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Hitchcock Nature Center: Ultimate Guide to Hike, Discover and Camp the Loess Hills

It’s truly a gem in the Midwest, and one of the most underrated spots to visit in Iowa. The Hitchcock Nature Center in the Loess Hills is a place just begging to be explored!

Hitchcock nature center view of the Loess Hills with green grasses and trees
View of the rolling Loess Hills at the Hitchcock Nature Center

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Nestled along the western edge of Iowa is the Hitchcock Nature Center. It’s a place for hiking, camping, birdwatching and so much more.

Much of the Midwest is known for being flat. But that’s not true of the Loess Hills! These rolling hills can be seen from miles away, and offer quite a bit of adventure, not to mention geological history.

The Hitchcock Nature Center is actually one of the stops along the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway, one of the best Midwest Road Trips.

Hitchcock Nature Center – quick facts

spring in loess hills with purple flowers close up with greenery
Spring flowers at the Hitchcock Nature Center

Before we get into all the details, here are some quick pieces of info about the Hitchcock Nature Center.

  • Public land managed by the Pottawattamie County Conservation Board.
  • Hitchcock Nature Center costs $5 per day to access, and is cash only (you’ll need exact change)
  • Buy a Pottawattamie County Foundation Membership for $20 annually, and this is included in it if you know you’ll frequent the park often.
  • Park hours are 6:00am to 10:00pm.

Tips for visiting the park

  • No food or drink are available to purchase. Be sure to bring your own hiking snacks or food for picnics! 
  • Dogs are allowed in the park and on hiking trails. Be sure to pick up after your dog, and ensure it’s on a leash the entire duration of your stay.
  • Beware of hunting season. During the fall and winter months, keep an eye on the Facebook page for alerts on when hunters are allowed in the park so you can plan accordingly.
  • Bring proper gear when hiking. The trails can be muddy, and the extra support makes your hike more enjoyable. These are my favorite hiking boots I’ve worn to state and national parks all over the USA. Here are my husband’s favorite hiking boots for men, and the trekking poles our family takes hiking with us.

About Loess Hills

view of the loess hills from the Hitchcock nature center in iowa above the trees on a sunny day
View of the Loess Hills looking towards Nebraska

The Hitchcock Nature Center is in the heart of the Loess Hills. By the way, Loess is pronounced like luss – rhyming with buss.

The Loess Hills are a unique land formation that stretch over 200 miles along the Missouri River. They run from southeast South Dakota through western Iowa, eastern Nebraska and end in northwestern Missouri.

The Loess Hills National Scenic Byway is one of America’s Byways, and is one of the best Midwest road trips with amazing scenery. The hills were created by deposits of soil, created over the duration of the last ice age. The only other land formation like the Loess Hills in Iowa that’s larger on this earth is located near Shaanxi, China.

The Hitchcock Nature Center is a 1300 acre preserve, including an interpretive lodge with an incredible amount of science, nature and history of the area. More on the lodge in a bit!

How to get to the Hitchcock Nature Center Iowa

Hitchcock nature center sign on a sunny day with dormant trees in background
Just a short drive north of Omaha and Council Bluffs

Official address: 27792 Ski Hill Loop, Honey Creek, Iowa, 51542

The Hitchcock Nature Center is located about 15 miles north of Council Bluffs, Iowa, and about 5 miles north of Crescent, Iowa. It’s easily accessible from Omaha Nebraska, Sioux City or Council Bluffs, Iowa.

If you’re a visual person, here’s a map of the Hitchcock Nature Center. The yellow icon is the Hitchcock Nature Center. The orange icons are the Loess Hills Lodge and Hitchcock Nature Center Campground. The blue icons on the map are nearby cities.

Loess Hills Lodge Interpretive Facility

Hitchcock nature center education center building with trees and pavement in foreground
Loess Hills Lodge

When visiting the Hitchcock Nature Center, you’ll get the best experience to really understand the area if you can go while the lodge is open. Check lodge hours here.  

The first few times I visited the area, the lodge was closed. But there’s so much helpful info inside! 

The lodge features interactive displays for all ages. Kids will like learning about nature and animals through fun exhibits. Adults can review Loess Hills history, topographical maps, raptor displays and so much more.

Observation tower

Hitchcock nature center wooden observation tower with lots of stairs really high up
Tower at the Loess Hills Lodge

Located adjacent to the lodge is the observation tower. It’s 45 feet high and provides 360-degree views of the Loess Hills. 

It’s also used as the Hitchcock HawkWatch, which has been around for 30 years, studying the raptor migration patterns. There’s an abundance of information on raptors inside the lodge.

While you’re up on the observation tower, be sure to watch for raptors, such as Bald and Golden Eagles, Osprey, Falcons, Vultures and so many more large birds!

The HawkWatch is actually one of the top 25 hawkwatching sites in North America, rated by the National Wildlife Federation!

sign about raptors including pictures of birds hawks and text about them
An abundance of wildlife at the Loess Hills!

The best time of year to spot raptors from the tower is September and October, as they migrate south over the Loess Hills during this time. But anytime of year you should be able to spot one of the 240 avian species at the Hitchcock Nature Center.

Hitchcock Nature Center trails

dirt hiking trail with trees and green grass on a sunny day
Hiking at the Hitchcock Nature Center on a summer day

One of the most popular things to do at the Hitchcock Nature Center is hit the trails! It’s one of the best places to see Midwestern views of Iowa and Nebraska.

In fact, the Hitchcock Nature Center is one of the only spots in the region that has hiking trails with moderate elevation gain and steep vertical inclines. It’s a great spot for training for places like Mt Rainier, Grand Teton National Park or the Smoky Mountains.

Anyway, the Hitchcock Nature Center Iowa has nearly 13 miles of hiking trails, and plenty of options for all ages, abilities and skill types. I won’t list them all here, but below are a few of the best trails!

large wooden sign that reads badger ridge trailhead with maps and flyers trees and shrubs on a sunny day
Watch for maps at trailheads and snap a pic with your phone to help keep on track

Quick note: AllTrails isn’t very accurate for Hitchcock Nature Center trails. The trails in general are interconnected and can be tricky to navigate. Use the map at the trailheads or the visitor center as guides. 

Pro tip: take a picture of the trail map at the trailhead with your phone to refer back to if you don’t have a paper map. As you hike, you’ll see small signs at most trail intersections. Use those as a guide throughout the park.

Fox Run Ridge

Hitchcock nature center fox run ridge trailhead sign with map and signs with tree above
Another popular trail: Fox Run Ridge

Distance: 1.8 miles
Rating: easy 
Estimated time: less than 1 hour

This is a simple out-and-back hike, great for kids or those looking for an easy trail.

The Fox Run Ridge trailhead is close to the visitor center. But be warned this parking area can fill up quickly, so during weekends arrive early or look for overflow parking down the hill.

The main feature of Fox Run Ridge is the lookout. Located at the end of the trail, through the trees you’ll see the Loess Hills abruptly stop. The trail stops at a lookout over scenic views of the prairie in the valley below far as the eye can see. 

It’s a peaceful spot to stop and enjoy nature before heading back to the trailhead.

Badger Ridge

hiking trail at the Hitchcock nature center with view of the Loess Hills
One of the best views in the park!

Distance: 3.1 miles (depending on variation)
Rating: moderate
Estimated time: 1.5 – 2 hours

Badger Ridge Trail is a loop that goes through different terrain and a variety of scenic views within the park, and it’s one of the best Hitchcock Nature Center trails. The main feature of this hike is along the ridge. You’ll get panoramic views of the Loess Hills!

The rolling hills of Iowa are quite scenic from the ridge. On a clear day, you’ll get a glimpse of downtown Omaha and Council Bluffs, too.

There are many variations of this loop. The Badger Ridge Trial ends and you can head back west at the Hidden Valley trail intersection (an easy stretch of trail). From there, the most direct way is to connect back up at The Chute, which is a short 0.2 miles but challenging uphill.

Alternatively, if you’re looking for a bit longer hike you can take the Badger Ridge to Wildwoods, where it connects back to the Heritage Trail via a small stretch of Hidden Valley Trail. From there, you’ll hit The Chute to create the hiking loop. 

Pro tip: remember your paper map (found at the lodge or trailhead) or take a picture of the trail map with your phone. 

Boardwalk / Iowa West Foundation Equal Access Nature Trail

kids walking on trail with sign that reads iowa west foundation equal access nature trail
Kid-friendly and accessible hiking trails, too

Distance: 0.6 miles or 1.25 miles
Rating: easy
Estimated time: 30 minutes to 1 hour

Just as the name suggests, this trail is a boardwalk built for everyone to enjoy! It’s popular with kids and perfect for strollers or wheelchairs. It’s a simple up-and-back trail.

As you start at the trailhead, the boardwalk gradually descends down a long hill. It’s about 0.3 miles in length, and has a few lookouts along the way. 

On a nice day, pack a picnic and eat it at one of the picnic tables on the boardwalk!

If you’d like to go beyond the boardwalk, the trial turns into Hawk Ridge, which goes another 0.35 miles to the end of the Hitchcock Nature Center boundary.

Legacy Loop via Fox Run or Heritage Trail

steep downward hill with brown grasses and dormant trees in the distance
Hiking Heritage Trail on a sunny, snow-less winter day

Distance: 2 miles or 1.5 miles
Rating: difficult or moderate
Estimated time: 1 – 1.5 hours

If you’re looking for more of a challenge, one of the most fun Hitchcock Nature Center hikes I’ve done is the Legacy Loop. 

There area few ways getting to it, so let’s break them down here.

For the most incline, start at the Fox Run Ridge Trail. Take that about 0.1 mile until you see The Chute intersection. From The Chute, connect with the Heritage Trail. Follow the Heritage Trail for about 0.37 miles until you get to the Legacy Loop. 

Legacy Loop is about 0.67 miles, and has more inclines than many other areas of the park. You can do the full loop and return the way you came, all the way back to the trailhead.

This variation is right about 2 miles round trip. 

For an easier (and much simpler to navigate) version of this trail but still hiking the Legacy Loop, begin at the Fox Run Trailhead. Follow it to 0.37 miles until you see the intersection to the Legacy Loop. 

Hike the Legacy Loop and then return via the Fox Run trail. This variation is just under 1.5 miles.

Keep your map handy. There are a lot of intersections within this area of the park and it can be tricky to navigate.

Pro tip: you’ll appreciate wearing good hiking shoes with traction, and bringing hiking poles for these inclines. 

Hitchcock Nature Center with kids

While most of the area is kid-friendly, the Hitchcock Nature Center has a few programs that cater especially to children.

Inside the Loess Hills Lodge Interpretive Facility, the kids can learn all about plants, animals and other nature surrounding themselves at the park. With interactive displays – and even a little gift shop, kids will have a lot to see inside.

Outdoors, kids can hike! There are even ‘Little Tike Hike’ signs at various areas of the park. These are specifically designated portions of trails that are easiest for little legs. They’re meant for ages 3-5 but of course other kids will find them fun, too.

The Little Tike Hikes, which overlaps other popular trails, includes signs along the way, pointing at various features. Ask staff in the lodge which trail currently has the Little Tike Hike signs when you arrive at the park.

You can find other family-friendly events on the Hitchcock Nature Center’s Facebook page

Hitchcock Nature Center by the season

view of the Loess Hills purple flowers and tall native grasses with trees in distance
Beautiful flowers at the beginning of autumn

Spend a day at the Hitchcock Nature Center any time of year! 

Springtime

With the thawing snow and warming weather, you’ll find more space at the park as it’s not quite as crowded. If you can come on a warm spring day, especially during the week – you might just be the only one on the trail!

Without the filled in trees, bushes and grasses, you’ll really get a good look at the Loess Hills.

Summer

My personal favorite time of year to visit the center is in late spring and early summer. When the leaves return to trees and grasses grow, you’ll start to see the Loess Hills really shine.

However, the ticks and mosquitos can really multiply rapidly during the peak of the summer so come prepared. I’ve had success using permethrin to treat clothing to reduce the risk of ticks, which I highly recommend doing if you’re planning to hike.

You can also go camping with tent or RV or even stay in one of the on-site cabins. It’s a fun little getaway in nature!

Fall

The autumn colors in the fall can be quite a fun experience! Plus, the bald eagles are in full migration mode September through November, so it can be fun to see one above!

The crisp, fall air is great weather for hiking, too!

Winter

While hiking can be a bit more challenging, the Hitchcock Nature Center knows how to make it more enjoyable! Snowshoes can be rented for just $6 per day at the lodge. And The Chute trail makes the perfect sledding hill!

Picnics and playgrounds

picnic pavilion with two tables and park in background
Picnic areas are available throughout the park

Enjoying a picnic at the Hitchcock Nature Center is a great way to spend time in the great outdoors. Between hikes or even as a family gathering, there are several picnic areas throughout the park.

Kids will love the playground complete with equipment including slides and swings, too. Find the playground at the park entrance. 

playground on gravel with climbing equipment ropes and slides
Playground near the entrance of Hitchcock Nature Center

Camping at Hitchcock Nature Center

There are a few different camping options at Hitchcock Nature Center. 

Basic cabins are available to rent. They are equipped with heat, A/C, a refrigerator, microwave and water hydrant. You’ll need to bring comfort items like bedding, cooking and eating supplies, etc. 

Cabin rentals start at $50 per night.

Tent camping is also available at Hitchcock. You can choose from primitive camping sites you’ll have to hike to. Or there are modern tent camping sites complete with picnic tables, grill, etc.

Tent camping starts at $10 per night.

RV camping is available, complete with electrical and water hookups at the Hitchcock Nature Center Campground. There’s a bath house, picnic tables and fire rings for those camping with an RV. 

RV camping starts at $25 per night.

Check camping availability here

Hitchcock Nature Center – that’s a wrap

view of the loess hills at the Hitchcock nature center tower overlooking green treetops with prairie in distance
View of the Loess Hills from the observation tower at the Hitchcock Nature Center Iowa

Can you believe this place? The Hitchcock Nature Center has so much to do! The incredibly scenic area is fun to explore.

From birdwatching to hiking, snowshoeing and camping, there’s something for everyone here.

A true gem in the Midwest, I hope you have a great time exploring the Hitchcock Nature Center. 😊

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hiking loess hills Hitchcock nature center Iowa with trail and hills

wanderwithbelle

Tuesday 14th of June 2022

It looks like the perfect hike! Thanks for sharing this gem 💎

Nikki

Wednesday 15th of June 2022

Welcome Belle! It's truly a fun hiking destination :)

Jennifer Record

Tuesday 14th of June 2022

Great advice and helpful details about admissions and hiking trails..looks like a great spot.

Nikki

Wednesday 15th of June 2022

Thanks for visiting the blog today, Jennifer!

Gail

Tuesday 14th of June 2022

This looks fantastic! I think I would spend all my time hiking on the Hitchcock Nature Center trails. :) Thanks for the information. :)

simplyjolayne

Monday 13th of June 2022

Looks like the perfect place to spend the day hiking with hikes for all activity levels.

Nikki

Tuesday 14th of June 2022

It's a great hiking area - you're so right, Jolayne!

Lasma

Monday 13th of June 2022

I love that you included so many useful tips that normal visitors wouldn't know. I like to be aware of food options, so I can bring my own if needed. Overall, looks like a wonderful place to visit - thank you for sharing!

Nikki

Tuesday 14th of June 2022

Thanks for visiting the blog and checking out this Midwest hiking spot, Lasma!