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Americana is alive and well in the western hills of Iowa. Although “hills” and “Iowa” are not often found together in the same sentence, a meandering trip along the Loess Hill Scenic Byway might change your perception of the Hawkeye State.
This wonderful little route begins at the thriving small/big town of Sioux City along the banks of the Missouri River. A favorite outdoor escape destination here is Stone State Park, which marks the northernmost limits of the Scenic Loess Hills. Another place to visit in town is the Sergeant Floyd Monument, an obelisk reminiscent of the Washington Memorial, and dedicated to the only man to die on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Duffers, take note. Sioux City offers up several top-notch municipal golf courses, while offering more than 1,500 acres of city parks, just perfect for picnics.
In order to stay the course on this scenic byway, we’re going to have to zig-zag, so stay close. From Sioux City, take Highway 982 to the town of Smithland, where you’ll head southwest along County Road L12 to the town of Onawa, which proudly boasts the “Widest Main Street in the United States.” Exemplifying a true, small town feel, Onawa throws a couple of great summer parties: the Lewis and Clark Festival, which pays homage to the area’s roots; Graffiti Nights, a retro festival dedicated to the ‘50s; and Onabike, Iowa’s largest one-day bicycle festival.
From Onawa, we’re gonna head east along Highway 37, past the town of Soldier, then southwest again along Hwy 183. Outside Soldier is the Loess Hills Visitors Center, a required stop for those who really want to turn over some unexplored rocks in this picturesque part of the nation. Afterwards, you’ll find great picnicking opportunities at either Preparation Canyon State Park or the Loess Hills State Forest. Feel free to stretch your legs with an after-meal hike. Don’t worry, we’ll wait. Before reaching the greater metropolitan city limits of Omaha, Nebraska, be sure to make a side trip to the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, which showcases the best of Mother Nature along the banks of the Missouri River.
From there, keep riding south along Hwy 183 until you reach the town of Council Bluffs. This historic village is a walker’s delight, featuring a charming downtown with shops and restaurants eager to please visitors. Founded in 1804 by Lewis and Clark (who else?), today the town mascot is the black squirrel, the species first identified here by John Jay Audubon in 1843. Check out the unusually designed Squirrel Cage Jail, a unique pen that housed criminals for more than 100 years. Sorry, the bad guys are gone now, but the site is listed on the National Register of Historical Places.
From Council Bluffs, leave the Loess Hills behind us and head north, then eastward, along I-80. Along the way, be sure to stop in the town of Adair to experience a little of America’s outlaw past. Just outside of town Jesse James and his notorious gang committed their very first robbery when they knocked off the Rock Island Railroad line on July 21, 1873. Old West buffs surely know it was the first of many such heists for the lawless brothers.
Let’s keep moving east along I-80 to our last stop, Des Moines, Iowa’s capital smack dab in the middle of the state. Start exploring downtown in the city’s capital district. The capitol building is nothing short of impressive and has an actual golden dome gilded with 23-karat gold tissue paper. The area also features the Principal Riverwalk, a lovely pedestrian walkway that connects all of downtown. Summer evenings find many of the locals at Gray’s Lake Park, the jewel of the downtown’s rejuvenation efforts, which features popular walking trails along the lakefront.