Spring Break in The Loess Hills

This spring break, a group of University of Iowa students will have an opportunity to help with prairie management and explore a rare ecosystem in a trip to the Loess Hills region in western Iowa.

Jeffrey Dorale, an assistant professor of geoscience in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, will take eight students on the alternative spring break trip in Pottawattamie County. The group will participate in hands-on activities while camping at the Hitchcock Nature Center in the Loess Hills. The course, offered through the UI Division of Continuing Education, is partnering with the Hitchcock Nature Center, the Pottawattamie County Conservation Board and the Northwest Iowa Sierra Club.

"It's an interesting part of Iowa that a lot of the student population doesn't know much about," Dorale said. "But it has arguably the most scenic landscape in the state."

Wind-blown silt -- or loess -- exists throughout the world, but the extreme thickness of western Iowa's loess deposits can only be found in one other place in the world -- China, Dorale said.

The Loess Hills were formed when glaciers moved across the upper Midwest and ground underlying rock into fine particles. The glaciers eventually melted, forming the Missouri River and creating a floodplain full of sediment that later dried and left behind a thick layer of silt. The prevailing westerly winds carried the silt and dust particles away from the mud flats and deposited them east of the Missouri River, creating the Loess Hills we see today.

The big hills and valleys are also home to dry areas that consist of rare vegetation and animals unlike any parts of the Midwest. The group -- which leaves Sunday, March 14, and returns Thursday, March 18 -- will primarily work on several prairie management projects along with other strenuous outdoor activities including hiking.

"The Loess Hills are a tremendous natural resource right here in Iowa, and yet they are not well known," said Doug Lee, the associate dean of the Division of Continuing Education. "The trip provides a great educational experience and helps integrate the University of Iowa into western Iowa."

A UI Faculty Engagement Corps traveled to the region last year, and this year's trip is another effort to continue a relationship with the western side of the state.

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