouri River.
Located 9 miles north of Hamburg off Rte. 2, the park has more than 15 miles of hiking trails and bridle paths, offering up-close views of the loess formations. Due to its extremely fine texture, the soil erodes and drains quickly, leaving behind knife-edged ridges. As is evident at many road cuts, however, loess can also hold a nearly vertical face without giving way (a result of the way its grains interlock). Another notable feature of the Loess Hills is the so-called cat steps. Visible on the park’s western slopes, these mini-terraces are caused by loess’s tendency to slump.
From the park the drive heads north on Rtes. L44 and J18 before joining Rte. 275 at the town of Tabor. Farther along, the highway briefly merges with Rte. 34, heading west before continuing north at Glenwood to Council Bluffs. Named for an 1804 meeting between explorers Lewis and Clark and members of the Otoe Indian tribe, Council Bluffs today is a busy river town and the northernmost point on one of Iowa’s best hiking or biking routes — the Wabash Trace Nature Trail. Following an old railroad right-of-way, this 63-mile pathway wanders through forests, farmlands, and meadows, ending just a few miles short of the Missouri border.
2. I-680 Scenic Overlook
Gliding through some of the most fertile farmland in the state, the drive heads northeast from Council Bluffs on Rtes. 191 and L34, then veers west on I-680. A few miles ahead a gravel access ramp (closed in winter) leads to a scenic overlook, with lovely views of billowing hills and the Missouri River valley.
3. Hitchcock Nature Area
A sharp turn south on Rte. 183 brings you to one of Iowa’s loveliest parks, the 580-acre Hitchcock Nature Area. As elsewhere in the western part of the Loess Hills, the terrain here is rugged yet lush, making it hard to imagine that, only a few miles away, the vast flatlands of the western prairie stretch toward the horizon.
Hitchcock also displays the same odd mix of vegetation that is characteristic of this region. While the inner hollows of the Loess Hills support dense forests of oak, hickory, and red cedar, their western slopes are almost desertlike in appearance. Look for hardy survivors such as yucca and purple beardtongue — plants found again only hundreds of miles to the west. Looping back to I-680, the drive continues north to Logan, where it heads southwest to the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge.