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.
4. DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge
At the height of the tourist season, some 4,000 visitors flock to this wetland refuge on the Missouri River, but they’re outnumbered 100 to 1 by the snow geese. Each fall nearly half a million of these birds alight on the shores of DeSoto Lake — the midpoint of a 3,000-mile migration between Arctic nesting grounds and their winter home along the Gulf of Mexico. So vast are the flocks that at takeoff they blot out the sky like a blizzard, and the din of their honking can make it difficult to converse with someone just a few feet away. The preserve’s other inhabitants include wood ducks, mallards, warblers, piping plovers, and bald eagles.
The visitor center is a starting point for several trails and roads that lead through the refuge. It also houses a fascinating display of Civil War-era artifacts recovered from the Bertrand, a stern-wheeler that foundered nearby in 1865.
5. Murray Hill Scenic Overlook
After returning to Logan, the drive continues northwest on Rtes. 127 and 183, passing through a rustic mosaic of farmsteads, ridge-top grasslands, and apple orchards. In friendly towns such as Logan, Magnolia, and Pisgah, a cup of coffee at the village café may lead to an afternoon of unhurried conversation with locals — a hallmark of Midwestern hospitality.
Just a few miles to the west of Pisgah, the Murray Hill Scenic Overlook reminds visitors how richly varied this landscape can be, as the snug valley of the Little Sioux River gives way to the wide greenish-brown belt of the Missouri River floodplain.
6. Preparation Canyon State Park
During the 1850s a band of idealistic Mormons settled here and established the School of Preparation for the Life Beyond. Before long, however, their leader — a con man named Charles Thompson — robbed them of their property. Although Thompson was eventually run out of town, many of his followers became so disillusioned that they decided to move on as well. By the turn of the century, the community existed only in memory. Happily, Preparation Canyon State Park, just off Rte. 183, does a far better job of fulfilling its promises. Here you can explore over 300 acres of steep loess terrain –accompanied, some say, by the ghosts of a few of the cheated settlers. Keep an eye peeled for such creatures as wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, and red foxes.
7. Sioux City
The drive eases toward its finish with a long climb to Sioux City. Though it boasts only about 80,000 residents, Sioux City ranks as one of the country’s largest grain and livestock centers, with diversions aplenty along its busy waterfront. Drop by the Sergeant Floyd Museum of riverboat history, take in a bluff-top view of the Big Sioux and Missouri rivers from Floyd Monument, and finish with a hike to Dakota Point Overlook in Stone State Park, an 1,100-acre recreation area at the north edge of town.
8. Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center
Within the boundaries of Stone State Park, you’ll find the extensive Dorothy Pecaut nature center with exhibits that include a “walk-under” prairie, an aquarium of native fish, natural history dioramas, and a hands-on discovery area that appeals to children and adults alike. Continuing northwest on Rte. 12 to Akron, the drive bids farewell to the Loess Hills as the slopes themselves recede from view, their proud tops melting into the gently folded plains. Length: About 220 miles.
When to go: April to November.
Words to the wise: Check local road conditions and beware of slow-moving farm equipment.
Nearby attractions: Henry Doorly Zoo, Omaha, NE. Elk Horn Danish Villages, Elk Horn, IA.
Further information: Harrison County Welcome Center, 2931 Monroe Ave, Missouri Valley, IA 51555; tel. 712-642-2114, www.goldenhillsrcd.org.
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