Rising from the floodplain of the Missouri River along Iowa’s western border, the Loess Hills are an intriguing geological formation matched in size and scale only by a similar formation in China. The region is populated by rare species such as the ornate box turtle and prairie moonwort fern, which make their homes along this 200-mile border that resembles rumpled and steeply ridged velvet. Unfolding from just north of Sioux City down into Missouri, this unusual stretch of hill country acts as a corridor for 19 species of raptors such as bald eagles, ospreys, and red-tailed hawks following its ridgelines on their annual migrations.
The Loess Hills were formed between 14,000 and 24,000 years ago, when active glaciers covered a large portion of the northern United States. In summer, water poured down the Missouri River, leaving mudflats
behind when it refroze in winter. Strong winds blew the finer soil into huge clouds of dust, which over the millennia became tall bluffs anchored by prairie. The Loess Hills contain Iowa’s largest tracts of never-tilled tallgrass prairie, a nearly extinct ecosystem that can still be seen in its pristine form at the Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands in the northern swath of the hill country, aflutter with rare prairie butterflies.
Those with wheels can follow the curves of the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway from Akron down to Hamburg . Appreciate its quiet beauty all on your own, or arrange for a paid guide from the Loess Hills Hospitality Association in Moorhead to jump in your backseat and point out subtleties along the way. The wide earth terraces, for example, are called “cat steps” and are the result of natural slippage in the superfine soil. The Lewis and Clark Trail and California Trail passed through this area; and the dugouts carved into the side of the hills were made by Mormons on their way to Utah in the 1840s. The guides also know the best places for a hike through this mostly privately owned land. Several trails wind their way through Preparation Canyon State Park, which offers some of the most dramatic views of the hills, then hook up to more extensive hiking trails through untrammeled state forest.
Tucked along the western slopes in Turin (named by homesick northern Italian workers) is the Country Homestead B&B, an 1885 farmhouse owned by David Zahrt, whose father and grandfather were both born here. There’s hospitality aplenty on these 160 acres of hill country that are your own private Iowa, if just for one night.