November 17 has been designated as National Take a Hike Day. It's a great time to head to your favorite trail or explore a new one. Western Iowa has many great places to hike. Golden Hills has several resources with information about parks and trails for hiking, including:
This blog post about places to hike in the Loess Hills Missouri River Region of Harrison, Pottawattamie & Mills Counties.
This post about parks and trails along Western Skies Scenic Byway in Harrison, Shelby, Audubon and Guthrie counties.
Golden Hills maintains the Loess Hills Hiking Guide, which includes information about all the Loess Hills counties (Plymouth, Woodbury, Monona, Harrison, Pottawattamie, Mills, & Fremont).
Where are you hiking today?
November is recognized across the U.S. as Native American Heritage Month. "America is a vast land of many cultures dating back thousands of years to the original inhabitants of the land. History, heritage, or culture of Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians are part of every national park and communities across the country today. Every November during Native American Heritage Month and throughout the year, the National Park Service and our partners share history and the continuing culture of America's indigenous peoples."
The area of western Iowa, where Golden Hills works, includes ancestral lands of the Báxoje Máyaⁿ (Ioway), Očhéthi Šakówiŋ; Umoⁿhoⁿ tóⁿde ukʰéthiⁿ (Omaha), Washtáge Moⁿzháⁿ (Kaw/Kansa), and Yankton peoples. Many place names in the region, including Pottawattamie, Missouri, Mondamin, Neola, Nishnabotna, Nodaway, Sioux, and Waubonsie, come from native languages.
European colonizers led the forced removal and genocide of native peoples across the continent, including here in Iowa. Still, more than 16,000 indigenous people call what is now the state of Iowa (a native word for the Ioway tribe) their home.
Find out which tribes lived in your area with this map:
Many foods, medicines, and other products, and even the the political system we call federalism, originated with indigenous people. Learn more about these contributions.
While many people think of native people living off the land without impacting it, they actually managed and stewarded the land sustainably for thousands of years. Native people grew crops, hunted animals, built homes, made tools, clothing, and supplies, and started regular fires that helped prairie and savanna ecosystems thrive.
Because indigenous peoples here before colonization did not have written language, most of what we know about them comes from archaeological research and early Europeans' writings.
In southwest Iowa, much research has been dedicated to the Glenwood Culture, centered around the confluence of the Platte and Missouri rivers south of Omaha (a native word meaning "upstream").
Golden Hills helped develop The Immense Journey: Loess Hills Cultural Resources Study, which is available for free download.
Today, the Meskwaki Nation is the only indigenous settlement in the state but small slivers of the Omaha and Winnebago reservations in Nebraska extend across the Missouri River into Iowa. These sites offer opportunities to learn about the tribes' cultures through events such as powwows.
Although the land and people have changed drastically in the last two centuries, contemporary Iowans owe much to the native peoples who lived here first and should recognize that indigenous people do still live here.
Visit the Bureau of Indian Affairs website to learn more about how to celebrate Native American Heritage Month. Additionally, many states including Iowa recognize Indigenous People's Day in October.
University of Iowa Press also has several books available to purchase online, including:
The Office of the State Archaeologist has more information about Iowa's native peoples on their website.
National Bison Day, held annually the first Saturday of November, is a "commemoration of the ecological, cultural, historical and economic contribution of a national icon, the American bison."
According to the National Bison Association: "The bison, North America’s largest land mammal, have an important role in America’s history, culture and economy. Before being nearly wiped from existence by westward expansion, bison roamed across most of North America. The species is acknowledged as the first American conservation success story, having been brought back from the brink of extinction by a concerted effort of ranchers, conservationists and politicians to save the species in the early 20th century. In 1907, President Teddy Roosevelt and the American Bison Society began this effort by shipping 15 animals by train from the Bronx Zoo to Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Many Native American tribes revere bison as a sacred and spiritual symbol of their heritage and maintain private bison herds on tribal lands throughout the West. Bison now exist in all 50 states in public and private herds, providing recreation opportunities for wildlife viewers in zoos, refuges and parks and sustaining the multimillion dollar bison ranching and production business."
While National Parks in the mountain west are typically thought of, bison were once abundant across Iowa. No wild populations remain, but several public and private landowners in the state have bison today. One great way to celebrate National Bison Day is to visit one of several places in western Iowa with public viewing of bison.
Botna Bend Park
This park is owned and managed by Pottawattamie Conservation and is located in the town of Hancock in eastern Pottawattamie County. It is located within the the Loess Hills Missouri River Region and along the West Nish Water Trail. The park includes bison and elk herds that can be easily viewed from the road. The park has a $3 entrance fee unless you have a Pottawattamie county parks annual pass.
Botna Bend even has a white bison, which are extremely rare.
Broken Kettle Grassland
The Nature Conservancy in Iowa owns the largest remnant prairie in the state in Plymouth County along the northern end of the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway, and includes a herd of bison. Because they have a relatively large area to roam, you may not be able to get close. But drive Butcher Road and you may see them in the distance.
Prairie Heritage Center
O'Brien County Conservation Board's Prairie Heritage Center, along Glacial Trail Scenic Byway, has a small herd of bison.
Swan Lake State Park
Located in Carroll County, this park is managed by Carroll County Conservation Board and has a small bison herd.
This 5,500-acre land trust is a short drive from Western Skies Scenic Byway in Guthrie County. Whiterock is open to public visitation and includes dozens of miles of hiking, mountain biking, equestrian trails, camping, paddling, fishing, and much more.
In a previous post about Western Skies Scenic Byway, we discussed how wind and water shaped the landscape of western Iowa. In addition to natural forces, people have also helped shape the modern landscape. Humans have inhabited the land that is western Iowa for thousands of years, impacting the landscape since the beginning. Indigenous people cultivated crops, built homes, and started regular fires. After European colonization beginning in the late 19th century, the land changed much more dramatically and rapidly.
The contemporary landscape of western Iowa would be unrecognizable compared to the vast prairies and wetlands that covered the state prior to colonization. Iowa is the most altered of all 50 states, with the least amount of "wild" or "natural" places. "The state of Iowa has lost 99.9% of its prairies, 98% percent of its wetlands, 80% of its woodlands, 50% percent of its topsoils, and more than 100 species of wildlife since settlement in the early 1800’s. There has been a significant deterioration in the quality of Iowa’s surface waters and groundwaters." (Source: Iowa Code, Section 455A.15 Legislative Findings). The region has some of the best cropland in the world, and prairies and wetlands were converted to rowcrops over only a couple generations. Many of the steeper slopes were converted to non-native pastures. With this vegetation and land use change, the entire ecosystem changed from some of the most biodiversity on the planet to among the least.
On top of the vegetative change, nearly all the rivers and creeks in western Iowa were channelized in the 20th Century. Straightening streams shortened their length, which increased the slope and caused the waterways to cut downwards into the deep, highly erodible loess soils. Most streams in the region have severe to extreme bank erosion and are carved 10 to 20 feet (or more) into the surrounding land. The increased stream slope also led to widespread gully erosion, with small waterfalls called knickpoints on many streams. The drastic elevation changes have required streambed grade control structures like spillways and dams to help protect roads, bridges, utilities and other infrastructure.
Due to their silty nature, the deep loess soils are home to the worst soil erosion on the continent. In fact, "loess" is a German word for "loose" and is colloquially called "sugarclay" due its erosiveness. The maps below show rill and sheet erosion in the continental U.S. in 2012 and 1982. While erosion has been reduced from more than 12 tons per acre to 6-8 tons per acre, this is still a concerning erosion rate. Learn about different types of soil erosion here.
Fortunately, agricultural conservation practices, especially terraces and water and sediment control basins, have reduced erosion. Planting rowcrops on contour instead of vertically on slopes also helps to slow erosion rates. These practices are nearly ubiquitous on western Iowa's croplands, further shaping the landscape. The earthen berms reduce rill and sheet erosion and runoff.
Prior to colonization and subsequent stream channelization, the prairie streams meandered across their valleys with crystal-clear water, as described in some early pioneer accounts. Today the sheet, rill, gully and streambank erosion makes the streams run a muddy brown color. New evidence has shown that phosphorous levels in streams are likely impacted significantly by streambank erosion, as "legacy" nutrients get stored in the soil and enter waterways when riverbanks erode.
Some of the poorly-drained areas, especially on the Des Moines lobe in northeastern Guthrie County and some of the larger river valleys like the Missouri in Harrison County, were tiled to convey water off the land and improve agricultural opportunities. Tiling can carry nutrients, sediment, and pollutants into drainage ditches and streams, further decreasing water quality. Tiling is usually invisible above ground, but you may see the end of tile lines going into drainage districts or streams. Learn more about tiling and terracing here.
Besides agricultural development, humans have built residential, industrial, commercial, and other infrastructure that shapes the land. Most of the communities in the region were founded along rail lines, which were some of the earliest transportation routes before many roads were built.
Most railroads in this corridor have been abandoned and are no longer active. Some have been replaced by recreational trails like the T-Bone Trail through Audubon County and the Raccoon River Valley Trail in Guthrie County. Many others were removed and have been farmed for decades, with no trace remaining. In some cases, the remnants are visible from satellite imagery and LIDAR, like this area just southwest of Harlan in Shelby County.
Many settlements that began before railroad construction eventually withered into ghost towns. In some cases, a few houses remain, but often there are no visible signs of these ghost towns on the landscape.
The highway and road system also greatly contributed to the region's altered landscape and hydrology. For the most part, roadways are built up several feet from the surrounding landscape similar to railroads, and cut into the tops of the hills to reduce slopes. Unlike the railroads, which often followed the path of least resistance, the road system was set up on orthogonal grid system oriented along the cardinal directions, regardless of terrain. Some exceptions to the grid exist, especially in the hilliest parts of Harrison and Guthrie counties. Since the grid does not follow topographic or hydrologic boundaries, the construction of the road system in some cases altered watershed boundaries. Ditches on either side of the roads funnel water into the nearest stream, increasing flash flooding and nutrient runoff.
Next time you drive Western Skies Scenic Byway, try to spot how the land has been sculpted by human development, in addition to natural processes like wind and water.
October is an excellent time to visit Loess Hills National Scenic Byway™, Western Skies Scenic Byway, and Glacial Trail Scenic Byway in western Iowa. Peak fall foliage generally occurs earlier in the north and later in the south. Check out the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' weekly fall color report.
Loess Hills National Scenic Byway runs from near Akron in the north to Hamburg in the south. The northern end is located in Plymouth County in northwest Iowa, with peak colors predicted from the last week of September through the second week of October. Stone State Park in Sioux City is one great place to go leaf-peeping. Colors along Glacial Trail Scenic Byway in Buena Vista, Cherokee, Clay, & O'Brien counties will peak in the same timeframe.
Western Skies Scenic Byway is in Harrison, Shelby, Audubon and Guthrie counties in west-central Iowa. Peak colors are expected in the first through third weeks of October.
Floodplain forests along the Missouri River valley are abundant with glowing gold cottonwoods. Desoto National Wildlife Refuge near Missouri Valley is an exemplary location for cottonwood woodlands.
On the steep Loess Hills bluffs, tallgrass prairie grasses have turned to their characteristic amber-gold and wine-red hues. These colors contrast with the occasional dark-green coniferous junipers (eastern red cedars). Staghorn sumac and poison ivy are turning bright red. Yellow goldenrods and purple asters also dot the prairies.
The southern Loess Hills, including Waubonsie State Park in Fremont County, generally have greater tree species diversity and thus a wider array of tree foliage colors.
Similarly, some of the woodlands in Guthrie County (such as at Whiterock Conservancy and Springbrook State Park) have more diversity than the western Loess Hills, including more colorful maples.
In addition to public parks and wildlife areas, exploring backroads can be one of the best ways to see fall colors. This is especially useful for folks who may not be able to hike or bike through the hills. Loess Hills National Scenic Byway includes 185 miles of Excursion Loops, many of which traverse the most scenic, rugged, and rural terrain in the region.
Wherever you go, you will also likely see the golden fields of corn and soybeans before they are harvested. On a sunny day, they contrast with bright blue skies for a spectacular spectacle. Have fun exploring rural western Iowa by automobile, bike, on foot, or however you choose!
The landscape of western Iowa was formed primarily by wind and water. Several distinct landforms are visible along Western Skies Scenic Byway, which parallels Interstate 80 through Harrison, Shelby, Audubon and Guthrie counties.
The Loess Hills are deposits of aeolian (wind-blown) silt up to 200 feet high. The Hills parallel the wide, flat Missouri Alluvial Plain immediately to their west. Some of the larger river valleys also feature flat, relatively wide floodplains.
The Loess Hills near Missouri Valley in Harrison County. The flat Missouri Alluvial Plain is in the background on the left side of the photo, and the Boyer River Valley is the flat area on the right side. The city of Missouri Valley is located at the confluence of these two valleys. Photo taken by Lance Brisbois at Old Town Conservation Area.
East of the Loess Hills lies the Southern Iowa Drift Plain. Here, streams and rivers have carved valleys, resulting in a rolling landscape. Driving west to east along Western Skies Scenic Byway, you will almost always be going up or down.
On the eastern edge of the Byway is the Des Moines Lobe. This area was covered during the most recent glaciation, and the land is mostly flat. It was home to many wetlands and small lakes called prairie potholes, though most of the land has been drained for cropland. Around Panora and to the north and east, you will notice the landscape is much less rolling than it is to the south and west.
Retreating glaciers left terminal moraines, or visible ridges where the glacier stopped advancing. A terminal moraine is visible in northern Guthrie County near Whiterock Conservancy. Whiterock is also home to a kame, which is a gravelly mound deposited by the retreating glacier.
Wind and water also contributed to historic and current vegetation and land use. Most of the landscape was prairie, with scattered savanna and open woodlands. The Missouri River and other floodplains had some dense stands of forest. A few places in the steep Loess Hills were fairly wooded. The Des Moines Lobe was primarily wetlands with countless ponds and small lakes. Nearly all of the prairies and wetlands have been converted to cropland, except for the steepest areas where farm machinery cannot safely navigate. Many of those areas are instead grazed or hayed pasture now. More than half of Iowa's remaining prairies are located in the Loess Hills.
Modern land uses and vegetation along Western Skies. Tan is cropland, orange and gold are pastures, green is woodland. Notice how well the cropland aligns with the prairies, except for the steepest areas that are now mostly pasture. Source: Iowa Geographic Map Server (https://isugisf.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=47acfd9d3b6548d498b0ad2604252a5c)
Over several thousand years, drainage networks formed throughout the region, creating small streams, larger rivers, and watersheds. A watershed is the area of land that drains into a specific body of water. Watersheds are categorized by Hydrologic Unit Codes (HUCs) based on their size. HUC-8 watersheds are larger, including the Boyer & Mosquito in Harrison County, West Nishnabotna in Shelby County, East Nishnabotna in Audubon County, , and the Raccoon in Guthrie County.
Tributaries of the HUC-8 rivers are HUC-12 watersheds. Driving from east to west, you will cross a new HUC-12 watershed every few miles.
West of Guthrie Center on Highway 44, you will cross the Missouri-Mississippi watershed divide. Rainfall and snowmelt on the east side of this subtle ridge eventually flows into the Mississippi River, while water on the west side of the line makes its way into the Missouri River. Although barely visible, This divide separates two of the largest river systems on the continent. As you cross the divide, notice how streams change from flowing southwesterly on the west side to southeasterly on the east side. The drainage and valley patterns are believed to have contributed to pre-colonization vegetation. Hot, dry southwest winds likely carried fire longer distances up the river valleys and ridges west of the M&M divide. East of the divide, streams ran perpendicular to the prevailing winds, each offering a barrier to fire systems.
The Missouri-Mississippi divide is generally a line of highest elevation from northwestern to south-central Iowa.
Elevation map of Western Skies counties. Green is lowest (river valleys), then yellows, reds, and gray/white is the highest elevation. The M&M divide runs through the whitish area. Map source: : Iowa Geographic Map Server - https://isugisf.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=47acfd9d3b6548d498b0ad2604252a5c
These relatively higher elevations offer some of the greatest wind energy potential in the state. Driving across the Byway, you will likely see some wind farms in addition to the many historical windmills dotting the landscape.
Next time you visit Western Skies Scenic Byway, try to identify the landforms and watersheds and note how wind and water have shaped the land over time!
On Thursday, September 3, wildland firefighters from six conservation organizations conducted a prescribed burn at Murray Hill Scenic Overlook and Loess Hills State Forest in Harrison County. Many people have gotten used to seeing spring and fall burns, but early September has not been a common time to burn. Due to the severe drought in western Iowa, fuels are especially dry this year and burned exceptionally.
Local agencies have started conducting more late summer (growing season) burns to see how the results compare to fires at other times of year. There is evidence that fire may have historically been prevalent at this time of year due to lack 0f rainfall and prevailing dry, southwesterly winds in late summer. The primary goal of growing season burning is to set back woody vegetation (trees and shrubs) that can invade and take over the remnant prairies.
Loess Hills prairies evolved over thousands of years with regular fire regimes. Some were started by lightning, and more were started by indigenous peoples to improve habitat for hunting and food production. Fires likely swept through the Loess Hills once every few years, possibly even annually. After European colonization, fires largely ceased and trees encroached onto the grasslands. Fire may have been used as a management tool for as long as people have lived in the Loess Hills, but conservation groups have only realized its importance within the past few decades.
To start the day, the crew met and reviewed the plan for the day. The main unit included Murray Hill Scenic Overlook on the north side, bounded by Easton Trail (county blacktop road), following a ridgeline to the southeast and including a portion of the adjacent Loess Hills State Forest to the south. Brent's Trail, a popular new hiking trail, runs through this unit.
Firebreaks were cleared a day before the burn to provide clear boundaries within which the fire would be contained. Firebreaks can include mowed paths, roads, waterways, or other barriers that will not readily burn.
Firefighters broke into four divisions for different tasks. Fires were ignited from different sides to burn into each other. Firefighters watched the lines to ensure fire stayed within the burn unit. The unit included prairies, woodlands, and pasture with different fuel types and topography, each with their own unique fire behavior.
After the Murray Hill fire was completed, the group burned a four-acre unit that was recently acquired by Harrison County Conservation Board immediately west of Murray Hill. This steep area included hillside covered with eastern red cedar trees, which can become problematic and invasive when not kept in check with fire and grazing animals. The cedars tend to crowd out other native prairie species and create a coniferous monoculture.
Since the trees were so dry, many torched rapidly leaving only charred trunks and branches. These cedars will not grow back, and the prairie seed bank in the soil will flourish with the sunlight that is once again able to reach the ground.
The photos below show the landscape one day after the burn. Most of the prairie grasses and flowers are gone, but since the prairies evolved with fire, the hillsides will quickly turn green next spring. Some plants will even reemerge within the next week or so. Local land managers are hopeful that this fire will help restore a thriving, healthy prairie ecosystem that has not seen a growing-season burn in many decades.
For more information about prescribed fire. visit the links below.
Golden Hills was fortunate to receive a grant from Pottawattamie County Community Foundation to hire Brett Kuxhausen to create videos about Pottawattamie County's great outdoors. The videos feature parks and wildlife areas in Pottawattamie County outside of Council Bluffs and the Loess Hills as part of WanderLoess, the marketing program for the Loess Hills Missouri River Region.
Areas featured in the videos include Arrowhead County Park near Neola, Botna Bend Park in Hancock, Edgington City Park in Avoca, the West Nishnabotna River Water Trail, and Farm Creek and Wheeler Grove wildlife areas near Carson and Macedonia. One video highlights flora and fauna of the prairies, and the other video showcases hiking, biking, paddling, fishing and other outdoor recreation activities. Watch the videos below or on our YouTube channel.
Late summer is an excellent time to take a drive and look at wildflowers. Western Skies Scenic Byway is a great place to do that.
The Byway corridor has several remnant prairies from the Loess Hills in the west to the Raccoon River valley in the east.
Additionally, several non-native flowers are currently blooming along many of the roadsides. A few of the most common ones you will likely see are chicory (chichorium intybus), Queen Anne's Lace (daucus carota), and birdsfoot trefoil (lotus corniculatus) all pictured below.
A few native prairie species do well along roadsides, such as common milkweed and partridge pea.
Some sections of roads have much more diverse roadside plantings, often part of a county's Roadside Vegetation Management program. These photos are along Highway 25 on the north side of Guthrie Center, next to an outdoor classroom.
While county and state road right-of-ways are public, use caution if you decide to explore a roadside prairie. Pull off out of the way of traffic, turn on hazard lights, and wear brightly colored clothing or a safety vest. Wear long pants and closed shoes to avoid things like poison ivy and wild parsnip. Bug spray is also recommended and check for ticks after visiting a prairie!
Check out the Iowa DOT Plant Profiler for identifying more common roadside plants.
For a humorous take, read the Prairie Ecologist's A Field Guide to Roadside Wildflowers at Full Speed.
In addition to roadsides, the Byway has several remnant prairies with much more species diversity. One of the smallest is Bundt Prairie in Guthrie County.
In late July and early August, blazing stars are blooming. Prairie blazing star (liatris pycnostachya) is generally taller with single purple spikes and scaly blazing star (liatris squarrosa) is shorter with multiple flowers per stem.
Culver's root (veronicastrum virginicum) has white flowers. Wild bergamot/bee balm (monarda fistulosa) has pink blooms. Gray-headed coneflower (ratibida pinnata) has yellow petals with dark centers.
Sheeder Prairie State Preserve is another remnant prairie in Guthrie County. In addition to the flowers at Bundt Prairie, compass plant (silphium laciniatum) is one of the tallest flowers on the prairie.
Dinesen Prairie State Preserve in Shelby County, like Sheeder Prairie, was never plowed and is permanently protected by the state. Prairie blazing star is abundant here. Another interesting plant is white wild indigo (baptisia alba), whose white flowers are nearing their blooming period but the stalks now have pods that resemble beans.
The Loess Hills State Forest, Willow Lake Recreation Area, and Old Town Conservation Area have Loess Hills remnant prairies in Harrison County.
Some prairies are located on private land and should not be accessed without the landowner's permission. Many of these prairies are farms enrolled in the conservation reserve program (CRP). Although you should not attempt to explore them without permission, many can be seen and admired from the roadway.
What have you seen blooming lately? What's your favorite prairie to visit?
Light pollution, also called skyglow, results from artificial lighting from streetlights, homes, businesses, and more. Light pollution has many negative impacts that people tend to not notice. It can affect people's sleep, contributing to many health problems. It also impacts plant life cycles, bird migration, and contributes to global declines in insect populations. Almost 80% of Americans cannot see the Milky Way from their home and about 99% have some level of skyglow.
Light pollution is measured on the Bortle Scale, with 1 being an excellent dark sky without any skyglow and 9 being so bright that most or not all stars are not visible.
The International Dark Sky Association, an organization dedicated to preserving the night sky, has great information and resources on their website about light pollution and the importance of darkness.
Although it's difficult to completely avoid all light pollution, Western Skies Scenic Byway includes several great stargazing sites. The map below shows light pollution along the Byway. The purple line is the Byway route. The white, red, and orange are the worst light pollution, which are generally in the center of the largest cities. Omaha-Council Bluffs and Des Moines-West Des Moines metros to the east and west ends of Western Skies are generally about 5-9 on the Bortle Scale. Many rural communities and highway corridors are green, and roughly 4 on the Bortle scale. Only the areas farthest from any towns are a 3 or possibly in some cases 2, indicating the best skies for stargazing. Still, the areas ranking 2-3 are much better for stargazing than the metro areas and even the center of small towns.
As you can see on the map, the darkest area on Western Skies is in western Guthrie and eastern Audubon counties. This area includes Whiterock Conservancy, which features a star field campground and hosts an annual Iowa Star Party (the 2020 Star Party is cancelled due to COVID-19). Littlefield Recreation Area is also located here. Manteno Park and Prairie Rose State Park in Shelby County and Loess Hills State Forest in Harrison County are also some among the darkest areas on the Byway corridor.
Once you find a dark sky, you can use several different apps to help identify constellations and stars.
A few helpful links for stargazing:
Click the map below for an interactive map of light pollution around the world.