Iowa’s Loess Hills: A Little Bit of Bicycle Heaven

I recently had an opportunity to grind some gravel in Iowa’s Loess Hills. It’s a beautiful, mostly undeveloped area on the far western end of the state, about two hours from Jefferson.  I’d read enough articles about the cycling here to know that I wanted to come and so when the opportunity  presented itself I didn’t hesitate.

For those who don’t know, the Loess (pronounced “luss”) Hills are really just large sand dunes.   They were formed out of blown dust and glacial grime deposited in what is now the Missouri River valley when the glaciers from the last ice age retreated.   You wouldn’t know this from looking at them, but when you cycle through them you have a chance to glimpse the underyling geology.

B road cut reveals the underlying geology.  There are no rocks in these hills.

The plan was to identify a course and then ride it with two different bikes, back to back, to see which one performed better on this kind of terrain.  I’m riding an organized 125 mile gravel race in October.  It’s located just across the river in Nebraska, so I thought this would be a good place to form an opinion on which bike I’d rather ride.  The two bikes were my 2016 Kona Steel Rove and my 2018 Salsa Fargo.

The Rove (left) and Fargo (right). These bikes are both drop bar, but there the similarities end.
The route and elevation profile. I wanted hills and I got them.

So I mapped out a 25 mile loop using Google Maps and RideWithGPS.com.  It included 1,800 feet of climbing in the form of four significant climbs.  Peak grade was 11%.  The steepness and volume of vertical was pretty significant over 25 miles.  Riding twice would be 3,600 feet and 8 climbs.  I’ve spent days in the Rockies where I didn’t climb that much.  So much for the widely held belief that Iowa is flat.

I set off on the Rove first.  I was immediately taken with the beauty and simplicity of this part of Iowa.   The air was hazy with smoke from western wildfires and that was a shame because some of the vistas would have been spectacular on a clear day.  The climbs were work but that only made them worth climbing in my mind.  I had no trouble navigating and was back to the car soon enough.  I swapped bikes and did it again. It went even faster the second time.

Pisgah, my base, was utter charm and simplicity…
…though it did have a little bit of a Hitchcock/Steven King vibe to it.
Within the first two miles I knew I was going to like cycling these roads.
There are a series of loops on and off the main byways. I had them pretty much to myself.
And every climb was followed by a roller coaster ride back to the bottom.

I don’t know why places like this are out of favor with the masses.  I saw maybe three people over the four hours or so I was riding.  They appeared to be local residents in pickup trucks and they were friendly and courteous to a fault. I got chased by the same dog twice, but he was more playful than a threat. I’m not complaining.  The emptiness of this place is a big part of its charm.   If it was overrun with tourists, there’d be noise and litter and all the stuff I go to a place like this to get away from.

This hill is reserved for a return visit. I know where it goes and I’m taking it next time.

At about the 18 mile mark on my loop, I came across a road that plunged down a steep hill and literally screamed “ride me.”  I didn’t because I wanted to stick with my plan and 50 miles of hills is already a good day’s work without looking for more.   But more kept finding me.  This is a beautiful area and now that I’ve had a taste of it I plan to come back and explore the rest of it.