Iowa isn’t flat. You’ll come to that realization when you set out for a hike along a trail in the Loess Hills. The climbs are worth it, though, when you make it to a lookout point and you take in the bucolic view.
What are the Loess Hills?
Before you start exploring, it’s worth knowing why the hills are significant. 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. When you hike, you’ll notice that delicate, dust-like soil.
The region is 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.
You can explore these hills by car — along the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway — or by foot.
Great places for hiking Loess Hills
1. Stone State Park
Where: Sioux City
This state park is located within city limits of Sioux City, but it feels very much removed from city life.
We visited on a winter day, taking a short hike from the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center to a lookout, passing by a sweet wooden play area for children.
We returned the following year in the early spring and enjoyed the vibrant greens of the forest.
Time your visit well so you can peek inside the Nature Center. This one also has hands-on exhibits for children and a 400-gallon aquarium with native fish.
There are more than two-dozen campsites as well as cabins with AC/heat (but no bathrooms).
2. Preparation Canyon State Park
We ventured to Preparation Canyon State Park without a map and without a clue. My son was really psyched to see a canyon, and even without much knowledge of the area, I knew he’d be disappointed.
I know in his mind he was picturing the Grand Canyon. Grand, this canyon is not.
We picked a trail from a picnic shelter, venturing down a steep slope to a lagoon. It was rough going back up, but our children and dog managed just fine.
We hiked in the spring and a large portion of the trail was underwater, so beware.
The highlight was actually outside of the main park area, the scenic lookout point with a view of the Loess Hills Forest. Follow the signs on the road, it’s definitely worth the drive.
There’s a large deck offering a beautiful view of the Loess Hills. A well-worn trail leads you along one ridge. The views of the Loess Hills are outstanding here and, conveniently, wheelchair accessible.
There are a handful of hike-in campsites, and a nature study area is located in the eastern area of the park.
3. Murray Hill Scenic Overlook & Brent’s Trail
Where: Little Sioux
It’s not super easy to find, but the Murray Hill Scenic Overlook is worth seeking. We stumbled upon the overlook when we made an unplanned turn on the Fountainbleu Loop of the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway. The overlook is about 2 miles northeast of Little Sioux on F20.
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 at this stop, though. The start of the 8-mile Brent’s Trail is here.
4. Hitchcock Nature Center
Where: Honey Creek
Trails here vary in degrees of difficulty, but we have yet to find one we can’t manage with our kids, who’ve hiked here with us since they were 2.
The trails really pop with color in the fall.
There is a barrier-free trail into the woods, making this park wheel-chair accessible. Camping is available and there are a few cabins. There is also a modern playground inside Hitchcock.
Be sure to check out the Nature Center and lookout tower. The nature center has hands on displays and interactive areas, plus you can check out a nature backpack for free. These backpacks have helpful tools for kids to further enjoy a hike.
Snow shoes are available for check out a the Nature Center, as well.
Hitchcock is located in the flight path of raptors, so the lookout tower is a prime spot to look for the large birds.
5. Lewis and Clark Monument Park
Where: Council Bluffs
Lewis & Clark Monument Park is a small park has a huge history: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark stood atop the bluff in 1804 as they set out to explore the newly-purchased Louisiana Territory. They held noteworthy meetings with Otoe and Missouri people here, at the “council-bluff.” A monument stands on the bluff.
First, you have to take the requisite pause to take in the view (it’s not anything special now, but it’s neat to imagine what the place looked like 200 years ago). Then you can go hike. There are about 5 miles of trails around the monument.
6. West Oak Forest
Where: Pacific Junction
West Oak Forest isn’t a notable place for tough hikes, but there is a good variety within the small 308-acre park. There are hilltop prairie remnants and a forest to explore along 3 miles of hiking trails. It’s not super well marked, but it’s also not a super big park to worry much about getting lost in.
It is a notable forest that’s home to several threatened and endangered species including the Yucca Moth, Western Spadefoot Toad, Ottoe Skipper, Northern Grasshopper Mouse and others.
7. Pony Creek Conservation Park
Where: Pacific Junction
Like the Dorothy Pecan Nature Center in Sioux City and the Visitor’s Center at Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek, 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 in the Loess Hills, too.
There are trails through the hills around the Nature Center. They’re not very long, but there are some steeper sections to navigate. I liked finding a lookout tower on the south side of the property. It had a swing made out of a skateboard, making a quirky little perch to sit on as I surveyed the land.
8. Waubonsie State Park
Where: Near Sidney
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. The hiking trails around Waubonsie can be a bit challenging, especially if you’re hiking with younger kids.
However, there is a nice, short trail to the overlook. That trail isn’t too difficult.