One of the most rare ecological landforms in the world is found along western Iowa – the Loess Hills. For some of you, simply viewing the bucolic scenes of the rolling hills will be enough reason to visit. For the rest of, you’ll want some fun or historical stops for the trip. This Loess Hills road trip has both of those.
Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Travel Iowa. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own. This post may contain affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, if you make a purchase after clicking the link, I receive a small stipend for the recommendation.
Having spent most of life living in southwestern Nebraska, I thought I was pretty familiar with the Loess Hills, but it turns out, I only knew a small part of them. I had the opportunity to travel the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway, inspired by the Iowa Byways Passport, and ventured further to the northern and southern portions of region.
So, below, you’ll read a culmination of years exploring the Loess Hills casually and more in-depth thanks to the Passport’s stops. I’ll highlight which stops on this route are Passport stops.
What’s unique about the Loess Hills?
The Loess Hills are wind-deposited soil formations created at the end of the last Ice Age. They’re found along the Missouri River all along western Iowa, as well as parts of Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Eastern Kansas.
The fine soil is quite delicate, blown easily by the wind. It’s home to rare and diverse plants and animals (including a species of rattlesnake…more on that soon). And the only place in the world with comparable rolling hills and grasslands is in China.
Iowa Loess Hills Road Trip
The Loess Hills National Scenic Byway travels along the western border of Iowa. It runs more or less parallel to Interstate 90, with several loops scattered throughout. We’re going to start this road trip from the north, since the terrain is pretty flat up north and builds up from there (it seems anti-climatic to end in a flat area when we’re talking about hills, right?). The views grow steadily more impressive, and culminates in southwestern Iowa.
The byway is mostly paved (because of some loops) and runs 220 miles from north to south. In the north, you’ll be driving Iowa Highway 12. You can add loops on your itinerary, too. There are more than 180 additional miles if you do all of those loops. Some are gravel roads, fyi.
Tip: Sign up for the Iowa Scenic Byway Passport before you start planning your trip. It’s free and recommends historic sites and unique restaurants, shops and attractions, as well as scenic views. You could win a prize by doing so! Each month in 2021, one byway traveler will win a Byway Prize Package valued at approximately $200 which will include gift certificates for hotels, restaurants, attractions and more. Each check-in to a location on the passport earns you one entry into the monthly sweepstakes drawing.
Below are 11 towns and cities I recommend stopping in as you drive through the Loess Hills. This is by no means covers all the possible stops and attractions.
Every good road trip needs a random roadside attraction, and this road trip starts right out of the gate with one; The Stegosaurus Sculpture. [Passport Stop 1] It’s located right on Highway 12.
The small town of Akron, Iowa is in Plymouth County along the northwest region of Iowa. The sculpture was built as a diversion or distraction on the outskirts of town. It’s made of metal and a variety of found objects (just check out those red eyes). It’s an oddity that makes you stomp on the breaks so you can stop and take a closer look.
The largest prairie in Iowa was preserved at Broken Kettle Grasslands. The 4,500-acre less tourist destination (ie. untouched, unspoiled) and more of a glimpse into the history of the Midwest, complete with a bison herd of 200! [Passport Stop 2]
If you go, the address listed — 24764 Highway 12 — is for the The Natural Conservancy and if you go there, you’ll be rather confused. There’s really nothing to do there.
Instead, drive the Butcher Road Loop. Butcher Road is just south of the listed address for the grasslands.
The dirt road gets fairly steep, so don’t try driving it after rain. Once you reach the top, the views are spectacular, and for me, among the best you’ll encounter on this road trip.
Hiking isn’t really a thing there since bison roam the grasslands. However, there is a nice outlook along the Butcher Road Loop. It’s peaceful and a nice place to stretch your legs. You’ll see plants that won’t be found elsewhere on this road trip.
And you may just find a prairie rattlesnake. Yep, rattlesnake. Who knew Iowa had rattlesnakes? (OK, OK, only this small region of Iowa has rattlesnakes.) There are no turn-off spots to park, so just be careful with where you pullover to look out.
3. Sioux City
A visit to Sioux City can easily take a full day. It has a rich history in connection to Lewis & Clark, great restaurants, and if you’re into it, a casino. Plus, there’s a fantastic state park inside the city.
If you were itching for a hike, you’ll want to go to Stone State Park. It’s a forested part of the Loess Hills – unlike further south stops that tend to be fairly unshaded and dry. There’s another byway loop here – the 3-mile Stone Park Loop.
Be sure to stop at the nearby Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center, 4500 Sioux River Road, especially if you’re traveling with kids. The indoor visitor center is full of hands-on exhibits and home to a raptor recovery center. [Passport Stop 3]
But the true gem for families is the Discovery Forest Nature Playscape. This is my family’s go-to pitstop for the kids to let out energy. The nature center is fairly close to another Passport stop, Sioux City Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, 900 Larsen Park Road. [Passport Stop 4] We didn’t allow much time, unfortunately, to truly get the most of the activities there, but I highly recommend a stop.
Kids can do the Official Visitors’ Journal activity, where they select what role they’d play on the Lewis & Clark expedition, and collect stamps as they walk through the exhibits. The exhibits include some hands-on activities as well as animatronics.
It’s really well done for a free experience, so there’s no reason not to take a quick stop. If you’re stay overnight, there are more places you can visit while in town. I like the Sioux City Public Museum, Palmer’s Old Thyme Candy Shoppe, and the Historic Fourth Street District.
A mix of lushly wooded trails and quintessential rolling hills of the Loess Hills, Preparation Canyon State Park, 340th St., is a tempting stop for hikers. [Passport Stop 5] But, if you’re not in the mood to hike, do plan a stop to at least soak up the views from the observation deck.
The views of the Loess Hills are outstanding and, conveniently, wheelchair accessible. Drive the Preparation Loop to add a few more miles of the area.
5. Little Sioux
We accidentally found the Murray Hill Scenic Overlook, two miles northeast of Little Sioux on F20, when we took an unplanned turn onto the Fountainbleu Loop. [Passport Stop 6] Our dumb luck paid off and after a brief uphill hike, we had a great view of Loess Hills-meets farmland. You can plan a longer hike for this stop – the start of the 8-mile Brent’s Trail is here.
Side trips: There are a few stops in this area that have long been on my to-visit list, so while I can’t recommend them personally, I thought I’d mention them because they’re notable: Loess Hills Lavender Farm and Sawmills Hollow Family Farm (home to the Aronia Berry Festival) in Missouri Valley, and Small’s Fruit Farm (a u-pick orchard) in Mondamin .
6. Missouri Valley
The Harrison County Historical Village and Iowa Welcome Center, 2931 Monroe Ave., is a hidden gem of a pit stop on the byway. [Passport Stop 7] I’m always a sucker for well-preserved historical buildings and there are several here, including a one-room schoolhouse.
For history fans, you can see part of the Lincoln Highway here as well as a lot of antique farm equipment. For families with young kids, there’s a transportation play area (and for goofy parents – a photo opp).
Side trip: DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge is the place to be each spring and fall to see migrating birds. For the rest of the year, enjoy the trails (bring bug spray) and impressive Steamboat Bertrand exhibit. You can check out a kid’s backpack with activities to enhance any hike you take with little ones.
7. Honey Creek
My favorite spot in the Loess Hills because it’s conveniently close to Omaha, my hometown. Hitchcock Nature Center is spectacular, with varied trails with a mix of prairie and wooded paths, an observation tower, and an impressive visitor’s center. There’s a wheel-chair accessible trail, as well.
It’s also near Honey Creek Creamery (home to spring goat yoga) and the provider of goat’s milk for the neighboring Stanley’s Snack Shack. If it’s summer, stop for ice cream. It’s so good, I included it on my list of must-visit Iowa restaurants.
Random but true story: They let us milk a goat on our first visit to Stanely’s.
8. Council Bluffs
There’s a lot to see and do in Council Bluffs, located just over the river from Omaha. If I had to pick one view for you to take in while there, I’d recommend seeking out Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park and the 3,000-foot-long curvy bridge (I usually park on the Omaha side at 705 Riverfront Drive; there is also parking on the Council Bluffs side).
During your stop, be sure to walk cross the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge (affectionately called The Bob). The bridge spans the Missouri River and connects Iowa to Nebraska. It’s called “bobbing,” and while you’re up there, it’s an unspoken rule that you take a picture of yourself at the state line between Iowa and Nebraska. [Passport Stop 8]
If you have more time in Council Bluffs, head to the south end of the city with a mountain bike for a ride on the Wabash Trace Nature Trail (there’s a $2 fee to ride it; it helps with maintenance). [Passport Stop 9] It’s a fairly flat, crushed limestone trail that’s just a little over 60 miles long. I get on the trail at the trailhead located by Lewis Central Middle School, 4820 Harry Langdon Blvd.
For fairly fit bikers, go out-and-back to Mineola, stopping for a cold drink and snack mid-way through the ride. We did it with kids and it’s manageable. For a shorter ride, there’s a picnic area to bike to that’s about 3 miles out nicknamed Margaritaville (perhaps you’ve heard of the Thursday Night Taco Ride).
9. Pacific Junction
Like the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center and the visitor’s center at Hitchcock Nature Center, the Pony Creek Nature Center in Mills County aims to educate visitors about the ecology of the surrounding area. It has, perhaps, the most interesting architecture you’ll encounter on this road trip, too. [Passport Stop 10]
We learned an important lesson with our stop to Pony Creek – call ahead. You can check business hours online, but the hours aren’t always up-to-date. So, our visit was a short one since it wasn’t open. Since it’s so close to Omaha, I know we’ll be back.
Overnight stay recommendation: Horse Creek Adventures, 2048 Horse Creek Road (it’s BYOH, though – bring your own horse)
One of the best scenic overlooks in Iowa’s southern portion of the Loess Hills can be found at Waubonsie State Park, located in between Sidney and Hamburg. [Passport Stop 11] The hiking trails around Waubonsie can be a bit challenging, especially if you’re hiking with younger kids, but the short trek to the overlook, at least, isn’t too difficult.
Waubonsie is an off-the-beaten-path state park. In my experience, it’s not as crowded as places like Stone State Park and Hitchcock Nature Center.
Side trips: Sidney’s annual rodeo is a well-known event each July, and so it’s not surprising the town is home to Iowa’s Championship Rodeo Museum. The hours weren’t conducive for a visit during our road trip, so we didn’t get a chance to visit. [Passport Stop 12]
Whiskey Springs is a great restaurant in Hamburg that the innkeeper at Horse Creek Adventures recommended to us. The food and atmosphere didn’t disappoint (though I hope they upgrade their tables and chairs soon).
In the town of Hamburg, you’ll also encounter the pharmacy, Stoner Drug. The name’s a bit amusing but go inside – there’s a soda fountain there. I read that they serve a Fried Egg Sundae, that’s really all ice cream, and I’m planning on trying it someday.
Ready for a Loess Hills road trip?
The first thing I recommend you do is sign up for the Iowa Byways Passport, which will be your mobile guide with the check-in locations. After you sign up, the free passport is sent to your phone via text and email (no app to download). I saved the passport to my home screen to it only took one tap to access. The pass will walk you through how to do that!
All that’s left to do is to hit the road. When you visit a participating location in the passport, type in the corresponding PIN # to check-in or if your pass has geolocation capabilities, check-in by turning on your location services.