Iowa Scenic Drives: Loess Hills Scenic Byway

Follow this map of Loess Hills Scenic Byway.

The Lewis and Clark Trail, Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, and California Trail all traverse the Loess Hills Scenic Byway in Iowa. Some of the natural features on the byway are only found here and one other place on the planet, on the opposite side of the world in China.

The Loess Hills Scenic Byway weaves through a landform of windblown silt deposits along the eastern edge of the Missouri River Valley. This unique American treasure possesses natural features that are found in only two places in the world: western Iowa and the Yellow River Valley of China. Travelers are intrigued by the extraordinary landscape of prairies and forest-covered bluffs.


The loess (pronounced LUSS) soil deposits were initially left by glacial melt waters on the floodplain of the Missouri River. These deposits were then blown upward by strong winds. The steep, sharply ridged topography of this area was formed over thousands of years by the deposition and erosion of the windblown silt. The rugged landscape and strong local contrasts in weather and soil conditions provide refuge for a number of rare plants and animals.

As you drive the western edge of Iowa, you pass through dozens of prairie towns. Larger cities such as Council Bluffs and Sioux City offer venues of recreation, culture, and history.

You will want to enjoy the many nature areas along the way as well. The Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center, the Hitchcock Nature Area, and the Loess Hills State Forest are just a few of the many places on the byway that are dedicated to preserving and restoring the native prairies of western Iowa.

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Highlights of the Loess Hills Scenic Byway

This map shows you the highlights of Loess Hills Scenic Byway.

When driving the Loess Hills Scenic Byway in Iowa, consider using the following itinerary. It has many stops at which you can enjoy the natural wonders unique to this region.

Broken Kettle Grasslands: The tour starts in the Broken Kettle Grasslands, just south of Akron. The preserve constitutes the largest remaining section of the vast prairie that once covered most of Iowa. It contains some flora and fauna not found in any other part of the Loess Hills to the south or the state of Iowa, including the prairie rattlesnake and the ten-petal blazing star.


Five Ridge Prairie Preserve: Five Ridge Prairie Preserve, located on the Ridge Road Loop, about five miles south of Broken Kettle Grasslands, is a combination of prairie and woodlands. This is one of the best sites of unbroken prairie remnants in Iowa. You'll notice the climate changes between open grasslands, which are warmed by the sun and dry prairie breezes, and the shadowy woods, which remain cooler and more humid. Expect to find more than a few rugged hiking trails at this site.

Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center: The Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center is on the Stone Park Loop just south of the Highway 12 entrance to Stone State Park. The center is devoted wholly to Iowa's Loess Hills. The center has live animal displays, hands-on exhibits, a butterfly garden, and a walk-through exhibit showing life under the prairie.

Stone State Park: Your final stop, Stone State Park, is located on Sioux City's interpretive northwest side. It has 1,069 acres of prairie-topped ridges and dense woodlands. Dakota Point and Elk Point provide scenic overlooks of Nebraska, South Dakota, and Iowa. The multiuse trails handle hikers, bicyclists, horseback riders, and snowmobilers, and campsites with showers are available. This park is a site on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

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Things to Do Along the Loess Hills Scenic Byway

© 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.

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History of the Loess Hills Scenic Byway

© This imposing white-trimmed brick mansion in Council Bluffs is a National Historic Landmark. It was built in 1869.

The history of human settlement in the Loess Hills has left many stories behind in old buildings and sacred places. A home and hunting ground to some of the continent's earliest people, human habitation in the Loess Hills has been developing for many years.

The people native to this land had a great respect for the Loess Hills. The land was greatly honored until the early 1800s; when explorers began to wind their way through this land in the 1700s, it was the end of an old way of life around the Loess Hills.


Historical treasures are located within the Loess Hills from the period of European settlement as well. To see pieces of this history, follow the Lewis and Clark Trail north and south along the hills or prepare for a trip along one of the many trails that traveled to the West.

The Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, and California Trail all traversed the Loess Hills in their route westward. In fact, the Mormon Trail had a stopover point in the hills called the Great Encampment that was used during the winter months. At this point, permanent settlement in the Loess Hills became an option for pioneers crossing the plains.

The places left behind are protected as designated historic sites. You will find National Historic Landmarks, places on the National Register of Historic Places, and National Historic Trails. Museums and information centers along the byway allow visitors to study the history that surrounds the hills. Buildings such as the General Dodge House and the Woodbury County Courthouse display styles of architecture from another time.

Many sites in the Loess Hills were also used on the Underground Railroad to transport escaped slaves to the north. And you will find monuments to the first explorers, including Sergeant Floyd of the Lewis and Clark expedition, who was the only explorer to die during the journey. Museums cover everything from Civil War history to prehistoric life in this part of Iowa.

Archeological Qualities of the Loess Hills Scenic Byway

Archaeological studies reveal places in the Loess Hills that have been continuously occupied for 12,000 years. Cultures from 12,000 years ago until recent times have been studied and cataloged in order to provide an idea of what human existence has been like in the Loess Hills. Hints of past civilizations are enough to make the Loess Hills an archaeologically significant area.

Evidence of a nomadic culture of hunters and gatherers was found in Turin (which is on the byway) in the middle of the last century. The site yielded some of the oldest human remains in North America. The bones date back nearly 8,000 years and provide an inside look into life during that time period. In the city of Glenwood, stop at the Mills County Historical Museum to explore a reconstructed earth lodge and artifacts that were discovered in the area.

You may also want to stop at Blood Run National Historic Landmark, where there was once a center of commerce and society for the Oneota Indians. During the period of A.D. 1200 to 1700, these people constructed buildings, homes, and effigy mounds in the area. The collection of resources from Loess Hills is informative to archaeologists and visitors to the byway.

Cultural Qualities of the Loess Hills Scenic Byway

Many of the first European settlers of the Loess Hills of Iowa came from Danish, German, or Swedish cultures that settled in the United States nearly 200 years ago to create a unique heritage. These people learned to live among each other, creating a diverse culture characteristic of the United States.

The byway culture today is a blend of the old and new living side-by-side. Urban centers such as Sioux City and Council Bluffs give way to hidden corners of agricultural hamlets.

From cities to villages, cultural events occur regularly on the byway. While some visitors may choose to attend theatrical events and tour museums, others may want to taste some of the local flavor at a farmer's market, county fair, or heritage celebration.

When travelers come to the Loess Hills Scenic Byway, many of them take part in activities such as the rodeo or apple harvest festivals. To learn more about the people of the Loess Hills, visit the Moorhead Cultural Center, which has displays and activities that tell the story of people and culture on the byway.

Nature may be the star power here, but the Loess Hill Scenic Byway has a wide array of stops for all interests.

Find more useful information related to the Loess Hills 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.