If you find yourself in Omaha, Nebraska, or anywhere in the vicinity of western Iowa, set aside some time to explore the 220-mile north-south Loess Hills National Scenic Byway (one of eleven designated byways in Iowa.) I only saw a little piece of it while in the area for a conference, but it was enough that I’d love to return and find out more.
The main Byway road is called the “spine,” but all along that are “excursion loops” – paved and gravel – that can really get you deep into the heart of the region.
In Omaha, you can see across the Missouri River to nearby Council Bluffs, Iowa in Pottawattamie County (which is as much fun to say over and over as you’d think.)
Cross the river heading east, then turn north or south to do some exploring on the Byway. Either direction, you’re tracing the paths of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery plus Native Americans who lived here for thousands of years.
Geographically, this is a very unique part of the world.
“Loess” is silt or sediment, very fine, that formed windblown dunes and hills toward the end of the last Ice Age. Only in Shaanxi, China, will you see similar loess deposits of such height.
A popular stop is the Hitchcock Nature Center located on the Hitchcock Excursion Loop off of the Byway. The 1,000-plus acre preserve includes campgrounds and hiking trails through restored prairie, but is probably best known as a birding destination.
A deck on the back of the Loess Hills Lodge Interpretive Center gives you an expansive view of the surroundings, plus you can experience the full force of those steady winds that blew the loess soil into hill formations. This, and a nearby 45 foot observation tower, are home to the Hitchcock HawkWatch.
September through December, birders and visitors are out in force to watch and record migratory hawks, eagles, and other raptors as they pass by.
There were birds soaring on thermals when I visited in early April, so don’t hold off until fall to see it.
Inside the Interpretive Center are knowledgeable guides, and lots of exhibits about unique Loess Hills flora and fauna.
For a scenic byway and heritage highway bonanza, head to tiny Missouri Valley, Iowa and look for the Harrison County Historical Village and Iowa Welcome Center.
Don’t miss a sip of their special cherry drink, made onsite since the 1930’s, and the gift shop that is stocked with every Iowa brochure and branded item you can imagine. There’s an excellent short film to watch about byway history, too.
From this one spot, you can jump on either the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway, the old Lincoln Highway (which used to run from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco,) or the Western Skies Scenic Byway that runs east-west across Iowa.
Wander into all of the restored historic buildings on the property.
There is plenty of signage to tell you what you are seeing, like this rather amazing collection of daily use and household items….
It is hard for me to look at a pretty winding two-lane road like the Lincoln Highway section below right next to the Historical Village, and not want to jump into a car and start driving.
If you want still more local nature and birding, the DeSoto NWR (National Wildlife Refuge) is not far from the Historical Village.
It sits right next to what appears to be a river, but is really DeSoto Bend Lake, a big curvy body of water formed when the Missouri River decided to have a mind of its own and changed course in the late 1800’s, leaving a big swoop of water behind that is now a haven for migratory birds, especially snow geese.
Spring and fall are the best times to see migratory birds, including this one that was taking a break in one of the….bird containers? bird nests? that I saw poking up out of the lake.
If nature is not your thing, there is a fascinating exhibit at DeSoto featuring artifacts from the steamboat Bertrand, which wrecked and sank in 1865 but was found on NWR property in 1968. If you’ve ever spent time peeking into history at the steamboat Arabia in Kansas City, you’ll love this, too.
There’s plenty to eat and drink along the Byway; for example, the Living Loess tour of local farms and businesses grew out of people’s desire to see where their food is grown and where local products are made. It includes stops at the Loess Hills Lavender Farm and Honey Creek Creamery.
If you’re thinking about adult libations, Iowa wine and craft beer has really taken off in recent years. We ended our day trip at Bodega Victoriana, the largest vineyard in western Iowa and part of the Loess Hills Wine Trail.
Settle back with a glass and enjoy Iowa….
** Want to hang out with Lincoln Highway enthusiasts and supporters and learn more road trip history? The 2017 Lincoln Highway Conference happens to be hosted by Iowa – in Denison.
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