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.
Learn about what's happening along Western Skies!
Click here to download a pdf.
Head to the great outdoors this weekend and hike through a prairie or go fishing!
Saturday, June 6 is National Prairie Day. The mission of National Prairie Day is to:
In western Iowa, specifically the Loess Hills, we are fortunate to have many public prairies. Golden Hills is involved with several prairie projects, including our Prairie Seed Harvest and Growing Native Plants initiatives. We also have information about prairies to visit in western Iowa. The Iowa Prairie Network website also has many great resources about prairies, including a list of public prairies throughout the state.
June 5-7 is also Free Fishing Weekend in Iowa. Iowa residents can try fishing without buying a license on June 5, 6 and 7 as part of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) free fishing weekend. All other regulations remain in place.
The WanderLoess website, coordinated by Golden Hills, includes a map of places to fish in Harrison, Mills, and Pottawattamie Counties. The DNR has a full listing of public fishing spots in Iowa on their website.
Although it's often easy to not think about it, water is one of the most important parts of our everyday lives. From recreation to cleaning to drinking to growing and cooking food, water is all around us all the time. Our quality of life can suffer when we have too much (flooding), not enough (drought), or low-quality water (in our surface waters or our wells).
Golden Hills is introducing Nishy the Loch Nish Monster to help people get to know the Nishnabotna Watershed, and educate about how our local water bodies and sourcewater can be impacted by water quantity and quality issues. Nishy the five-foot floaty will visit sites throughout the watershed and share information about challenges and solutions for improving water quality, reducing flooding impacts, and improving river recreation in the region.
Golden Hills coordinates the East and West Nishnabotna Watershed Managment Coalition which aims to reduce flooding and improve water quality throughout the watershed. Follow the watershed coalition on Facebook.
We have also been involved with the West Nishnabotna Water Trail in Pottawattamie County since it began in 2010. We are currently partnering with Shelby County Conservation and Iowa DNR to determine feasibility of extending the water trail designation north into Shelby County. Follow the water trail on Facebook.
Learn more about all of Golden Hills' land and water conservation projects at http://www.goldenhillsrcd.org/conservation.html and follow Golden Hills on Facebook and Instagram.
Stay tuned for Nishy updates!
More than 99.9% of Iowa's native prairies have been been removed from the land. Of the remaining <0.1%, more than half is located in the steep Loess Hills landform of western Iowa. Prairies evolved over thousands of years with regular fire regimes set by native peoples and lightning. Large ungulates like bison also roamed the prairies, grazing grasses and forbs. Since European settlement in the 19th century, the fires and grazers have largely been eliminated from the landscape. In recent years, fire has seen a resurgence as an important tool for prairie, savanna, and woodland restoration and management.
Partners from Iowa Department of Natural Resources and local county conservation boards joined to help burn hundreds of acres of public and private lands in Monona County on April 30, 2020.
The annual Loess Hills Cooperative Burn Week had been scheduled for this week but was postponed due to COVID-19. Burn Week partners are still making the best of available resources, and conservation agencies regularly collaborate to assist with burns on both public and private lands throughout the Loess Hills.
After an overview of the plan for the day and weather conditions that morning, three squads separated to their respective units. Firefighters used drip torches to light areas within the fireline, including both woodlands and grasslands. Roads, water bodies, and mowed paths are often used for firebreaks to contain the fire.
Without fire and grazing, eastern red cedar (juniperus virginiana) can take over and crowd out other species. Although these cedars are a native species, they rapidly become invasive without proper management.
Cool-season grasses like brome that were planted as pasture for livestock can also take over native prairies.. Brome does not have the same habitat value as a diverse remnant prairie. Cool-season grasses green up earlier than warm-season grasses. Burning in spring can set back the cool-season grasses that have started to green up, and help natives recolonize an area.
Perennial native vegetation is fire adapted so burning does not kill it. Native plants burn more quickly and thoroughly than brome pastures. Flowering plants in the burn unit will bloom slightly later in the season than in unburned portions which extends availability of nectar resources for pollinators. Many flowering plants will have more flowers and seed production during the year of the burn (=more nectar resources and more food resources).
This time of year, people may wonder about the effects of fire on grassland ground-nesting birds. Since they evolved with the prairie and fires, they have strategies to adapt and are very persistent re-nesters. If they lose a nest to a fire, they will re-nest. In order to keep the whole grassland functioning long term, prescribed fire is necessary along with some short term-losses of nests. Natural areas are broken up into units so that the whole area doesn't have fire at the same time. A burn unit may only see one fire every 3-7 years, though some areas are burned more frequently.
To protect crop land near the burn units, corn stubble was removed from the outer edge of fields. Much of the prairie to be burned is on top of the Loess Hills ridges, while lower areas are cultivated rowcrops. The blackened area won't last long, as green prairie plants will begin to dot the landscape within a few days.
The diversity of the burn unit offered ample opportunities to see how fire behavior varies with fuel, topography, and weather changes. When a large brush pile caught fire in a ravine, flame lengths reached 30 or more feet! Most of the fires, however, were only a few inches to a few feet tall.
In addition to the ecological and wildlife habitat benefits, prescribed fires help maintain the unique Loess Hills scenery along the viewshed of the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway. This fire was located on the Wilderness Loop of the byway in Monona County, which includes some of the most rugged and remote parts of the state. Firefighters posted signs on the road to warn drivers of possible smoke, and to let people know that the fires are intentional.
While you're out exploring the Loess Hills this spring, don't be surprised if you see smoke and flames. It is probably a prescribed fire being used to restore our fragile and globally-significant Loess Hills!
For more information about prescribed fire in the Loess Hills, visit the Loess Hills Alliance's Stewardship Committee web page.