Heed the call of the hills; see new country close to home by Bill Willroth Sr. It�s Saturday morning � nice day for a change � and you and your family haven�t a thing planned.
It�s still three weeks away from regular vacation time � or maybe you�ve just returned from a week�s vacation. At any rate, you�re looking for something all of you may enjoy. That rules out fishing � or golf. Never on a family outing!
Now may be the time to load everyone up and take off for the Loess Hills! Finding them is easy. Explaining them will take just a bit longer.
For those of us living in southeastern South Dakota, all we have to do is look across the Big Sioux River into western Iowa � and there they are. The region actually runs from Plymouth County in Iowa on down into Missouri, but this article will concentrate mainly on a day trip from Vermillion.
A wee explanation of what the Loess Hills are may be in order, but don�t worry, it will be short. Loess is pronounced as �luss� and they are actually a geological wonder. According to information distributed by several western Iowa associations, the Loess Hills are a product of the Illinoian and Wisconsinian glacial period when huge quantities of wind-blown dust accumulated to depths of 200 feet. Loess deposits occurred between 18,000 and 150,000 years ago in western Iowa along the Missouri River.
Loess occurs in several places on earth, but China is the only other location where the loess reaches as high as 200 feet above the valley floor as it does in western Iowa, according to more learned sources.
The best place to begin your day in the Loess Hills would probably be at the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center in Sioux City, IA. To get there, go north on Iowa Highway 12 out of Riverside � you�ll see the sign � it�s only a mile or so. If you know where the Stone Park entrance on Highway 12 is, the nature center entrance is just south of there.
The center is a beautiful new building with ample parking, lovely grounds and is devoted wholly to Iowa�s Loess Hills. There are animal displays, hands-on exhibits, a butterfly garden and a walk-through exhibit showing life under the prairie. You can also collect maps, brochures and other information that will help guide you throughout the day�s journey.
The trip my wife, Jo, and I enjoy is about 160 to 180 miles long � round trip � and it takes several hours. We like to begin at the far end and work our way home, which means starting at Turin, IA, in Monona County about eight miles east of Onawa, IA, on Highways 175 and 37.
There are a couple of ways to get to Onawa � the first being down Interstate 29 � about 73 miles from Vermillion. Another would be to cross the Missouri River at South Sioux City, NE, to Winnebago, NE, and then on Highway 73 to Decatur, NE, where you would again cross the Missouri River on the famous �dry land bridge.� This is a pretty drive in itself.
For those of you not familiar with this area, this is the bridge that was built on dry land and years later the river channel was diverted to flow underneath � I believe the river rats in that area still talk about the corn stalks that floated down the river for weeks.
Lewis & Clark State Park is in this immediate area with replicas of the explorers� keel boat, which was used to haul most of their supplies up the Missouri River. The boat was moved by sail, oars, poles and towlines pulled along the shore. There is also a replica of one of their smaller boats in the display.
Going east on Highway 175 � into Onawa � you�ll see a couple of big antique stores on the way into town. If you can get past these without stopping, you�ll pass right down Onawa�s main street, which used to be billed as the widest in America. Maybe it still is. When you get to Turin, east of Onawa, you are really at the jumping off spot to begin your northward tour of the Loess Hills.
Before you start north, though, consider driving over to Moorhead, IA, a very pretty drive. Moorhead is a great little town that is extremely well groomed and also hosts a Loess Hills hospitality center in the downtown area. Then go back to Turin via a different route. (You�ll see this on your map that you should have picked up at the Pecaut Center. Even without the map, it�s easy.)
Back in the very early �50s, I was newspapering in Monona County in Mapleton, IA. At that time Turin was a nice little town with more than several going businesses, sitting at what long ago used to be the convergence of the Maple and Missouri Rivers. The town was once called �Bluff Point� and it is believed that prehistoric man commonly used these terminal ridge points.
The Turin Man archeological site is here. The remains of four humans buried 5,500 years ago were found by a young girl in 1955. Anyway � Turin is now western Iowa�s answer to any of the gold strike western ghost towns. I don�t believe there are any surviving businesses from the way its main street looks, but the residential part of town, for the most part, looks nice and is well kept.
One of the better things about this trip is the fact that you really can�t get lost. It would be hard to even get confused. Just remember you basically want to go north. As you begin at Turin, you can either go up the east side of the hills or up the west side. The east side is the Maple River Valley and the west side is the Little Sioux River Valley. Go either side � west is paved, east is gravel � but we�ve never been on a bad road.
This may sound confusing, but when you are there you can see the logic. If you�ve never been in the Loess Hills on a sightseeing tour before, take the gravel road on the east side.
If you should decide to travel up the west side of the bluffs, be aware that the highway will veer away from the bluffs a few miles into the trip. You will be able to return to the hills by turning on the first available road to your right (not too far after the pavement turns away). Again, the best plan of action to see as much of the area would be to stick with the roads that will keep you in the hills.
The road curves around the bluffs and there are great views of the valley, the farms and the crops. You�ll marvel at the steepness of the hills, the timber and the vast pastures, all within a mile of each other.
On our last trip over there, we stumbled onto a herd of Texas longhorns, nibbling away on the grasses next to the road. (Well, they were longhorns. I really don�t know if they were from Texas).
If you are on the east side, turn to your left and go up into the hills whenever you can. Or if you�re going up the west side, turn to your right on the first road that seems to cross over. Remember the purpose of this trip is to see all of the hills that you can. When you get to the other side, turn right (or left as the case may be) and follow the road until you can again turn and go into the hills. Your car is going to get dusty, but that won�t hurt it � keep going back and forth � and generally heading north.
As you wander north, on the east side, you will notice Mapleton. Don�t go into town � not that there is anything wrong with Mapleton, you just don�t want to run out of the hills. Take a left and go through the hills to the west side. Turn right and continue on. You will, sooner than later, see a town off to the left � this will be Rodney, IA � a small town two or three miles south of Smithland which is located on Highway 141. You�ve now gone too far north.
Turn around in Rodney and head down the paved road south to the first road you can take to the right. This will take you to the west and over the last tier of hills into the Missouri River Valley. (Does this sound confusing? Just do it � it�s easy.)
Turn right on the first road headed north. You will soon come to Highway 141. If you turn left, you will go into Hornick, IA, then Sloan, IA, and Interstate 29. Don�t turn. Cross over 141 � don�t go into Hornick. You will soon come to another paved highway running east and west. This is the old Highway 141. Cross over, drive about a mile and see St. John�s Evangelical Church � a very pretty little country church that was established in 1882 at a place they call German City.
This is about it for the day. Turn around from the church and go back to old 141. Turn right and head into Sioux City. This is a very pretty drive and will take you into Morningside. This stretch of highway, until this summer, was probably worse than the old original Oregon Trail, but is now resurfaced and good all the way into town. This hasn�t been written to give you an exact route through and around the Loess Hills, but to get you out there to see and do something that is not only different, but worthwhile. Just pick your own way and use this as a general guide. There are little blue signs all through the hills that either tell you which loop or trail you�re on or just that it is a Loess Hill byway. If you really want to know where you are most of the time, pick up a map at any of the Loess Hills centers � or I believe they are available at the Iowa rest stations and/or welcome centers.
The important thing is to go � see the treasures we have so close at hand. These hills are hard to photograph. There is too much out there, so you have to do it in pieces. As you criss-cross the hills, be sure to stop and look back. Sometimes the prettiest views are those you have just passed through. We�ve been out several times � more or less along the same route � and always come back with a new picture. I can hardly wait until the fall colors change the entire scene.