Loess Hills Scenic Byway
The Loess Hills of western Iowa beckoned this summer, and I’m not sure why. I knew that driving the entire 220-mile scenic byway would take at least two days, and I didn’t really have time…but still, I kept thinking about it. I did some research. The more I learned, the more fascinating it seemed.
This drive was meant to be.
So I took off work the first day of August – an unseasonably cool Friday – and headed west.
The Loess Hills are considered a natural geologic wonder found in only two places in the world: Iowa and China. The word “loess” comes from the word “loose” – meaning loose soil. The hills in western Iowa are made up of windblown soil from the end of the last ice age.
This part of the state looks unlike any other. While some of Iowa is flat, most of the state is made up of gently rolling land. The Loess Hills are really hills, as I would soon learn.
I started early Friday morning, heading north out of Ames. I wanted to get to the northern end of the byway as early as I could, so I took what I thought would be the most direct route: north I-35 and then west on Hwy. 20. I stopped only once – in Correctionville – for a bathroom break at Casey’s. (What would we do without Casey’s? There would be no bathrooms in Iowa.) When I got to Sioux City, I took Hwy. 75 north to Le Mars (ignoring signs for the ice cream capital of the world) and then west on State Hwy. 3. I was in Akron before 10:45 a.m., stopping (again) at a Casey’s for gas. From then on, the rest of the day, I drove the Loess Hills Byway.
Here’s one thing I learned about the byway immediately. There are two parts: the main byway or “spine” and the “loops.” The spine is pretty, but it keeps you at arm’s length of the hills. It’s sort of like standing next to someone you don’t know very well. The loops are like giving a big hug to someone you love – they take you right up in there.
I spent a lot of time on the loops. I think I took about 85 percent of my pictures on the loop roads – and I shot most of the others in state parks and nature preserves. The loops are awesome. They’re mostly gravel, extremely rural, and surrounded by these beautiful green hills that seem so out of place and therefore so delightful. I encountered farmland and barns, old cemeteries and churches, wildflowers and grasslands. The variety is pretty amazing. Several of the roads were like gravel rollercoasters – think San Francisco-style hills. Seriously!
Both the main byway and the loops are well marked. The signage is really helpful; I would never have found many of the twists and turns just by following the map. Even with the great signs, I still managed to get lost a couple of times. More about that later.
OK, so I started out in Akron and drove south on State Hwy. 12 to Westfield, where there reportedly is a Loess Hills Interpretive Center, but I didn’t find it. I did find the first loop: Ridge Road Loop, one of the most spectacular on the whole byway. This mostly gravel loop (drive slow!!!) takes you to both the Broken Kettle Grasslands and the Five Ridge Prairie County Park. The 4,500-acre Broken Kettle prairie preserve is said to contain flora and fauna not found in other parts of the Loess Hills, but there are no trails so I can’t really say for sure. The prairie looked pretty from the road, though, and I did see a lot of wildflowers there.
I took a short hike at Five Ridge Prairie, one of the larger roadless areas in the Loess Hills. I didn’t have a hiking map, so I didn’t really know what trails were there. So I just did a leg stretcher and moved on.
At this point it was about 12:30; I left Plymouth County and entered Woodbury County. Just across the county line are Stone State Park and the Stone Park Loop. I took advantage of the shady park’s picnic tables and had myself a little picnic lunch. Just south of the park is the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center. I was really looking forward to this stop, because I’ve seen pictures and the center looks really cool. But the road was closed due to construction, so I couldn’t find out. Disappointing.
Rather quickly I found myself in Sioux City, trying to follow the signs as the byway takes you onto I-29 and through residential and commercial sections and through some annoying road construction before returning to the pastoral, rural county roads. The cities (Sioux City and later Council Bluffs) are by far the least picturesque parts of the byway, and I wondered as I drove through the urban regions if there couldn’t have been a prettier way to bypass them.
Further down the road in Woodbury County, I left the main spine to take the Stagecoach Trail Loop. Here is where I got lost. The Stagecoach Trail intersects with the Smokey Hollow Loop and I got really turned around. I ended up going through the small town of Smithland three times. The second time I thought, “This can’t be right,” so I turned around, but indeed it was right because of the way the loops popped me out…but at any rate I finally figured out what I’d done wrong and got back on the byway going south.
And that’s another thing: the road does NOT always travel south. You end up going east and west and even north occasionally. So it’s really good to have a detailed road map and follow the signs because it’s sort of nerve-wracking to feel like you’re going the wrong direction.
I thought I would NEVER find my way out of Woodbury County, so I was really happy to see the Monona County line. By this time it was getting to be late afternoon. My goal was to reach the bed and breakfast I’d reserved in Crescent by 7 p.m.
I took the Wilderness Loop, which at first I thought was really poorly named – it was more the Agricultural Loop – but it ended up being very pretty and sort of wilderness-y after all. I stopped briefly at the Loess Hills Wildlife Area, Turin Loess Hills Nature Preserve, and Sylvan Runkel State Preserve, none of which was especially exciting, but the gravel lots gave me an opportunity to get out and stretch my legs and take a few pictures. I was really looking for the Preparation Loop, which I hoped would take me to Preparation Canyon State Park, and it did. The park has some mighty pretty views, and I’m assuming some good hiking trails, but I didn’t have much time to spend there. I moved on.
And then the road ended.
Well, not really ENDED ended, but State Hwy. 183 just closed abruptly without a detour sign. Luckily I did have a good Iowa highway map, so I backtracked from the Moorhead/Pisgah area where the road ended back up to County Road E54 (which was really pretty), over to State Hwy. 37 and down to Dunlap. In Dunlap I caught Hwy. 30 and drove to Logan, at which point I hooked back up with the Loess Hills Byway. But for a short time I was also on the Lincoln Highway Historic Byway AND the Western Skies Scenic Byway and with all those signs I got confused and ended up going back to Dunlap…but I had been right all along. Sigh! I was pretty stressed out at this point and was nearing my estimated time of arrival – and I was still in Harrison County and quite a ways from my destination.
I passed up the Fountainbleu Loop and the Orchard Ridge Loop – god forbid I should get lost again – and stayed on the main byway. I also passed the Hitchcock Loop and the road to the Hitchcock Nature Area – I knew I’d have to double back tomorrow morning to see those. I was headed south on L34 (not far from the intersection of I-80 and I-680) and realized that the byway does NOT go through Crescent. So I took a little cut-through (County Road G36), a hilly, winding little thing. I was super excited when it actually did take me to Crescent.
I checked into the Crescent View B&B – which does, indeed, have a lovely western view (above) but not much else to recommend it – and headed into town for some food. I found Denny’s Place, a kind of dive-bar-slash-pizza-restaurant that I enjoyed very much. I ordered a personal-sized veggie pizza, and it was just the right amount of food. I also savored a cold beer.
Back at the Crescent View I sat outside and watched the sun go down and then called it a night.
The next morning, Carol Meduna, who runs the B&B with her husband, John, fixed me a huge breakfast – about three times more food than I normally eat that early in the morning. Besides good coffee, she prepared a yogurt/granola/fruit parfait, apple coffee cake, a spinach-mushroom omelet, and fried potatoes.
After I checked out, I backtracked to the Hitchcock Loop, which I’d passed the night before – but not before pulling off the road to snap a few pictures of the hills in the early-morning light and low-lying fog.
The Hitchcock Loop took me to the Hitchcock Nature Center, a really wonderful place as it turns out. I paid $2 at the entrance, parked my car, and enjoyed a pretty overview before taking a quick hike on one of the many, many trails in the area. Hitchcock features the Loess Hills Lodge interpretive facility, plus camping cabin rentals. This seems like a great getaway and not difficult to get to if you take the direct route from Des Moines (I-80) as opposed to the winding, 12-hour route I took to get there. I’m sure it’s especially lovely in the fall.
I was starting to get low on gas (even though my little dirt-covered Prius C was getting about 57 miles to the gallon) so I was happy to get to Council Bluffs next. And then, after getting gas and using the restroom at (you guessed it) Casey’s, I was immediately NOT happy to be in Council Bluffs, because the byway route is ridiculous and takes you through what must be the most unattractive part of the city. Again, I was relieved to be back on the rural roads after that.
I took the Waubonsie Loop (which, oddly, does not take you to Waubonsie State Park) and then headed into Freemont County – the last county on the byway. I took the Pleasant Overview Loop and, following the advice of my trusty Loess Hills brochure, took the first gravel road to the left to an old cemetery and a beautiful overlook with thousands of yellow wildflowers. It was breathtaking.
The Pleasant Overview Loop itself takes J34 to Sidney, where the road inexplicably ended (again) without (again) telling you how to detour around it. I drove around in Sidney (it was rodeo weekend! Exciting!) and finally gave up, going back the way I came.
And then I found the sign leading to Waubonsie State Park, so I drove there and enjoyed a short but lovely hike (above).
Back on the main byway and heading toward Hamburg the road was closed AGAIN, with no detour sign. For crying out loud! At that point, I was at State Hwy. 2 that runs east-west across the state and I just said forget it. I got on Hwy. 2 and started driving. (Part of my exit was actually the Pleasant Overview Loop…but by then I was pretty much ready to just go home.)
I took Hwy. 2 to Hwy. 71 in Clarinda, drove north to Hwy. 30, and back to Ames.
I think if I were to do this drive again, I would do it in the fall. I would do more research on hiking trails – which ones take you up through the hills? Which ones offer spectacular overlooks? Which ones are easy enough for me to actually hike? And I would probably spend three days doing the drive instead of just two.
Also, if you go, bring water, bug spray, and picnic food. I was glad I had all three. Bring a good highway map and a detailed Loess Hills guidebook – you really need this. And fill up your tank with gas whenever you have a chance, because you can drive a long way between Casey’s.