Retreating glaciers created the phenomenon of Iowa’s Loess Hills between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. The silt, clay and sand left behind formed vast mounds that have eroded into the creased hills linking Sioux City to Council Bluffs. The only other place you can see something of a similar magnitude is in China, so take your time driving this 100-mile stretch of the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway. The small towns, state park, quaint farms and green hills make it easy to savor the region.
Hitchcock Nature Center, Honey Creek
This 1,200-plus-acre preserve is all about experiencing the area’s natural beauty. The interpretive facility introduces visitors to the unique land formations. Hiking trails offer up-close views, but the observation tower rewards with a panorama.
Exhibits and programs at the Loess Hills Lodge show how the hills were formed and the importance of conservation. Its hands-on learning center, Curiosity Cove, puts the same info into terms children can relate to. Everyone leaves knowing that the correct pronunciation of Loess rhymes with bus. For views of the valley below, step onto the deck, which leads to the 45-foot-tall observation tower. Bring binoculars for bird-watching any time of year. In the fall, visitors gather to watch for hawks, eagles and other birds of prey migrating south. Dedicated volunteers count and record the raptors that make this one of the best hawk-watch stations in North America.
Ten miles of trails mean there is one to suit your group. Trails range from flat and easy to strenuous climbs, and they intersect, so it’s possible to design a hike that makes the most of your family’s time and skill. No matter what path you take, the views of the hills are breathtaking, plus you’ll see wildflowers and wildlife as you traverse wide-open prairies, rugged terrain and forests.
Loess Hills State Forest, Pisgah
Gateway to Loess Hills State Forest’s 11,000 acres, Pisgah is also home to the visitors center. There you can get brochures and maps to plan your route through the park’s four units.
The town of Pisgah is central to all four units; Preparation Canyon on the north, Little Sioux on the West, Pisgah on the edge of town and Mondamin south of town. One of the most popular units is Preparation Canyon. In 1853, a Mormon elder and about 50 families left the wagon trails going to Utah to settle here. It’s easy to see why. Valleys dotted with farms and timber emerge as you zigzag up and down roads—some so steep that it feels like you’re driving cliffs. See it all from the Loess Hills State Forest scenic overlook. From the massive wood deck—accessible via a universal-access ramp—Preparation Canyon unfolds to reveal the border of the Loess Hills, the interstate and on to the Missouri River in the distance. At just under 1-mile, the hiking trail from the scenic overlook is a relatively easy stroll through the open fields and groves of cedars and oaks.
Loess Hills Lavender Farm, Missouri Valley
It’s almost impossible not to relax at this farm. Lavender is known for easing stress, after all. More of the plant’s benefits are covered during the farm owner’s 20-minute oral presentation. It’s fascinating stuff: The herb can be used in food and beverages (cookies and lemonade), lotions and mosquito repellant. After the session, head for the fields, where more than 2,000 lavender plants await (the season begins in June). The owners encourage guests to wander the rows at their leisure in order to absorb the therapeutic aroma.
Honey Creek Creamery, Honey Creek
Milk Rosie the goat, then take the tour that explains how her milk becomes organic cheese at a family-owned farm. After the tour, sample artisanal cheeses like silky smooth chèvre. Contact the creamery to schedule a tour; a nominal fee is charged.
More places to pick up brochures and maps:
Harrison County Historical Village and Iowa Welcome Center, Missouri Valley
Helpful volunteers provide information and hand out brochures and maps of the Loess Hills at the Welcome Center adjacent to Harrison County Historical Village. A self-guided tour of the property includes a log cabin, 1868 schoolhouse, country store and blacksmith shop, plus original Lincoln Highway markers. If you have time, watch two 10-minute videos, one about the Loess Hills, the other on the Lincoln Highway.
Itinerary compiled by
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