MOORHEAD, Iowa — Many people would describe Iowa with a simplistic simile beginning “As flat as … ” Perhaps “ … a pancake,” or maybe “ … a table top,” or even “ … champagne on Jan. 2.” I would have been guilty of such myself, before a recent drive through the state’s scenic Loess Hills. Yes, Iowa has hills, and those hills have a geology that’s most unusual. The narrow line of hills is composed of very fine soil called loess — pronounced luss — deposited in the last Ice Age and blown like sand into huge dunes from 60 to 200 feet high, which then were covered with vegetation. Only China has higher loess hills. The rare geological formation in Iowa stretches 200 miles from north to south, and is 15 miles across at its widest point. The hills lie along the state’s western border, just east of the Missouri River. Winding through them is the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway, offering travelers many lovely vantage points with panoramic views of farms, forests and grasslands. Along the way, visitors will also find cute little towns and a few bigger cities. The drive provides an interesting look at a side of middle America that’s not flat in any sense, with nature trails and fruit stands, prairies and ice-cream parlors, bison and barbecue. Nature is the star along much of the scenic byway. My exploration of the Loess Hills, which began in Iowa’s northwest corner, was bookended by visits to two fine nature centers. Just north of Sioux City, the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center is a great place to learn about the hills’ unusual geography and about the creatures which once, and in many cases still do, roam the rolling hills. One exhibit uses a fan to show how wind can pile up tiny specks of fine soil into the looming hills that surround the nature center. Taxidermy animals such as a bobcat and bald eagle illustrate the diversity of the region’s fauna. And a walk-through cutout of a simulated loess hill shows how plant and animal life doesn’t stop at the surface. Outside the nature center, guests also can visit with several birds of prey such as hawks and owls, which have been rescued after injury and are being rehabilitated. The center also offers several short, scenic hiking trails and loops. The Hitchcock Nature Center near Crescent, about 80 miles south of Sioux City, is a prime bird-watching site with a 45-foot observation tower and tremendous views of the surrounding hills. The center was named the first “Important Birding Area” in Iowa. During the September-through-December migration season, thousands of eagles, hawks and other raptors can be seen migrating down the Missouri River Valley, soaring on the thermals created by the Loess Hills. Perhaps my favorite nature stop was Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve, in the northern reaches of the hills. There is no nature center at this Nature Conservancy preserve, just 3,000 acres of rolling hills, much of it covered with the same prairie grasses and plants that the first pioneers would have encountered. But what stopped me, literally in my tracks, was a surprise encounter that wouldn’t have surprised those pioneers: Bison. I hadn’t known that bison had been reintroduced to the preserve until I spotted a herd of more than 100 grazing on a hillside not far off the scenic gravel road I was following. I pulled off, rubbed my eyes, and enjoyed a scene that has rarely been seen since the 19th century. A full-color, 32-page guide to the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway is available online and at many stops along the route. It was indispensable for pointing out the interesting stops in towns and cities just off the byway, even though it was a bit out of date. (I drove many miles down a gravel road to find the Timber Ridge Winery and Vineyard, only to learn the winery had been closed for more than a year.) In Le Mars, I stopped for a milkshake at the Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor, a regionally-famous brand that allows the town to claim the title of “Ice Cream Capital of the World.” The parlor has an old-fashioned soda fountain counter, a large gift shop and a small museum about the history of Wells Enterprises, the owner of Blue Bunny and other frozen treats such as the Bomb Pop. Other goodies can be found along the byway at stops such as Small’s Fruit Farm near Mondamin. The high point for visitors is a “sale barn” featuring Mondamin apples, named after the town and grown right on the farm; and — brace yourself — a “pie parlor” featuring, well, you can guess. The cities of Sioux City and Council Bluffs are great places to explore several good museums or spend a night along the byway. The cities also offer plenty of good restaurants. I had planned for dinner in Council Bluffs, where I would spend the night. But about 20 miles north of the city, I noticed an unusually large number of vehicles parked outside the Twisted Tail Steak House & Saloon, one of three or four buildings comprising the entire crossroads settlement of BeeBeetown. Inside, the patrons surely outnumbered the citizens of the hamlet 25 to 1. I squeezed into a seat at the busy bar, where many friendly folk, several of whom had made the drive from Council Bluffs, assured me that I had found the place for steak in that part of Iowa. I can’t say they were wrong. The meal was marvelous. But finding great beef in Iowa wasn’t a surprise, unlike the surrounding topography. — Steve Stephens can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @SteveStephens.