Located two hours due west of Des Moines and about 20 minutes north of Council Bluffs, Hitchcock Nature Center gives hikers 10 miles of trails to explore. Photo: Lance Brisbois
Writer: Beth Eslinger
With cooling temps, golden prairies and oaks, plus farms with fresh produce dotting the countryside, late summer and early fall are a prime time for families, foodies and nature-lovers to visit. Here are our picks for the ultimate day getaway in western Iowa’s Loess Hills.
Nature drive-by: The Loess Hills National Scenic Byway cruises up the western spine of the state and provides ample options to stop by orchards, wineries, parks and more. Pick a small section (download the guide and choose your adventure). The sites on this day trip focus on the centrally located Hitchcock loop; Council Bluffs is at the core and a solid overnight option with myriad dining and lodging options, plus several museums.
Terrific treks: Operated by Pottawattamie County Conservation, Hitchcock Nature Center offers a quiet getaway amid the hills. Start your visit at the visitor’s center, where you can climb the 45-foot observation tower for expansive views of the landscape. Fall is a prime time for birders; HawkWatch tracks migrating eagles, hawks and other raptors September through December. After your bird’s-eye view of the land, hit the trails to see the environment up close. Ten miles wind through the ridges, some with tough climbs; the trails connect via loops to test your endurance.
Local orchards: Several you-picks are located near Council Bluffs. One favorite is Ditmars Orchard and Vineyard, where you can pick fresh apples before shopping their store for hard cider, pie and salsa. Kids can run through the corn maze and greet the goats.
Wineries: At Prairie Crossing Vineyard and Winery in Treynor, enjoy a pour amid the rolling rural landscape. Shop for dry reds and whites and sweeter ports—their tasting room is open year-round (check their Facebook page for events such as “table-to-farm” dinners). Prairie Hawk Vineyards and Winery in Council Bluffs and Loess Hills Vineyard and Winery in Crescent offer additional stops for sips.