Nature has joined history to create sights that are distinctively Midwestern.
By Dorothy Rieke
One of the newest and most spectacular Midwestern routes for RV travelers is the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway, located along Iowa’s western border. This panoramic roadway, which received its national designation in 2000, traverses the Loess Hills, an unusual land formation that is up to 15 miles wide and 200 miles long, and stretches from Sioux City in the north to St. Joseph, Missouri, in the south. The beautifully diverse landscape is representative of the few mystic remnants of when the earth was being formed.
But first, what in the world is loess?
Approximately 18,000 years ago, the Missouri River was formed by melting glaciers. As the waters diminished, soils containing mineral deposits, finer than sand but coarser than dirt or clay, were left behind. These particles, called loess, were so small that the wind blew them around to form hilly dunes. Over thousands of years, as the process repeated itself, spectacular hills and valleys evolved “” with some deposits standing more than 200 feet high.
Loess, pronounced “luss,” is so fine that if you take off the topsoil, the exposed soil dissolves like sugar in the rain. Even with the topsoil in place, these hills can “slump,” creating cat-step ledges across slopes. However, vertical cuts through these formations will stand for years.
Iowa’s rich history is deeply rooted in this magnificent land formation. Viewing and exploring the region is made possible by following the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway from north to south, traveling through seven counties. The spine of this expedition is on paved two-lane highways and four-lane interstates.
Near the byway’s northernmost point is the little town of Akron. Here the terrain along State Route 12 soars from flat fields to more sharply etched hills. Startling geological beauty is evident at the Broken Kettle Grasslands, a 3,000-acre prairie preserve that is home to unusual animals and vegetation, and protected by the Nature Conservancy. Also open to visitors is the 900-acre Five Ridge Prairie County Park, with hiking trails through the woods and prairie.
Both of these preserves are great places to begin your exploration of the prairie. The Loess Hills are islands of prairie flora and fauna, inhabited by the plains pocket mouse, upland sandpiper, zebra swallowtail, ornate box turtle, and plains spadefoot toad. These creatures live among yucca plants, the 10-petal blazing star, spear grass, tumble grass, and the rare prairie moonwort.
Travelers also can learn about the area’s human history, which was etched by people with unusual talents and the ambition to succeed. For example, an ice cream business has made nearby Le Mars the self-proclaimed “ice cream capital of the world.” A visitors center and museum in town (which includes a soda fountain) documents the history of the Wells’ Dairy and its cool products. A small admission fee is charged. The Plymouth County Historical Museum also is located in Le Mars; it boasts 500 musical instruments dating from King Tut’s time to the present.
The scenic byway, continuing south on State Route 12, moves to Sioux City’s northeast side. This is the site of Stone State Park, noted for its prairie-topped ridges. Three states are visible from Dakota Point and Elk Point. Within the park’s 1,069 acres are trails, shelters, an RV campground, and interpretive panels.
Just south of the State Route 12 entrance to Stone State Park is the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center, totally devoted to interpreting the Loess Hills. It offers live animal displays, hands-on exhibits, a butterfly garden, and a presentation revealing life beneath the prairie.
The byway joins Interstate 29 west of Sioux City. Off I-29 at exit 149 is the Sergeant Floyd Welcome Center and Riverboat Museum, and a nearby monument dedicated to Sergeant Charles Floyd, the only member of the Lewis and Clark expedition to die during the Corps of Discovery’s two-year journey. The museum contains boat models from prehistoric times to the present, and information about the expedition.
The arts and culture of Iowa are shining reflections of its rich heritage, and Sioux City has a great group of museums to prove it. These include the Public Museum, housed in a Romanesque mansion; an art center; and the historic Woodbury County Courthouse, built in the Prairie School architectural style. And Trinity Heights, a religious site, presents a life-size carving of the Last Supper, and 30-foot-tall statues of Jesus and Mary, and numerous other figurines, among its contemplative gardens.
The Sioux City area actually encompasses three cities, three rivers, and parts of three states. Chris Larsen Park, a riverside park with a dance pavilion, a playground, a marina, sports courts, and a paved trail, follows the Sioux and Missouri rivers. The Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center is located in this park.
Farther south on I-29, the scenic highway leads to the town of Sergeant Bluff, home of the Mid-America Air Museum. This facility features military and sports aircraft, as well as a collection of military uniforms.
At Sergeant Bluff, the scenic byway turns eastward to follow route D38, and then south on State Route 982. From then on, you’ll take two-lane roads until you reach Council Bluffs. This is truly a byway for those who like to get off the interstate.
Several miles south near Castana is the 3,500-acre Loess Hills Wildlife Area, which protects the terrain “” and its inhabitants “” in its natural state. The byway passes the Turin Man Archaeological Site, where remains of four people buried 5,500 years ago were found by a young girl in 1955. West of the byway, via State Route 175, is Lewis and Clark State Park, which has a replica of the keelboat and pirogues used by the explorers. The 10,000-acre Loess Hills State Forest; the 1884 Ingemann Danish Lutheran Church; and Preparation Canyon State Park, where Utah-bound Mormons rested in 1853, are additional attractions in Monona County.
In the mid-1800s, railroad construction rolled across the continent. The history of this movement is very much alive in Iowa. Travel west of the byway and turn onto State Route 175 to Onawa. This town boasts the Kiwanis Railroad Depot Museum Complex, which showcases more than 800 items.
Travel back to the byway and stop at the Moorhead Cultural Center, near Moorhead, where examples of regional art are displayed. The Loess Hills Visitor Center also offers examples of regional art.
Near Pisgah, visitors discover nature in the Loess Hills State Forest Nature Center, which contains interpretive displays and art.
The DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge is located along a Missouri River floodplain, where huge numbers of ducks and geese stop as they travel during the year. A 12-mile scenic tour drive enables visitors to observe wildlife from a closer vantage point.
In the 1860s steamboats carrying goods and passengers fought their way upriver against the current to jumping-off places for soldiers and pioneers. DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge’s visitors center is an education in itself, with beautifully preserved and meaningful artifacts from the Bertrand, a steamboat that sank in the Missouri River in 1865. The visitors center is open year-round; call (712) 642-4121 or visit www.fws.gov/midwest/desoto for more information.
Take another drive off of the byway to the town of Woodbine, via State Road F20L. This town is home to Eby Drug Store, a 1950s soda fountain that serves favorite treats of former times.
Back along the byway in Logan is the Museum of Religious Arts, with artifacts and artworks representing various faiths. The museum is open year-round and charges a small admission fee.
Perhaps one of the most delightful stops on this byway is the city of Council Bluffs. This is not only a community originating in the Loess Hills with parks and the Wabash Nature Trail; it is also steeped in Great Plains history. Once called Kanesville, it hosted 30,000 Mormon refugees journeying to the Great Salt Lake Valley. As a crossroads for westward travelers, the town was flooded by hundreds of thousands of gold rushers and pioneers in the mid-1800s, becoming the prime outfitting post for the adventuresome. This settlement was later renamed Council Bluffs, a name given to it by Lewis and Clark. In fact, a Lewis and Clark monument stands on a ridge overlooking Council Bluffs, Omaha, and the Missouri River Valley.
Events from past days are brought to mind while visiting the unusual Squirrel Cage Jail, at 226 Pearl St. in Council Bluffs. This 1885 house of correction, one of three remaining Lazy-Susan type jails, contains wedge-shaped cells within a huge rotating drum. Gazing at the tiny cells, visitors become convinced that back then, crime did not pay.
Council Bluffs features historic neighborhoods where streets are lined with eye-catching Victorian mansions. The August Beresheim House, at 621 Third St., is furnished with antiques and display cases showing clothing and dishes of an earlier century. This house also represents the starting point for viewing the General Dodge House next door.
General Grenville Dodge, a Civil War general and statesman who served as adviser to U.S. presidents Lincoln, Grant, Johnson, Hayes, McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft, is perhaps best known as chief engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad and a leader in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Dodge’s lavish 14-room Victorian home “” built in 1869 “” is authentic, complete with many original items of the period. The rich tapestry of past days is prominent here in the elaborate furnishings and personal belongings of a well-to-do family of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Admission fees are charged.
An attraction related to this home is the Ruth Anne Dodge Memorial. Known locally as the “Black Angel,” this statue, crafted by Daniel Chester French, was inspired by visions Mrs. Dodge experienced by in 1916 shortly before her death.
At one time, Council Bluffs was ranked as the fifth-largest railroad center in the United States. Today evidence of those activities is captured at the Rails West Railroad Museum and the Union Pacific Railroad Museum, which offer a trip through 140 years of American history, from Western settlement railroad origins to the advanced technology of today. Another related railroad artifact in town is the Golden Spike Monument, a 56-foot gold-colored concrete spike that marks the eastern terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad.
The scenic byway route follows U.S. 275 southward to Glenwood. East of downtown is Glenwood Lake Park, where the Mills County Historical Museum includes a replica of an Indian earth lodge, as well as Indian artifacts.
The Loess Hills National Scenic Byway ends in Fremont County, a mecca for those who enjoy nature’s beauty and evidence of early settlement. Riverton Wildlife area welcomes migrating waterfowl, especially in late fall. A few miles west, Waubonsie State Park, one of the truly beautiful preserves in this area, devotes its 1,247 acres to hiking trails, shelters, RV campsites, and activities for horse enthusiasts. Electrical hookups are available.
Iowa’s rich history is deeply rooted in the Loess Hills. Travelers on the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway not only feed their desire to learn more about the events of past days, but help them rekindle their love for nature’s beauties. Only in this region is found the intensity of creation and the natural terrains of long ago. Take time for the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway, and you’ll be richer for it.
Scenic Byway Travel Info
For maps and descriptions of the byway, contact:
Western Iowa Tourism Region
103 N. Third St.
Red Oak, IA 51566
Information is also available from: www.goldenhillsrcd.org
For general information about this and other national scenic byways, contact:
Federal Highway Administration
National Scenic Byways Program
HEPN-50, Room 3232
400 Seventh St. S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20590