While winter weather arrived to western Iowa weeks ago, the first day of winter is officially here. In the Northern Hemisphere, December 21 is marked by the winter solstice, when the Earth is at its maximum tilt away from the sun resulting in the least amount of sunlight during the year. While the days get longer from now until the summer solstice, temperatures will remain cold (and colder!) until spring thaws the frozen soil, ponds, and creeks of western Iowa. For those that relish the winter wonderland of western Iowa, the next few months are a delight. If you shudder at the thought of Old Man Winter, however, get cozy with a cup of cocoa and give winter a chance as there are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy the snowy season along western Iowa’s three scenic byways.
Mount Crescent Ski Area
Perhaps the epicenter of winter outdoor recreation on the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway, the Mount Crescent Ski Area is ready for a historic season. Pottawattamie County Conservation recently acquired the property as part of its plan to create one of the largest nature areas in the state. The 2022-23 winter season marks 61 years since Mount Crescent first opened and new snowmaking machines guarantee a 100% chance of snow from December through March. Pottawattamie County has committed to increasing snow-making and grooming frequency throughout the season as well as reducing wait times to improve the customer experience.
Opening day for the 2022-23 season is December 21st. With the exception of Christmas Day, Mount Crescent will be open every day over the holidays beginning on December 21st from 10am until 5pm (9am to 3pm on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve). After the new year, the ski area will be open for night skiing on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 4pm to 9pm, in addition to extended hours on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays (check the winter hours calendar).
Season passes are available for purchase on Mount Crescent’s website; Pottawattamie County residents receive a 25% discount on season passes and lift tickets. You can also pre-purchase single-day lift tickets, equipment rentals, ski and snowboard lessons, and reserve sledding passes (zibob sledding every other Saturday from 6pm - 9pm beginning in January) on the website.
Hitchcock Nature Center
Pottawattamie County Conservation has long-term plans to connect Mount Crescent Ski Area with Hitchcock Nature Center, where more winter activities await visitors. Hiking is popular at Hitchcock, and the ten-mile trail system creates a variety of options for hikers to explore the rugged terrain of the Loess Hills in winter. There are several guided hikes scheduled throughout winter at Hitchcock Nature Center. Naturalist Dustin Clayton will lead the annual Winter Solstice Night Hike on December 21st at 6:30pm. The hike is free with valid park entry or membership. Another hike on New Year’s Eve, starting at 6pm, offers the chance to ring in 2023 by viewing Omaha’s fireworks display far away from the crowds. Check Hitchcock’s calendar for more winter hikes.
Hiking isn’t the only activity on the trails at Hitchcock. The rugged topography and steep ridges make the park a sledding paradise. One of the trails in particular, The Chute, is notoriously steep but perfect for sledding in winter. All sledding at Hitchcock is at your own risk, so bring your own sled and please be mindful of other people on the trails.
While you must bring your own sled to Hitchcock, snowshoes are available for guest rental at the park’s Loess Hills Lodge. There must be at least four to six inches of snow on the ground to rent snowshoes. If you are new to snowshoeing, the environmental education team at Hitchcock has planned four “pop-up” classes in January and February to teach you the basics of snowshoeing. The classes are weather-dependent, so check the park’s calendar and social media for confirmation of dates.
Cone Park Sioux City
One hour north of Hitchcock Nature Center on the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway, Cone Park is the place for winter fun in Sioux City. The centerpiece of the park is the 83-foot tall tubing hill with a 700-foot run. There is also an ice skating rink, outdoor fire pit, and lodge to warm up with a hot drink before heading back up the carpet lift to the top of the hill for more tubing fun. Tubes are provided by Cone Park (outside tubes are not allowed) and ice skates are available to rent if you don’t have your own pair. Tubing sessions of three hours cost $10 and can be reserved, as some sessions do occasionally sell out. For a complete list of operating dates, hours, and rates, check out Cone Park’s website and Facebook page.
Start 2023 off on the right foot by joining one of several First Day Hikes in western Iowa. First Day Hikes are part of a nationwide initiative led by state parks around the United States to encourage people to get outdoors. There are several official First Day Hikes scheduled on or near western Iowa’s scenic byways.
Friends Of The Loess Hills State Forest And Preparation Canyon State Park, Iowa DNR, and Golden Hills RC&D are partnering to host a First Day 5K Hike at the Pisgah Unit of the Loess Hills State Forest. The hike begins at 1pm on January 1, 2023, and will conclude with snacks and drinks at the Brent Olson Memorial Visitor Center (206 Polk Street in Pisgah). To participate in the hike, meet at 2047 145th Street south of Pisgah and park along the road.
The First Day Hike at Waubonsie State Park begins at 1pm at the Wa-Shawtee Lodge (2585 Waubonsie Park Rd, Hamburg IA 51640). The 2-mile hike will begin at Wa-Shawtee Lodge and wind off-trail through the woods of Waubonsie State Park and the Militia Hollow Wildlife Management Area. The Friends of Waubonsie will be supplying food and beverages before and after the hike.
At the northern end of the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway, Stone State Park in Sioux City will be hosting a First Day Hike at 10am on January 1st. Meet at the parking lot across from the park office (5001 Talbot Rd, Sioux City IA 51103) to join park staff for a short 45-minute moderate hike through the woods. Dress for weather and contact the park office (712-255-4698; Stone@dnr.iowa.gov) with any questions.
Two state parks along the Western Skies Scenic Byway will also be hosting First Day Hikes. Prairie Rose State Park near Harlan will hike around the east side of the lake, taking hikers through wooded areas, prairie, and across the hidden bridge. Meet at 4pm at the park office (680 Road M47, Harlan IA 51537). Springbrook State Park, near Guthrie Center, will hike to the highest point in the park, stopping at geologically and historically significant sites along the way and looking for signs of wildlife activity. Hot chocolate will be provided after the hike. The hike begins at 1pm and meets at the park house/office (2437 160th Rd, Guthrie Center IA 50115).
Continue hiking throughout winter in western Iowa by using the Loess Hills hiking guide developed by Golden Hills RC&D. Hiking in cold weather can be fun as long as you dress and pack accordingly. Dress in layers so that you can peel off a layer if you get overheated, then put it back on if you get chilled. Your base layer should be a wicking material to keep sweat off of your skin, while the second layer should be insulating to retain heat. The outer layer should protect you from wind and precipitation. Don’t forget to wear a hat to keep your head warm. Winter is also hunting season, so wear at least one item of clothing that is blaze orange (don’t forget blaze orange for your dog!).
Locals know their area best and each community has its own popular sledding hill. The steep ridges of the Loess Hills and the rolling swells on the Western Skies Scenic Byway and Glacial Trail Scenic Byway make for great sledding. Some great spots for sledding include, but are not limited to, Vincent Bluff State Preserve in Council Bluffs and Sertoma Park and Grandview Park, both in Sioux City, as well as the aforementioned The Chute at Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek.
Many of the hiking trails in western Iowa can also be used by cross-country skiers in winter. While most, if not all, of the trails are not groomed for cross-country skiing in the winter, the intrepid explorer can still strap on their ski boots and cut a path through the powder after a fresh snow. The Wabash Trace Nature Trail is an excellent option for cross-country skiing, as the level grade and trailhead accessibility make it easy to get out and explore the trail during the winter.
Bird watching might not come to mind as a winter activity, but in fact it is a wonderful winter activity for several reasons. Around 20% of Iowa birds overwinter in the state, so while there aren’t as many birds to watch during other seasons, winter does provide plenty of bird watching opportunities. One of the main reasons bird watching is great in winter is the lack of foliage makes it easier to spot birds in trees and shrubs. Additionally, many birds change their feathers in winter, so you can test your bird identification skills. Northern cardinals, blue jays, juncos, northern flickers, woodpeckers, owls, hawks, and eagles are just some of the common birds that overwinter in Iowa.
Western Skies Scenic Byway connects some of the best birding areas in Iowa and has many places to see birds. Check out our Western Skies Birding Trail page with information about birding the Western Skies Scenic Byway. There are two Bird Conservation Areas on the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway: Loess Hills Bird Conservation Area in Harrison and Monona counties, and Broken Kettle Bird Grasslands in Plymouth County.
A great way to join a bird watching group is to participate in a Christmas Bird Count. The Audubon Christmas Bird count is the nation's longest-running community science bird project. It is a census performed annually by volunteers between December 14th and January 5th. Each count is performed in a 15-mile “count circle” by at least ten volunteers that break into small groups and follow assigned routes, while some watch bird feeders. The National Audubon Society administers the counts and uses the population data to inform their conservation programs. To learn more about the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, check out the Christmas Bird Count Compiler Resources, where you can search for a Christmas Bird Count in your area via this map.
The nearest Christmas Bird Counts to western Iowa’s scenic byways will be held in Cass County and Ida County, respectively. The Cass County Christmas Bird Count is scheduled for December 28 from 8am to 4:30pm at Cold Spring State Park near Lewis (south of Atlantic). Contact Cass County Conservation for more information.
The Loess Hills Audubon Society will host a Christmas Bird Count on December 31 at Moorhead Park in Ida Grove. The count begins at 8am and will conclude at 3:30pm. Chili will be provided for lunch, while pie and ice cream will be available after the count has concluded. For more information, contact Don Poggensee (712-369-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org). Ida Grove is a half-hour drive east of the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway and one hour south of Glacial Trail Scenic Byway.