Loess Hills National Scenic Byway

Details

  • DesignationNational Scenic Byway (2000)
  • Intrinsic QualitiesNatural
  • LocationIA
  • Length220 miles
Byway Visitor Information
Golden HIlls RC&D
Statewide Byway Partners
Iowa Department of Transportation
Iowa Byways Map - Download
These visitors stroll through the snow-covered woods near Hitchcock Nature Center.
Public domain Photo

Overview

When it's time to escape the hustle and the bustle of your everyday life and finally spend some time in serenity, the Loess Hills are your destination. Breathtaking scenery; authentic down-home cooking; remarkable attractions; significant archaeological finds; and most of all, peace.

Situated along Iowa's western border, the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway features a 220 mile paved main route (or 'spine') and 185 additional miles of excursion loops for the more adventuresome. Explore the truly unique Loess Hills landform at your own pace, whether by car, bus, motorcycle, bicycle or on foot.

Local Byway Partners

Story of the Byway

Majestic views are the hallmark of a trip on the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway(TM). Stretching from Akron in Plymouth County, Iowa at the northern reach to the Missouri border in Fremont County at the southern end, the 220 mile paved main route (or 'spine') was first designated as a state byway, and then nationally recognized as one of America's Byways(TM). An additional 185 miles of excursion loops, ranging from Interstate Highways to gravel roads, are signed for the more adventuresome.

Whether you're traveling by car, bus, motorcycle, bicycle or on foot, slow down and enjoy the panoramic views of the fertile Missouri River Valley farmland, forested hills and vast grasslands along the byway. Scenic overlooks are strategically placed and interpretive signage can be found along the way. Budget enough time to visit the many attractions, enjoy great food and experience the wonderful hospitality of western Iowa. But...what's so special about the Loess Hills? They are hills made almost entirely of windblown soils. Toward the end of the last ice age, winds picked up soils that had been ground as fine as flour and formed dunes along the ancient waterway that became today's Missouri River. The process repeated itself during the thousands of years the ice age took to end, enlarging the dunes. Because the prevailing winds were from the northwest, the dunes on the Iowa side of the river were higher than those west of the Missouri.

Today, the definition of a Loess Hill is a hill made of loess that is more than 60 feet in height; using that definition, about 640,000 acres of land in western Iowa constitute the Loess Hills landform. Although deposits of loess are found across the world, nowhere else but China are those deposits higher than they are in Iowa. Eventually, topsoils evolved on the dunes and a unique natural community developed. Ice age animals like wooly mammoth, camel, giant beaver and giant sloth roamed the Loess Hills during the Hills' early years. Humans have lived here off and on for 6,000 years as evidenced by stone tools, spear points, pottery and burial sites. The delicate ecology is still home to many rare and diverse species of plants and animals.

The Loess Hills National Scenic Byway began in 1989 as a grassroots effort by dedicated citizens in cooperation with Golden Hills Resource Conservation and Development, Inc. (RC&D) and the Western Iowa Tourism Region. Golden Hills RC&D is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the wise use and protection of natural resources for the economic and social betterment of the people of southwest Iowa. The Byway became an Iowa Scenic Byway on July 8, 1998, and on June 15, 2000, received the National Scenic Byway designation. The Loess Hills National Scenic Byway is coordinated by Golden Hills RC&D.

Driving Directions

To join at the northern end, begin in Akron, Iowa and head south on Highway 12. Signs are placed approximately every 2 miles and at turns. When you enter Sioux City, the byway gets on Interstate 29 at Exit 151 until Sergeant Bluff at Exit 141, and it will take D38 East. Be aware of ongoing construction. To join at the southern end, begin on Highway 275 at the Missouri/Iowa border and head north/west on it into Hamburg. When 275 turns to the north, continue west on E Street through town and turn north at Bluff Road. Follow it north, signs are placed approximately every 2 miles and at turns.

Points of Interest

  • Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve

    Broken Kettle Grasslands is home to Iowa's largest remaining prairie and over 200 bison.

  • Sergeant Floyd River Museum and Welcome Center

    Dry-docked boat-turned-museum & welcome center featuring history exhibits on the Missouri River.

  • Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Betty Strong Encounter Center

    The Interpretive Center opened in 2002 to commemorate the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial. It expanded in late 2007 with the opening of the adjoining Betty Strong Encounter Center to fulfill a permanent mission of “commemorating a history of encounters before, during and after the expedition.”

  • Sergeant Floyd Monument

    Monument dedicated to Charles Floyd, the only Corps of Discovery member to die on the journey.

  • Lewis and Clark State Park

    Lewis and Clark State Park in western Iowa is both a picturesque park and a historic location along the Lewis and Clark expedition trail from 1804. The park is a popular destination for boating, fishing and other outdoor recreation, with an opportunity to engage in history at the Visitors Center, on a working keelboat and during the annual Lewis and Clark Festival each June.

  • Murray Hill Scenic Overlook/Brent's Trail

    Murray Hill Scenic Overlook is 3 acres that offers a panoramic view of the Missouri River Valley. Yucca plants and native flowers dominate the Loess Hill prairie landscape. Interpretive signs are located at the overlook that explain the significance and history of the Loess Hills. Make the steep climb on the trail and you will be rewarded with one of the most picturesque locations in the Loess Hills. It is also a beginning/ending of Brent's Trail to Gleason-Hubel Wildlife Area totaling 8 miles.

  • Union Pacific Railroad Museum

    History museum on the Union Pacific Railroad with unique, interactive exhibits & a souvenir shop.

  • Wabash Trace Nature Trail, Council Bluffs Trailhead

    From the Iowa West Foundation Council Bluffs Trailhead to approximately Margaritaville, there is an off-road multi-use trail that runs parallel to the Wabash Trace. The trail is approved for use by hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians. There are bridge crossings where the off-road trail must share bridges with the main trail.

  • Todd House Museum

    The Todd House Museum is one of only four existing Underground Railroad Stations in Iowa. Our archive includes town and school records, photographs and family histories associated with Tabor and southwest Iowa, some dating from the 1820s. Our organization is also the repository for the records of Tabor College (1866-1927), a Christian school inspired by and built along the lines of Oberlin College, in Ohio.

  • Sidney, Iowa's Championship Rodeo Museum

    In 1923, the Tackett brothers returned from Wyoming and decided to hold a rodeo by forming a cirlce with Model T cars and makeshift fencing. Today the Sidney Rodeo is among the top 12% of the 800 sanctioned rodeos by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Associationand hosts over 38,000 visitors to the annua event. The museum contains much history of the rodeo and how it transformed over the years.

  • Stone State Park

    Nature reserve with hiking/biking trails, fishing & boating, camping & cabins, nature center & more.

  • Preparation Canyon Scenic Overlook

    Preparation Canyon State Park, in the heart of the Loess Hills in western Iowa, encompasses 344 acres, including what used to be the town of Preparation. Today, Preparation Canyon is a quiet enclave offering backcountry hiking, picnicking and beautiful views of the unique Loess Hills.

  • Hitchcock Nature Center Hawkwatch Tower

    Sprawling Loess Hills prairie refuge offering 10 miles of trails plus cabin & backwoods camping.

  • Mile Hill Lake

    This 39-acre park consists of a hardwood forest, which is open to public hunting, and a10-acre fishing lake with boat dock and ramp. The lake is considered a No Wake Zone and is closed to swimming. When driving into the park you will find an interpretive panel discussing the prehistoric culture that lived in this region, and the handicap accessible Scenic Overlook,which offers an interpretive panel discussing the Loess Hills Scenic Byway.

  • Waubonsie State Park Overlook

    Equestrian & hiking trails & other outdoor activities are available at this campground with cabins.

Itinerary

  • Explore the Loess Hills

    Day 1

    The Loess Hills travels along the Missouri River. You might not be able to see the river, but it is there! Start at Westfield in northwest Iowa on Highway 12 and head south. Stop at the Broken Kettle Grasslands. In Sioux City, stop at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and leave town on Highway 141 heading south. The route then takes a meandering course with many named loops off the main route. Scenic views abound. Stop in Preparation Canyon in Moorhead and Murray Hill Scenic Overlook in Pigsah. Continue to Missouri Valley and treat yourself at the Loess Hills Lavender Farm and have lunch in town. If you packed a lunch, enjoy your meal at the many state and local parks.

    On to Honey Creek, visit the Hitchcock Nature Center and climb the 45-foot tower to see breathtaking views of the Loess Hills. Bring your camping gear? Stay at the campground. Or travel on into Council Bluffs for the night finding hotels, restaurants, diners, and more for your evening hours.

    Day 2

    Council Bluffs is home to both the Union Pacific Railroad Museum and RailsWest Railroad Museum. Visit the historic home of General Grenville M. Dodge (Dodge House). Art appears all over Council Bluffs in murals, sculptures, and fountains. Tom Hanafan’s River Edge Park has a walking bridge over the Missouri River and into Omaha, NE. Bayliss Park is beautiful in both day and evening. And since you are so close, cross the Missouri River and check out the Omaha Zoo. Then continue the Lincoln Highway in Nebraska, also a National Scenic Byway.

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