With stunning scenery and top-notch attractions, the Loess Hills of western Iowa is a grand group tour destination.

The Loess Hills are a unique geological formation that spans 15 miles at the widest point to nearly 200 miles, through seven of Iowa’s westernmost counties down to the St. Joseph, Missouri, area. 

These hills were formed during the end of the last ice age, when fine wind-blown soil (loess, which is derived from the German word for loose) was deposited into tall formations, year after year. 

“While loess soil appears in many areas, it is the depth and expanse of these deposits that is so unique,” said Rebecca Castle, project coordinator, Golden Hills Resource Conservation & Development. “Only in China will you find loess deposits deeper and more expansive. The soil composition and steep banks create an ecosystem unlike any others in this region. Flora and fauna such as yucca and prairie rattlesnake are present here, which would generally be typical of the Western Great Plains, because of the south-facing slopes and arid soil. The ridgelines are also a haven for migrating raptors, and Pottawattamie County Conservation’s Hitchcock Nature Center Hawk Watch Tower is part of the annual effort to count the migrating birds.”

Hitchcock Nature Center
Hitchcock Nature Center
Credit: Lance Brisbois

According to Nicki Brus, president of the Iowa Group Travel Association, the Loess Hills is great for groups not only because of the beautiful scenery but because groups can retrace the steps of many great explorers while learning about U.S. history and heritage.

“Of course, they will be getting all of this while being treated to our great Midwestern hospitality,” Brus said. “Groups can cut their own lavender bouquet at the Loess Hills Lavender Farm, check out the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, trace steps of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, visit and eat their way through the ‘Ice Cream Capital of the World’ in LeMars, or find an arts or craft festival of their choosing throughout the region. Fall is a beautiful time to visit with the changing colors.”

Castle confirmed the Loess Hills are significant for their historical, biological, geological and archaeological contributions, but in addition the landscape provides breathtaking views and unique recreational opportunities. 

“The views from the roadway on the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway are engaging to tour operators and participants alike — and that’s just between destinations,” Castle said.

Tours can be tailored to fit the desires of each group. Many museums and attractions are located along the route.

“No matter what, planners should include as many of the iconic overlooks and loop drives as possible,” Castle said. “The multitude and quality of parks, nature centers and museums should also be added to the itineraries. One challenge that could present itself is that some of the overlooks are on gravel roads, so depending on the comfort level of the driver and the weather the conditions should be scoped out beforehand.”

Loess Hills must-sees

  • Broken Kettle Grasslands – south of Westfield
  • Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center – north of Sioux City
  • Sgt. Floyd Riverboat Welcome Center and Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center/Betty Strong Encounter Center – Sioux City
  •  Preparation Canyon Overlook – north of Pisgah
  • Murray Hill Scenic Overlook – west of Pisgah
  • Harrison County Historical Village & Welcome Center – north of Missouri Valley
  • DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge – west of Missouri Valley
  • Hitchcock Nature Center – Honey Creek
  • Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge – Council Bluffs
  • Mills County Historical Museum – Glenwood
  • Waubonsie State Park (trails and overlooks) – Hamburg

Check out the Sidney, Iowa Rodeo if the group is coming the last week in July/first weekend of August.

Castle said groups enjoy hiking on Brent’s Trail, west of Pisgah. The new, 8-mile rugged hiking trail goes through a combination of county and Iowa Department of Natural Resources lands.

Loess Hills
Murray Hill
Credit: Lance Brisbois

Favorite wineries/breweries include Bodega Victoriana & Keg Creek Brewery (Glenwood) and Full Fledged Brewery (Council Bluffs).

Sioux City and Council Bluffs have a high concentration of museums in relatively close proximity.

Birding enthusiasts will want to go to Riverton Wildlife Area (Fremont County) and Hawk Watch Tower (Hitchcock Nature Center).

Agritourism attractions include Honey Creek Creamery (Crescent) and Loess Hills Lavender Farm & Sawmill Hollow Family Farm (Missouri Valley).

The Iowa Group Travel Association is the only statewide organization in Iowa dedicated to group travel. The association is made up of attractions, hotels, motels, restaurants, destination marketing organizations and tour services throughout the state.

“It is our goal to market our state and our members to national group tour planners and tour planning professionals while educating them on the plentiful group tour options available to them in our state,” Brus said. “Each of our members are experienced ‘group-friendly’ professionals who take pride in providing extraordinary levels of hospitality, service and experiences. We help make the connections between planners and our members based on the types of tours they are trying to plan.”