Hitchcock Nature Center is a beautiful destination in the Loess Hills of southwest Iowa. For more than a decade, it’s been my family’s go-to spot for hiking near Omaha. No matter the season, you’ll find a lot to love about Hitchcock!
COVID-19 Update: All indoor spaces, including all public restrooms and the Loess Hills Lodge Exhibit Gallery, cabins, and playground facilities at Hitchcock Nature Center are closed to the public. All camping, including tent and RV and backcountry, is closed. Closures will remain in place until April 30 at which time they will be reevaluated & possibly extended. Outdoor spaces in the parks currently remain open for public use.
Where is Hitchcock Nature Center?
Hitchcock is located in Honey Creek, Iowa, a small town just to the north of Crescent and Council Bluffs, Iowa. Its exact address is 27792 Ski Hill Loop, Honey Creek, Iowa, and it’s about a 20-mile drive from Omaha.
Honey Creek is home to Mt. Crescent, the area’s only ski resort. For food options, you best bet is Stanley’s Snack Shack, a seasonal burger and ice cream joint you’ll pass on your way to the nature center. It’s ran by the folks who operate Honey Creek Creamery, so things like the ice cream are actually made with goat’s milk from the goats raised at the creamery.
And it’s delicious. (PS: It’s also of Iowa’s must-visit restaurants)
What’s so special about the Loess Hills
Loess soil (pronounced “luss”) is a pretty unique landform found only in the Loess Hills in the Midwest along the eastern edge of the Missouri River Valley and China. The hills were formed by winds carrying silt and glacial material and depositing them into massive drives.
Today, those drifts are sculpted into steep ridges and rolling hills. Due to its unique nature, the Loess Hills supports rare plants, animals, and biological communities.
Things to know about visiting Hitchcock
Hitchcock is part of the Pottawattamie County Parks, so to visit, you will need to purchase daily admission or annual membership. It’s $3 per vehicle (pay by exact change or check) or $20 for the membership.
The park is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
How many trails are there?
Hitchcock is 1,268 acres and has about 10 miles of trails. I didn’t really count, but they’re connecting trails with varying degrees of difficulty. We can easily spend a few hours here on a hike.
If you’d like to experience the trails with a guide, plan on attending one (or more) of the evening Hitch Hikes. Held several times a year, it’s an educational series that’s included with park admission. Reservations are not needed and they are weather-permitting.
The 2020 Hitch Hikes are:
May 19, 7 p.m.
June 16, 7 p.m.
July 21, 7 p.m.
Aug. 18, 7 p.m.
Sept. 15, 6 p.m.
How difficult are the trails?
There are three levels of trail ratings at the Hitchcock: Easy, Moderate, and Difficult.
Easy trails: Boardwalk on Hawk Ridge (a wheelchair- and stroller-accessible boardwalk); Fox Run Ridge; Bluestem Meander; Heritage Trail; Hidden Valley; Wildwoods; Hawk Ridge; and Dozer Cut.
I’m skipping Moderate because, to be honest, they aren’t too much more difficult than Easy trails.
Difficult trails: The Chute; Shea Way; Legacy Loop; Westridge; Cookie Crumbs.
“Difficult” in this part of the country is not to say prohibitive from taking kiddos. It’s almost inevitable that my family winds up walking up The Chute.
If you want more difficult trails in the Loess Hills, read this post about some other nearby hikes in Iowa.
When’s the best time to visit?
Each season has its perks.
Winter: If you want to feel like you have the place to yourself, visit in the winter. Bring your own snowshoes or rent them from the visitor’s center (they even rent kid-sized snowshoes). Rentals are $6 per day.
Kids, and kids at heart, can bring sleds and tackle The Chute. It’s a bit too fast for me, but my kids love it.
Spring: On the first few warm weekends of the year, my family always has to make a trip to Hitchcock. Granted, in March, things are still quite dead-looking, but it’s refreshing and not too crowded.
Then, when you get a little further into spring, the wildflowers start popping up and the leaves sprout on trees.
Summer: If you go early in the morning, before humidity and high temps strike, it’s a lovely time to hike. Trails like Hidden Valley are nicely shaded and feel slightly cooler than up on the ridges.
Bring insect repellent.
Fall: Hitchcock really shines in the fall. With cooler temperatures, changing leaves, and migrating birds, it’s a prime season to visit.
Wildlife you may spot there
Maybe it’s just because I’m typically hiking with two (or more) very loud children, but we don’t see a ton of wildlife at eye-level. We do encounter snails and other small creepy crawly things.
However, the bulk of the wildlife we spy tends to be birds of prey. Hitchcock is an excellent location for migrating birds. In fact, each year from September to December, they hold Hawk Watch where the public is invited to help count how many passing birds can be recorded. Find out which raptors and birds to watch for and when during Hawk Watch.
One of the best places to look for birds is the 45-foot-tall observation tower.
Camping and cabins at Hitchcock
One things I have yet to do at Hitchcock Nature Center is stay overnight. They have a couple rustic cabins with A/C and heating, and a few other nice conveniences like a refrigerator, microwave oven, and tables and chairs. However, they do not have running water or bathrooms (those are nearby).
The prices are pretty reasonable.
There are also camping and RV options here. For camping, they have both modern and backcountry camping.
For rules or to reserve a cabins, visit the Hitchcock site.
Tips for bringing kids
Hitchcock is the perfect place to inspire curiosity in nature. Here are a few things to know about bringing youngsters to the trails:
- – Plan on visiting the visitor’s center. There are several play areas to explore and learn about the wildlife and flora & fauna of the Loess Hills. It’s pretty well done!
- – While at the visitor’s center, go to the reception desk to check-out an Adventure Pack for your kid. The packs include animal ID cards, track cards, cloud ID chart, binoculars, kaleidoscope, bug box, compass, thermometer, and nature books. They’re FREE, but you do need to fill out a form and leave behind your car keys as collateral.
- – You can geocache at Hitchcock Nature Center. If you don’t have your own GPS unit, you can borrow one at the reception desk.
- – If your kiddo is not so steady on uneven trails, start first with the Boardwalk Trail.
- – There are often special weekend events at Hitchcock with activities geared toward children. Check the calendar to see if you can time a visit for one.
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Hitchcock Nature Center is part of the Iowa’s 99 awesome county parks. I written extensively about the parks you an explore in Western Iowa, particularly Lake Icaria.