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Iowa Scenic Drives: Loess Hills Scenic Byway

Things to Do Along the Loess Hills Scenic Byway

© The Loess Hills spread out into the distance, as seen from the Hitchcock Nature Center.
© The Loess Hills spread out into the distance, as seen from the Hitchcock Nature Center.

Along the Loess Hills Scenic Byway, the rare kind of soil known as loess has been formed into hills that allow a different kind of ecosystem to develop. This ecosystem features plants and animals that are rarely found anywhere else. Not only do the hills represent a rare kind of soil, but they are also a slice of the once vast prairie lands of the United States. The hills contain most of Iowa's remaining native prairie, making the byway a site that preserves natural history.

The area of the Loess Hills has been dubbed a National Natural Landmark in order to further promote its protection. There are also four Iowa State Preserves in the Loess Hills, including Five Ridge Prairie Preserve, where you can observe the untouched habitat of the prairie. When you drive through places such as Broken Kettle Grasslands on the byway, you may see unique plants like the ten-petal blazing star.


Because many of the creatures along the byway are threatened or endangered, you will also find wildlife refuges along the byway. The DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge is maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; you may be able to glimpse migratory waterfowl nesting and feeding in the area.

About 500,000 snow geese stop here in the fall as they travel south. Many other species of birds and geese stop and stay at the wildlife refuge. The Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center is an excellent place to find out more about the habitat and ecosystem of the Loess Hills. The center provides many engaging exhibits, including live animal displays and a butterfly garden. Other preserves and parks along the byway have their own information centers where visitors can find out more about a particular place or part of the Loess Hills. After you have stopped at the centers and preserves, the unique traits of the Loess Hills will be apparent.

Recreational Qualities of the Loess Hills Scenic Byway

During a drive on the Loess Hills Scenic Byway, you will want to get out of the car and stretch. And there are several places along the byway that are perfect for more than just stretching. Opportunities for outdoor recreation are around every corner.

Between preserves and state parks, you will have an excellent chance to view unique wildlife. DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge is a home and hotel to many waterfowl and migratory birds. Wildlife watching is a popular activity on the byway's four preserves. At Stone State Park, try camping or tour the trails in your own way. Whether you love hiking, biking, or horseback riding, all these modes of transportation are welcomed. Even snowmobilers ride through these wooded trails onto the white prairie in the wintertime. Stop at an orchard or farm to pick your own apples.

If outdoor recreation isn't a priority, try touring historical sites and monuments. Historical museums are located throughout the byway, along with many unusual buildings and historic districts. Gaming is also a popular activity on the byway at the casinos in the byway communities. Visitors will find slot machines, table games, and nightlife. In addition, the best antique shopping in Iowa is rumored to be found in the communities along the byway.

Cross the river from Council Bluffs to Omaha, Nebraska, to explore this busy city full of distractions. Or simply settle down at a quiet restaurant for a bite to eat and time to look at the map.

Scenic Qualities of the Loess Hills Scenic Byway

The rolling hills created by the loess soil of the Loess Hills make driving this byway a pleasant experience from any angle. The hills themselves are in the setting of the Missouri River Flood Plain. Visitors who drive the Loess Hills Scenic Byway enjoy the scenic overlooks and the sight of the hills rolling on and on.

Viewing the unique formations of the Loess Hills creates a sensation of continuity as you see the prairie as a whole. Because of the unique properties of loess soil, you can enjoy "cat steps" in the hills where the loess has slumped off, creating a unified ledge. In the distance, you may catch a glimpse of the Missouri River.

Throughout the year, the prairie rolls through the seasons. Fall is one of the favorites of travelers who come to see the hardwood forests and prairie vegetation change to rich hues of red and orange. Pieces of an agricultural lifestyle form a patchwork of fields and historic communities along the byway.

Pioneer cemeteries next to country churches tell the story of earlier settlers who came through this place and the hardships they had to face. Travelers also experience the sights of the cities on the byway, such as Sioux City and Council Bluffs, which remain great stopping points at any time of year. Parks, museums, and historic buildings offer a taste of the byway cities.

Find more useful information related to the Loess Hills Scenic Byway:

  • Scenic Drives: Are you interested in scenic drives beyond Iowa? Here are more than 100 throughout the United States.
  • Iowa Scenic Drives: The Loess Hill Scenic Byway is one of many scenic drives in Iowa. Check out all the Iowa Scenic Drives.
  • Council Bluffs, Sioux City: Check out these cities on the Loess Hill Scenic Byway.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.