Monona County is in the heart of the Loess Hills, which are massive dunes of ancient windblown silt that run parallel to the Missouri River starting in Fremont County on the south and running into Plymouth County on the north.
They were formed after the last glacier receded from the area—leaving soil pulverized as fine as flour in what was to become the Missouri River Valley. Prevailing western winds blew that soil into drifts two to 15 miles wide…rising 60 to 200 feet above the river valley below.
There’s only one other place in the world where you’ll find anything like Iowa’s Loess Hills—and that’s in the Yellow River Valley of China.
Before Iowa was settled, the Loess Hills, like most of Iowa, were covered with prairie grasses. Frequent prairie fires started by lightning kept trees at bay. But after the area was settled, prairie fires became less frequent. So nowadays, many of the hilltops are forested, and the narrow valleys are farmed or pastured.
So much for the geography lesson.
The Loess Hills Scenic Byway runs the length of the 200-mile ridge, and we planned our itinerary to drive the entire Monona County portion of the byway.
We picked up the Scenic Byway at Rodney on the northern border of the county and headed south. Rodney is a little hamlet of fewer than 100 people that got its name in an unusual way: When the first train stopped at the new depot back in the late 1800s, a man named Rodney was the first passenger to step off…and the town was named after him!
Thanks to the early spring weather, the trees were sporting the “tender green” of new leaves. We could only imagine how breathtaking those leaves would be in autumn.
The byway wound through narrow valleys and up and over steep precipices that are characteristic of the Loess Hills. The views from the hilltops are spectacular.
A few miles south of Rodney, we came upon a sign for the “Wilderness Loop”—a 13-mile graveled side trip that wound here, there and everywhere through hills that were sometimes so steep, our ears even popped a couple of times.
The Wilderness Loop was a scenic reminder that there’s a lot more to Iowa than “corn and beans.”
This content previously appeared in the popular “Road Trip” series in Our Iowa Magazine. Learn more about the publication at www.OurIowaMagazine.com.