Hitchcock Nature Center in the Loess Hills

Nov 5, 2015 | 4 min

(This video was originally broadcast on Iowa Outdoors, Episode 507, November 5, 2015.)

For many, fall signals the end of the outdoor adventure season. But for patrons of the Hitchcock Nature Center, autumn is without question the time to be outside. 

Set in the rolling hills of Pottawattamie County, Hitchcock offers ten miles of trails, camping and the perfect perch to soak in all the glorious colors that October has to offer. 

From back country campers to passionate birders, the Hitchcock Nature Center is a must for outdoors enthusiasts. 

Only two places in the world can claim to host a landform like the Loess Hills, the Huangtu Plateau in China and a 200 mile stretch of Iowa's western border. And while there are many sites designed for visitors to venture out into the hills, none are as dedicated to fostering an understanding and appreciation of the area as the Hitchcock Nature Center in Pottawattamie County.

Chad Graeve, Pottawattamie County Conservation: We're guided by a mission and the mission here at Hitchcock Nature Center encompasses three main things. One, we're in the middle of the Loess Hills. So part of our mission is to protect this landform and restore the biological communities that are here. The other two parts of our mission are to provide low impact recreation so people can get out and enjoy this place. And then the third part is to teach people about what is special about this. And so we have an environmental education program that they go into all the schools, they bring all the schools out to the parks for field trips, but they don't teach about the rainforest, they don't teach about the mountains, they teach about what is really cool right here in our back yard. 

In Iowa's back yard is the Loess Hills. To some, they may appear to look like ordinary hills. But underneath the prairie grass and trees, likes an extremely delicate collection of dust and silt that took thousands of years to form.

Graeve: It happened during the Ice Ages, the glaciers, ground up material that flowed down here in the river and then settled out in the river valley and then blew here from the Missouri River Valley and was deposited right on the edge of the flood plain, piled up over thousands of years into huge drifts of dust and it's very fragile and quite unique. 

Just like the Loess Hills, the Hitchcock Nature Center is unique. Unlike so many popular parks across Iowa, Hitchcock is not maintained by the state, but its host county of Pottawattamie. And to Chad, this arrangement is what makes Hitchcock so special.

Graeve: We're fortunate in this state that every county has a conservation department that operates parks and preserves. It's a unique system in the country. And so the interesting thing about that is that every county then kind of has its own flavor, its own personality and we're fortunate to have it. 

Visitors to Hitchcock will discover a wide array of activities to enjoy, reveling in the fall colors of the hills, exploring its many back country trails, walking the half mile wheelchair accessible boardwalk, joining the popular bird and hawk watch, camping and even taking in a bit of our nation's history. 

Graeve: The Old Lincoln Highway was the first transcontinental highway and it came right through here. And remnants of it are on the property. And some of the current roads that we still use here are part of that. 

As educational and adventurous as the Hitchcock Nature Center is, it offers far more than can be truly experienced in just one day. And that is what makes Chad so eager to share the gifts of Hitchcock and the Loess Hills. 

Graeve: I think the most exciting thing for me is to help people recognize that these natural areas are amazingly complex and they are a functioning system that defies our ability to comprehend. And it's just so much fun to try to comprehend and brings the child out in you again, your curiosity and a new discovery every day and it's just an awful lot of fun.

Gilchrist Foundation