Weekend Trip: Loess Hills

Loess Hills Iowa
Loess Hills photo by Bill Whittaker at en.wikipedia

It was time for a new family state-cation.

We were already planning a visit to Omaha to watch a cousin’s baseball tournament, but everything in the city was booked. Instead, we found an Airbnb an hour away in Moorhead, IA, and figured we could finally explore the Loess Hills while we were at it.

Then we all got the stomach bug. I don’t want to talk about it.

Our Moorhead host was kind enough to let us reschedule and we went a month later. We’d wanted to visit the Loess (pronounced “Luss”) Hills for a while, having seen the sign on I-80 on other road trips west. I wasn’t sure what it was about (or even how to pronounce it) but I love a good tourist destination close to home.

Day 1

We started our trip with a drive to the Omaha Zoo & Aquarium, taking advantage of our Blank Park Zoo membership to get discounted entrance. After spending an entertaining morning there, we left town through Council Bluffs, stopping by the Union Pacific Railroad Museum on our way. This museum is free and housed in a Carnegie library, circumstances that satisfied both our train-loving sons and their librarian mom. We spent another hour there.

After that, we turned onto the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway and headed north, using the Iowa Culture app to hit up the sites along the way. It took us about an hour to get to Moorhead (minus the wrong turns Mom made), with beautiful pastoral scenery along the way. 

Iowa has hills. I-80 would tell you otherwise, but visit the state’s other corners and it’s true.

After finding our amazingly clean and conveniently located Airbnb, we spent our first night cooking “at home” and enjoying the small-town vibes. As our host had forewarned, the town itself had only a couple options for food and gas and no assurance they would take credit cards. Many of the surrounding towns offer more eateries if you don’t mind a short jaunt.

Day 2

The next day we went out to explore the area. We started out at the Preparation Canyon State Park, with views you could stare at for days and silence you forget exists. There were also trails, which we discovered when a friendly local in a golf cart drove by and offered us a park brochure.

From there, we drove to the Loess Hills State Forest, which offered even more amazing views and trails, not to mention ideal picnic spots. These trails can be as long or as short as you need them to be. A robust jogging stroller could handle it for the most part, but some of the trails are better suited to babies in backpacks and walkers willing to go the distance. 

After that, we needed a playground for children who had lost interest in scenery, so we hit up a park in the nearby town of Pisgah and its Loess Hills State Forest Visitor Center. The center was unexpectedly closed but we grabbed more brochures from its outdoor display and found our way to the Murray Hill Overlook, a space with spectacular views and trails just long, steep, and short enough to capture the attention of small children.

Later in the day, we made a short drive to Missouri Valley and the Loess Hills Lavender Farm for scenic exploration in its lavender fields, souvenirs at its extensive gift shop, and the missing boot of mythical giant Lance. We’d missed the Lavender Festival by two weeks but I’m sure it was spectacular.

After the preschooler napped, we hit up the town of Moorhead. The Loess Hills Visitor Center and Gift Shop was a ten-minute walk from our rental and full of lovely locals happy to expound on the town’s history and the historic school building the center is housed in. One of the center’s volunteers gave each of our kids a free sample of Loess Hills sand (found only in Northwest Iowa and parts of China).

Then we went across the street to the Moorhead Cultural Center, which was featuring local art and an historic jail cell, which our 4-year old didn’t want to leave. The volunteer there gave us any local information we hadn’t already gleaned from the internet, the visitor center volunteers, or our airbnb host, who happens to be the granddaughter of the town’s founder.

We spent the night enjoying board games and puzzles in our rented home, roasting smores provided by our host. The next day we packed up and headed out, making a short drive along the byway to the Lewis and Clark State Park just a bit north in Onawa. It was beautiful, historic, and the perfect end to our weekend away. We were back in Des Moines by naptime.

Our Loess Hills visit was a wonderfully easy weekend trip and relatively cheap. The parks were all free, our Airbnb was very reasonably priced for the space, and we packed all our meals. We could’ve cut costs even further if we chose to camp in one of the many local campgrounds. We didn’t. 

I’m sure the hills would be gorgeous during any season and even in the height of summer, there weren’t any crowds to contend with. So if you’re feeling the itch to leave the house, head west! 

Just not that far west.

Have you been to Loess Hills?


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