‘Tis the season for fall breeze and autumn leaves. We’ve rounded up some of the best spots in Greater Des Moines to experience fall colors and make cozy memories that will keep you warm through winter. Pairs well with cardigans and pumpkin spice everything.
For fall colors in Central Iowa, the changes happen between the middle of September and the middle of October. This year was an unseasonably dry one, so expect peak colors to occur a bit earlier, right around October 10. That also means that the leaves will be brighter than in normal years. Check out the Iowa DNR Fall Color report for more details.
Now, let’s follow the yellow leaf road to five of our favorite spots:
Spanning 25 miles, twisting and turning through five towns and four counties, the High Trestle Trail is one of the most popular bike rides in the region and a way to great kick autumn into gear. The terrain is relatively smooth and flat, making for a nice, easy ride. The short, 6-mile ride from Madrid to Woodard is the most popular for a reason – it includes a stop at the iconic, 13-story High Trestle Bridge, which provides panoramic views of the Des Moines River Valley. If you’d rather just walk and soak in the bridge views (and get the obligatory fall color bridge selfie), the closest parking spot is 2335 QF Lane in Madrid. The bridge is less than a mile from the parking lot, and it makes for the perfect autumn stroll.
Pro tip: Speaking of colors, from April – October, the 41 steel frames of the bridge light up a beautiful bright blue from sunset to midnight.
Located in Granger, the over 1,600-acre Jester Park is one of the best places to plan a fall foliage adventure. The diverse array of activities at Jester makes it a jack-of-all-trades spot with something for everyone. Meander through the eight miles of hiking trails…our vote is for the 2-mile Hickory Ridge/Lakeshore/Fox Run loop, which is as picturesque as it is easy. Watch Elk and Bison herds from an observation deck. Saddle up for a guided horseback ride. Take the family to frolic on the natural playscape and check out the Nature Center or natural playscape. You can even take in some of the fall colors on their 18-hole golf course (or 9-hole par 3 course). There’s a reason why Jester Park is one of the most popular spots for fall family photos in the state.
If you want to go beyond just admiring the fall colors, and really make it into an experience, head north to Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad. Their Pumpkin Express train (which later transitions to the Santa Express) runs on Saturdays in October and crosses the 156’ tall Bass Point Creek High Bridge, with a stop at a pumpkin patch to pick pumpkins. But the real bucket list item here is taking a breathtaking excursion through the Des Moines River Valley on a two-or-four-person Rail Explorers rail bike. These pedal-powered, motor-assisted bikes cross two bridges, offering panoramic views of the fall colors below. At the turnaround point, you’ll have a snack and drink at Rose’s Landing, overlooking the Des Moines River. We recommend the two-hour Scenic Valley Sunset ride, where not only do you get the fall colors below, but the beautiful colors from the sky above.
One of the top places for a fall color hike is Ledges State Park in Madrid. The sandstone ledges that tower over 100 feet over the Des Moines River are what make this park so unique, and numerous stone structures can be seen throughout the park. The 1.7-mile Canyon Road and Table Rock loop is the most traveled path in the park, with lots of stairs and winding paths. It offers plenty of “wow” moments, especially in the fall, as it ventures through Pea’s Creek, offering canyons views and wildflowers. The juxtaposition of the sandstone with the colorful trees above is a real thing of beauty.
Pro tip: After working up an appetite on your hike, head over to the nearby Whatcha Smokin’ BBQ & Brew to enjoy some of the best BBQ in the state. Nothing says fall like a plate of fall-off-the-bone ribs and cornbread.
For more of an urban hike closer to the city limits, Walnut Woods State Park in West Des Moines is an easy compromise that doesn’t sacrifice beauty in the process. This 260-acre park is situated right along Racoon River and is home to Iowa’s largest collection of Black Walnut trees. The 3-mile loop of Walnut Woods Racoon River Trail offers plenty of shade, views of the water, and even a small playground for the kiddos. This is also a popular spot to view the colors via a kayak on the river, with a popular access point at Raccoon River Boat House, where you can also rent a kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard.
This underrated hidden gem in Dallas Center is a 141-acre public garden with more than 2,200 different trees and shrubs. Go beyond your typical hike and find both fall colors and peace of mind at this outdoor oasis.
Yellow Banks Park
Located just a few miles east of downtown Des Moines, in Pleasant Hill, Yellow Banks offers yellow-ish colored bluffs that border the park and offer a perfect complement to the colorful leaves. Most trails are less than a half mile, making for an easy and spontaneous getaway.
Fall Color Cheat Sheet
Walnut: yellow in fall, one of the first leaves to turn color and drop.
Red oak: bright red leaves in the fall.
White oak: more muted red leaves in the fall.
Hickory: yellow turning to brown.
Ash: yellow with a purplish hue.
Elms: different shades of yellow, some of them more brown-ish.
Soft maple: yellow turning to brown.
Hard maple: bright red hues.
Sumac: extremely bright red, confined to openings and edges.
Virginia creeper: bright red.