Yellow cliffs smile down on the Missouri River on Iowa’s Loess Hills National Scenic Byway. Roads wind through restful pastures and fields, small towns, and urban centers. The richness of Iowa’s bounty unfolds before visitors. The byway runs north from the Iowa-Missouri line to Akron, north of Sioux City. Much of the route follows the Missouri River. After the Missouri bends westward, the byway follows the Big Sioux River between Iowa and South Dakota.
Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the Corps of Discovery followed the river while seeking the Northwest Passage. The byway includes many sites that explain the Corps’ journey.
What Are The Loess Hills?
But what created the Loess (LUSS) Hills? They are made from windblown particles. Glaciers ground soil into a fine powder that was loose on the ground. (Loess means “loose”.) Winds picked it up and formed dunes on the east side of what would be the Missouri River. The dunes grew during the Ice Age’s thousands of years. Since prevailing winds blow from the Northwest, Iowa’s dunes grew higher than the dunes on the Missouri River’s west side.
Pro Tip: Watch for unique landforms. Because of the particles’ structure, cliffs are more stable than slopes. Slopes shed soil, causing stair-like “catsteps.” Air pockets within the soil fill with lime and create fascinating rocks called kindchen.
Overlook Three States, Drink Cider, And Take A Hike
Stop 1: Start your Loess Hills tour where Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri meet. 100 Street is the southern border of Lower Hamburg Bend Wildlife Management Area (PDF). A loop of the Missouri River overlooks the border tri-point.
At Stop 2, Mincer Orchard, buy fresh berries in the spring and apples in the fall. Drink cider any time. Owner Marty Mincer is a ragtime pianist, so lucky folks will hear him play.
Hiking, horseback riding, birding, and wildlife viewing are prime at Wabounsie State Park, Stop 3.
Three Wineries, A Brewery, And A Lily Garden In Glenwood
Enjoy an acre of spectacular lilies at Stop 4, Hillsdale Lily Garden southeast of Glenwood. Soak in the 161 varieties’ vibrant colors and scent. Three wineries on Stop 5, the Loess Hills District Wine Trail, are near Glenwood. Stop 6, Keg Creek Brewing, is a certified Iowa Green Brewery.
Pro Tip: Peak lily bloom comes at the end of June through the first part of July. Most hybrids bloom into August.
Rails, Trails, And Art In Council Bluffs
Numerous historic routes intertwine in Council Bluffs. Follow in early travelers’ footsteps at the Western Historic Trails Center, Stop 7.
Council Bluffs, A Major Railroad Town
Council Bluffs is the Transcontinental Railroad’s Eastern Terminus. Railfans will enjoy RailsWest Railroad Museum, Stop 8, and its railway viewing area. Explore the Union Pacific at Stop 9, the Union Pacific Railroad Museum. Exhibits include furniture from President Abraham Lincoln’s railcar. Lincoln visited Council Bluffs in 1859 to look at some land. He and Grenville Dodge visited the site of current Lincoln Monument Park, Stop 10. An obelisk commemorates his visit. Later, when President Lincoln asked where to begin the railroad, Dodge recommended Council Bluffs. Visit the museum in Dodge’s lavish home, Stop 11. In 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad drove a golden spike to signify its completion. Council Bluffs erected their Golden Spike Monument, Stop 12, in 1939.
The Mormon Pioneers In Council Bluffs
On their migration toward Salt Lake City, members of the Church of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, camped at Stop 13, the Grand Encampment. Twelve days later, the U.S. Army recruited 500 soldiers to create the Mormon Battalion. Learn more about the Mormon Pioneer Trail at Kanesville Tabernacle, Stop 14, where Brigham Young became the church’s president.
Council Bluffs’ Happy Trails And Public Art Tour
Council Bluffs and Pottawattamie County enjoy an extensive trail system. Explore Stops 15 through 17: the Watta Way, Wabash Trace, and Iowa Riverfront trail systems. Stop 18, the Iowa West Public Art Tour, features 31 artworks throughout Council Bluffs.
Where To Eat And Stay In Council Bluffs
Christy Creme is a third-generation Council Bluffs institution, and Stop 19. Eat the locally sourced burgers and the homemade sherbet flavor of the day. Enjoy over 20 beers on tap at Barley’s Bar, Stop 20. Eat the Diablo burger — if you dare. Stay at the Country Inn and Suites.
Go “Bobbing” At Carter Lake
Carter Lake is a geographical oddity, the only part of Iowa west of the Missouri River. The river changed course, setting Nebraska and Iowa into a long court battle. The Supreme Court ruled Iowa owned Carter Lake. Fittingly, Stop 21, the 3,000-foot Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge spans the gap between the states.
Pro Tip: A stripe on the bridge, nicknamed The Bob, shows the state line. Taking a selfie while standing in both states is called “bobbing.”
Ski Iowa In Crescent
Snowmaking machines ensure that Mt. Crescent Ski Area, Stop 22, has snow all season long. In warmer seasons, ride their Screaming Eagle Zipline.
Go Birding In Honey Creek
Stop 23: For spectacular views, climb the 45-foot HawkWatch Tower at Hitchcock Nature Center. Bring your binoculars: Huge numbers of raptors overfly the center in the fall. Explore the center’s birding trails. Try the Spicy Moz burger at the Aeroplane Inn.
Pro Tip: IowaBirds.org offers excellent birding tips.
The Smells And Tastes Of Heaven, History, And Antiques In Missouri Valley
The scent of lavender is one of God’s greatest perfumes. Smell some Heaven at Loess Hills Lavender Farm, Stop 24. Nothing tastes as satisfying as farm-fresh produce from Small’s Fruit Farm, Stop 25. Head back to the 1800s at Stop 26, Harrison County Historical Village. Buy Iowa products in their store. Ride the miniature Watson Steam Train in Missouri Valley City Park, Stop 27. Shop for antiques and classic cars at Missouri Valley Antique Mall, Stop 28. Fill up both tank and tummy at the classic Cornstalk Cafe at the Taylor Quik Pik/Shell, Stop 29.
Wildlife And The Steamboat Bertrand At DeSoto Bend
Stop 30: DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge’s visitor center has huge viewing windows that look out onto the river. The center also holds the Steamboat Bertrand Museum. The steamboat’s contents present a fascinating time capsule.
Pro Tip: The refuge offers a guide to seasonal wildlife activity.
Explore Parks Near Moorhead
Stop 31: Preparation Canyon State Park is filled with dramatic ridges, streams, and springs. Enjoy hiking and picnics. At Stop 32, Loess Hills State Forest, hike, study nature, and ski cross country depending on the season. Lewis and Clark State Park, Stop 33, is the only place to see replicas of the Corps of Discovery’s boats.
Pro Tip: At the Lewis and Clark State Park, groups may schedule a ride in a working keelboat.
Swap And Ride In Onawa
In mid-August, join the fun at the Onawa Swap Meet and Flea Market Weekend, Stop 34, at the Monona County Fairgrounds. In late August, ride the Loess Hills during Iowa’s largest single-day bike ride, Onabike, Stop 35.
Sgt. Floyd, Railroads, And 99 Beers On The Wall In Sioux City
Sgt. Charles Floyd was the only Corps of Discovery member to lose his life on the expedition. The Sioux City Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, Stop 36, focuses on Floyd’s demise, but the center offers far more. Enjoy the Native Games and bison exhibits. Next door, explore the MV Sergeant Floyd, Stop 37, at the Sgt. Floyd River Museum. Stop 38, Floyd’s monument, is a few miles south of Sioux City.
To survive their epic journey, the Corps members had to be supremely fit. Ramp up your fitness at the Long Lines Climbing Wall, Stop 39.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Sioux City’s railroad yard was one of the nation’s busiest. Relive those days at the Sioux City Railroad Museum, Stop 40.
Where To Eat And Stay in Sioux City
You’ve found the “99 Beers on the Wall” at SoHo American Kitchen and Bar, Stop 41. All the food is made from scratch. Stop 42: Try Japanese fusion cuisine at Koi Sushi and Steakhouse. Or, for total Americana, eat at the Milwaukee Weiner House, Stop 43. Stay at the Stoney Creek Hotel and enjoy Palmer’s Pub, Stop 44. Before leaving town, you can also make time for these nine must-visit spots in Sioux City, Iowa.
Taste The Sweet Life In Le Mars
Le Mars is the Ice Cream Capital of the World. Your sweet tooth will never forget Stop 45, The Wells Visitor Center and Ice Cream Parlor. The huge sundae outside beckons you in. Celebrate ice cream at Ice Cream Days, Stop 46. USA Today said Stop 47, Bob’s Drive-Inn, features one of Iowa’s best loose meat sandwiches. You must eat loose meat in the Loess Hills. The Iowa specialty is somewhere between sloppy Joes and hamburgers.
Follow The Big Sioux River
Rivers Bend Wildlife Area, Stop 48, is Iowa’s westernmost point. The byway runs on a narrow ledge between the hills and the Missouri and Big Sioux Rivers. Finally, explore the Akron trail system, Stop 49.