On Memorial Day weekend, the third LoHi Trek was held in Plymouth and Woodbury counties. The LoHi, short for Loess Hills, is based on the concept of a walking route through the entire length of western Iowa's scenic and unique Loess Hills landform. In 2020, Monona County resident Kelly Madigan hiked more than 200 miles from South Dakota to Missouri, inspiring many others to pursue outdoor adventures in the Loess Hills. Read about Kelly's journey here and the 2021 LoHi and 2022 LoHi treks.
40 people participated in this year's LoHi trek, with five states were represented: Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Ohio. There were several repeat trekkers as well as many new hikers. The terrain they hiked was all new to the LoHi, however, as this year's trek covered the northernmost reaches of western Iowa's Loess Hills in Plymouth and Woodbury counties.
Camp Joy Hollow served as the basecamp for the 2023 LoHi Trek. The 356-acre tract was recently purchased by the Nature Conservancy, expanding the conservation footprint in western Iowa's Loess Hills. TNC's Scott Moats visited the LoHi trekkers at Camp Joy Hollow on Thursday evening to discuss Broken Kettle Grasslands and the conservation practices used to manage the largest remnant prairie in the state of Iowa.
Day 1 began on North Ridge Road near the town of Westfield. Hikers followed this loop of the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway before reaching Broken Kettle Grasslands. The level gravel road with a gentle grade was a perfect warm-up for the steep Loess Hills ridges that awaited the hikers over the course of the holiday weekend.
Thanks to the Nature Conservancy, LoHi trekkers were allowed to hike through the Broken Kettle Grasslands, including the bison enclosure. TNC staff were on hand to ensure the safety of both hikers and bison alike. This section of the trek was a highlight for many of the hikers, as the terrain they walked is closed to the public because of the presence of bison. The walk through Broken Kettle took hikers along prairie ridges with penstemon, locoweed, downy yellow painted cup, and more wildflowers. The section through Broken Kettle ended at Aalfs Family Preserve, a beautiful overlook with benches that is located on Butcher Road.
After lunch, the trek continued along Butcher Road, a loop on the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway, before heading south along another prairie ridge. The trek descended steeply into Joy Creek, an old hardwood forest that likely existed during the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Hikers made their way along the scout camp trails to return to Joy Hollow, where dinner and ice cream awaited the hungry hikers. Pizza was provided from Hummers Roadhouse Bar & Grill in nearby Westfield, while Blue Bunny ice cream was a cold treat provided by The Nature Conservancy, who hosted an open house at Joy Hollow on Friday evening. Graham McGaffin, TNC's Iowa state director, spoke to the public and LoHi trekkers about the addition of Joy Hollow and its importance to conservation in the northern Loess Hills.
Day 2 began and ended at Camp Joy Hollow, as the day's hike followed a loop through adjacent Five Ridge Prairie State Preserve and neighboring private property to return to the campsite in the evening. Hikers started at 10am so that they could arrive in the afternoon at the property of Bill and Dotty Zales, who own several hundred acres of land adjacent to Joy Hollow and Five Ridge Prairie. The morning hike followed the mowed fire breaks that serve as trails at Five Ridge Prairie. A highlight included the sweeping views of the Big Sioux River from high atop the ridge near the Five Prairie camping cabin that overlooks Highway 12 and the Big Sioux River.
Hikers arrived at the residence of Bill and Dotty Zales, two local conservationists who are active in various conservation groups such as the Loess Hills Audubon Society. Hikers were welcomed with homemade beer and plenty of shade after a hot and sunny morning hike. Some hikers even took a plunge in the Zales' farm pond! Bill Zales talked to the group about their efforts to restore prairie on their property and other conservation measures they have undertaken on their land. Later, a delicious dinner of pulled pork, cole slaw, salads, and homemade ice cream were provided thanks to the Friends of Stone State Park. After dinner, Bill Zales led a group on a guided hike back to Joy Hollow, stopping at several spots to discuss the land and its conservation.
Day 3 was the longest and toughest day of hiking on the entire 2023 LoHi Trek. The day started at Heendah Hills State Recreation Area, following prairie ridges and old maintenance tracks to reach a property called the Hummel Tract. This area, previously owned by "Curly" Hummel before it was purchased by The Nature Conservancy and now managed by the Iowa DNR, is an extensive and rugged wildlife area. Stretches of the hike followed old farm tracks used by the previous landowner. Brightly colored ribbons flagged the route for hikers until the final section, which required bushwhacking through the understory to reach Talbot Road just north of the Stone State Park.
The road was a welcome respite after the tough off-trail morning hike. Hikers refreshed at the private residence of Dr. Luis Lebredo and Ruth Rose before continuing to Calumet Shelter in Stone State Park for lunch provided thanks to the Northwest Iowa Group of Sierra Club. After lunch, a short hike through Stone State Park to Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center concluded the third day of the trek. Hikers returned to Camp Joy Hollow to recuperate after a long and difficult day of hiking.
Memorial Day was the final day of the 2023 LoHi Trek. After breaking camp at Joy Hollow, participants returned to Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center and hiked to Mount Lucia, a popular overlook in the southern part of Stone State Park. From there, hikers continued south through the state park until reaching Malloy Road. The remaining hikers gathered at the entrance to Sioux City Prairie on Talbot Road. After signing the visitor log and sharing some final thoughts, the hikers moved through Sioux City Prairie in silence to reflect on their experience. The quiet walk through one of the largest urban prairies in the world was a poignant finale to a memorable weekend.