Homer's Travels: Hiking Iowa: Loess Hills Wildlife Area

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hiking Iowa: Loess Hills Wildlife Area

Yesterday I did something I rarely do.  I hiked without a map.  I drove up to the Loess Hills Wildlife Area stopping at the Loess Hills State Forest Visitor's Center on the way.  I discovered at the center that there are very few trails in the Loess Hills State Forest.  The ranger showed me some short trails in the forest that I will do sometime in the future.

I thanked the ranger and headed to the Loess Hills Wildlife Area, Turin Loess Hills Nature Preserve, and the Sylvan Runkel State Preserve.  Sadly there is very little information online about these areas.

I arrived at the trailhead, a gravel parking area with a Loess Hills information sign and several Public Hunting signs, all with some bullet/buckshot damage.  On the other side of a chain gate was a tractor and several round bails of hay.  While it looked like there was a farm road leading into the area, it didn't look much like a trail.  I almost drove away but I decide to do a little more investigating before I gave up.

A Lonely Trailer Home In The Loess Hills.
I geared up, marked my car's location on the GPS, and headed down the farm road.  The road followed the base of a hill.  A couple hundred feet from the trailhead I noticed what looked like an overgrown road heading up the hill on the left.  I turned east and headed up the hill.  After a short distance the grass gave way to a rather clear old farm road that headed south-east through forest at the base of a ridge.

A third of a mile later the road ended in an overgrown meadow.  I waded through the grass and shrubs making my way across, finally hugging the edge of the meadow, until I reached the other side.  At this point I followed a game trail south into the forest.  Under the shade of the trees the grass and undergrowth thinned and the game trail disappeared.  Looking around I decided to check out what could be seen from the top of the ridge.  I headed up the hill heading for the nearest high point.

The Beginnings Of Fall Colors.
The top of the ridge, approximately 280 feet above the trailhead, offered amazing views of the forest to the south.  I stood there and took it all in.  There wasn't any sign of civilization.  No roads.  No buildings.  No farm fields.  The only sign I was near civilization was the distant moo of a cow.  Most of the leaves were still green but some of the smaller trees were turning yellow, orange, and gold.

I walked west along the ridge line until I couldn't go further.  I dropped down the ridge and entered the forest.    It was a lot easier to move through the trees.  I thought this to myself until I ran into an area of thick undergrowth, stinging weeds, and huge spiders stretched between trees.  I decided that this wasn't as good as I thought so I headed north and then up another ridge which afforded me another view of hills and forest.

Huge Spider.
I followed this ridge to its end before making my way down through forest and brush until I came out in an alfalfa field.  I walked across the field to a farm road, which turned out to be the one I'd started the hike on, and returned to the car.

This turned out to be a short hike, only 2.05 miles with 702 feet of elevation.  Here is a map of the hike.  Despite it's lack of length, it was an interesting hike with gorgeous vistas.  I'd expected hiking without a map would get me into all sorts of trouble but, to my surprise, it wasn't a problem at all.  I often misread trail maps and take wrong turns.  Without a map I made no wrong turns but I also knew exactly where I was at all times.  I would look down at my GPS and the car would be exactly in the direction I thought it was.  The pseudo random walk felt good and when I stood at the top of the ridge I felt like a pioneer.  I am starting to like the Loess Hills.  Loess Hills Wildlife Area pictures can be found here.


  1. Doesn't one get to double all trail-distances if one is traveling cross country? :D

    I can see why you're starting to like the area. Unlike some of the trails here, which resemble freeways given all the traffic they get, this looks like an awesome place to just ramble around...

  2. This is AWESOME! I love the pictures-what a pretty place to just get out and breathe in!

    Do you know what kind of spider that was? That was an amazing photo too! I'm glad you didn't run into it-it's massive!

  3. I just looked it up! It's a marbled orb weaver and NOT poisonous. :-D

  4. GH: Is that the rule? I like it. :)

    I found following game trails to be easier than following some trail. I'll have to go back ... as long as it's not hunting season.

    Miss McC: I saw at least three of those spiders and managed to miss all of them. I wasn't as successful at avoiding smaller spiders and their webs.

    Thanks for the massive spider ID.

  5. I live in the Loess Hills and they are beautiful. I go hiking for hours and never get lost. Although, I wish I could.

    1. Anon: They definely are. I wish there were more organized trails in the Loess Hills. It would be cool if you could hike from one end to the other.

    2. I've thought about that myself. Hike down from the South Dakota area (or even Sioux City) to Missouri. Straight through the Loess Hills. Maybe I'll get some inspiration one day and make my own trails. Hiking the entire Loess Hills is something I've wanted to do for a while. I don't know how possible it is though.

      Do not go where the path may lead. Instead, go where there is no path and leave a trail.

  6. Anon: Problem is a lot of the Loess Hills are private property, right?

  7. Thanks for the post. You're right, there's not a lot on line about trails in this area.

    1. Anon: You are welcome. I wish there were more documented trails in the Loess Hills.