Hitchcock Nature Center is a beautiful destination in the Loess Hills of southwest Iowa. For more than a decade, this nature preserve near Honey Creek has been my family’s go-to spot for hiking no matter the season. Read on to learn why it’s worth planning a visit.
Note: This post was first published on Oh My! Omaha, and republished on Let’s Go Iowa with permission.
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. At no cost to you, a purchase made after clicking an affiliate link may earn me a referral payment.
Where is Hitchcock Nature Center and what makes it special?
Hitchcock Nature Center 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. It’s managed by the Pottawattamie Conservation.
Note: This is not to be confused with Honey Creek State Park or Honey Creek Resort, both are located in south-central Iowa by Rathbun Lake.
To understand what makes this park so special, all you need to do is look down. 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 terrain was 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.
Head to the Visitor Center inside the lodge at Hitchcock Nature Center to learn more about this unique terrain and the wildlife found here.
Exploring the Great Outdoors: Hiking Trails at Hitchcock
You’ll find some of the best hiking trails in Iowa at Hitchcock Nature Center. With breathtaking views and diverse landscapes, it’s no wonder that this area of the Loess Hills is known for its beauty. The park 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. You can easily spend a few hours here on a hike.
There are three levels of trail ratings at the Hitchcock: Easy, Moderate, and Difficult. I’ll detail the Easy and Difficult trails, and skipping Moderate because, to be honest, they aren’t too much more difficult than Easy trails.
- 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.
- Difficult trails: The Chute; Shea Way; Legacy Loop; Westridge; Cookie Crumbs. “Difficult” in the Midwest is not to say prohibitive from taking kiddos. It’s almost inevitable that my family winds up walking up The Chute.
If you’d like to experience the trails with a guide, plan on attending one (or more) of their special hikes, usually included with park admission. In the past, there have been events for full moon guided hikes, snowshoe workshops, and a series of classes on backpacking.
Taking kids to Hitchcock Nature Center
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.
Sleep under the stars: Camping at Hitchcock Nature Center
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.
Wildlife watching at Hitchcock Nature Center
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. One of the best places to look for migrating birds is the 45-foot-tall observation tower. 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.
Planning a visit to Hitchcock Nature Center
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. The best time of season is really a matter of preference. 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.