Runkel preserve sunriseSylvan Runkel State Preserve


“The Hills.”

When you see those undulating ridges, accented with dark-green trees and lighter green grassland, you know you’re back in Iowa’s Loess Hills.

The annual Loess Hills Prairie Seminar provides an unparalleled opportunity to get in touch with some of Iowa’s wildest land. You can hike steep trails, enjoy scenic vistas, learn to identify prairie plants, chase insects, watch birds, get to know reptiles and amphibians, delve into local history, or just relax around a campfire.

wild roseWild rose

We make the pilgrimage almost every spring, traveling from our home in northeast Iowa’s bedrock-molded “Driftless Area” all the way across the state to where the landscape is shaped by “loess.”

Glaciers covering the northern Great Plains 31,000 to 12,500 years ago melted in the summer heat, sending torrents of muddy water down the broad Missouri River valley. But when winter’s cold stopped the meltwater, the dry riverbed was exposed to fierce winds that piled the silt up on the east side of the valley and beyond.


Those drifts of loess – some more than 150 feet high – have gradually eroded to sculpt the rugged Loess Hills landform. The unique soils and topography are habitat for an array of flora and fauna that may only be found in “The Hills.” Yuccas bloom on the ridges. Spadefoot toads burrow into the loose soil. Blue grosbeaks hide in roadside thickets to taunt eager bird-watchers.

At dusk, the eerie howls of coyotes and the incessant calls of whip-poor-wills echo from the valleys.

black rat snakeBlack rat snake!

            Our grandson Zachary, age 5, made his first trip to The Hills this year – and explored Nature to the point of exhaustion. After a fascinating morning of meeting Carol and Nancy Schwarting’s live snakes, turtles, salamanders, frogs, and toads, Zac spent the afternoon chasing bugs. What fun to swing his butterfly net through the tall grass, capturing dragonflies, spiders, lightning bugs, flies, caterpillars, and other tiny critters that usually lurk unseen in the prairie!

bug chasin'Chasin’ bugs

            Older brother Isaac, 13, a veteran of several earlier seminars, volunteered to be a teacher. He teamed up with Grandma Margaret to help kids make plaster casts of animal tracks. (It’s always fun when kids can get their fingers dirty and create their own art work!)

And I just can’t go to “The Hills” without hiking to the top of the Sylvan Runkel State Preserve. This year’s pink sunrise, blooming yucca, singing towhees, dewy leadplant, and soaring turkey vultures accented the striking view of the Missouri River valley and the distant hills of Nebraska.

As Sylvan Runkel loved to say, and to sing:

“Away, away then I must go! Up into these hills where the prairies grow. And Nature speaks to let us know . . . The Wisdom in a Flower!”

hills to the horizon

Hills to the horizon

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