Adventures in western Iowa, part 2: Glacial Trail Scenic Byway

I spent a weekend in northwest Iowa recently with two main goals: Drive the Glacial Trail Scenic Byway and hike in the Loess Hills. But I had some other adventures along the way. Here is part 2 of a 4-part series:

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I’ve been working on a story about Iowa’s geological history for VISIONS, the Iowa State alumni magazine, and I’ve become quite enamored by this state’s glacially carved landscape. So I just was really excited to drive the official Glacial Trail Scenic Byway, located north of Storm Lake and Cherokee and south of Spencer in northwest Iowa. The 36-mile driving loop goes through the towns of Linn Grove and Peterson and very close to Sutherland.

The Iowa Byways brochure says: “Glaciers carved the picturesque landscape of this unique byway. Travelers are treated to spectacular views of rolling hills, forested valleys, and the Little Sioux River.”

Indeed, the byway crosses the Little Sioux River no fewer than four times, and the hills are truly unique and picturesque.

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I started the drive at the northeast corner of this mostly rectangular byway route. Hwy. 10 is the northern anchor. This state highway (along with M12, the western “side” of the route) is the most scenic. I drove it twice and followed two off-shoots to the north, one to the Prairie Heritage Center near Peterson and another gravel road to nowhere in particular that was just so beautiful I couldn’t resist.

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More than a dozen pickup trucks crowded the Prairie Heritage Center parking lot that Saturday morning, but the building appeared to be locked, so I’m unclear what was going on. Perhaps it was a private meeting, or perhaps everyone met in the parking lot and went somewhere else. No matter, the outdoor environment was lovely, with a paved path through a restored prairie and spectacular views of the glacially carved hills. There was even a replica oxen-pulled covered wagon.

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Had it been open, I’m sure I would have enjoyed the center’s information about geology (glacial tills! catsteps!), natural history, and Native American cultural heritage. Artifacts from the Mill Creek culture date back to around 1000 AD.

Other stops along or near the route include parks (Wanata State Park, Buena Vista County Park, Dog Creek Park), a couple of museums, and the historic Inkpaduta Canoe Trail.

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The route is well marked and only takes an hour or so to drive. I’d definitely recommend the drive if you’re headed up to the Iowa Great Lakes or the surrounding areas.

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