The Great Outdoors
When some people think of Greater Des Moines they might think our weather comes in two forms: extreme and unpredictable. And while it’s true that our meteorologists need thick skin, there are plenty of reasons to explore the great outdoors in Greater Des Moines, where the forecast calls for fun, no matter the season.
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Spring (Bikes, Brews, and Boards)
No biking bucket list is complete without a day trip to the iconic High Trestle Trail, which stretches 25 miles and passes through five towns, so you’re never far from a bite or a brew (we recommend the patio at Firetrucker Brewery). Named by the BBC as one of the world’s “Eight Amazing Footbridges,” the highlight is the half-mile, 13-story tall bridge over the Des Moines River valley. Did we say day trip? Make time for an evening excursion as well, when the 41 steel frames overtop the bridge illuminate the night sky with a cool blue glow, no filter required.
Another favorite of biking aficionados is the Neal Smith Trail along the banks of the Des Moines River. With 26 miles of changing landscapes (the wildflower prairie meadows are a sight to behold) and connections to other popular trails, there is something for everyone. You’ll also pass through Saylorville Lake, where you can pause for a drink or a dip and Big Creek State Park, which boasts several picnic and recreational areas.
If you want to stick closer to the city with more people watching and less pedaling, try the Meredith Trail, a 5-mile trail that connects beautiful Gray’s Lake to downtown Des Moines. Grab an award-winning brew on the Confluence patio and take in views of the Des Moines skyline as you meander along the Raccoon River.
If you prefer four wheels to two and are familiar with the words “ollie” and “nosegrab,” you’ll want to check out Lauridsen Skatepark, the largest skate park in America, located right on the river downtown. It just opened in 2021 with more than 88,000 square feet of skateable terrain, with a lower plaza/pedestrian walk, a main plaza, and a snake run, bowl, and pool. But possibly the most radical thing about it? It has a skateable WOW sculpture. That’s right, you can skate the word WOW. Talk about “wow factor.”
Summer (I’m On a Boat)
Whether you’re a nautical novice or know-it-all, there are plenty of ways to make a splash in Greater Des Moines. For an all-day adventure, start at Saylorville Lake in Polk City, which is the most popular lake in Central Iowa for good reason. With 26,000 acres of floating fun, a beach, and not one, but two bar and grills, this is the perfect place to drop anchor for a sun-soaked day of pontoons, sunscreen, cannonballs, and classic rock. You’ll leave with a full heart and empty cooler.
If you’re more into the quiet and soothing side of the water, there are over 150 miles of water trails with 86 access points in Central Iowa. Two of our favorite places to start are Raccoon River Boathouse in West Des Moines and Quarry Springs Outfitters in Johnston. Both have the option of renting kayaks or canoes (or bring your own!) and offer an easy and approachable way to explore the waterways in Greater Des Moines. There is also Gray’s Lake downtown, where you can rent a kayak or paddleboat and pair it with views of skyline, a stroll around the 2-mile lakefront loop (over illuminated bridges), and a picnic by the playground for the kids. For more ideas on how to explore the water trails, check out this guide.
Split the difference between “getting back to nature” and “getting another beer” with river floats from Seven Oaks and Argo Adventures. They’ll equip you with everything you need for a half-day or all-day float, with the Seven Oaks route taking you along the Des Moines River valley, past wildflowers, scenic ledges, and the world’s highest double-track railway bridge. For more aquatic adventures, check our blog roundup of all the best stuff in the metro.
Fall (Take a Hike)
When an Iowan tells you “take a hike” we mean it in the most literal and innocuous way possible (We’re Iowa Nice after all). Luckily, there are no shortage of picturesque places to do just that. You’ll be at home on the range at Jester Park, one of Iowa’s favorite outdoor playgrounds, with hiking, an equestrian center, golf course, nature center, natural playscape, and elk and bison herds. There are over 8 miles of trails to explore, including the scenic 5-mile Lakeshore Trail.
One of the most popular state parks in the state is Ledges State Park. With sandstone cliffs and dense forest paths, you can soak in nature’s beauty and feel rejuvenated walking near the many creek crossings along Canyon Drive. In the fall, as the leaves turn color, check out the spectacular views of Pea’s Creek canyon. A great photo backdrop is the arch stone bridge over Pease Creek, constructed in the 1930s. While most of the trails have steep portions, there is also an accessible trail to Lost Lake at the southern part of the part if you prefer something less challenging.
There are also lots of “urban hiking” options if you don’t want to leave city limits. Trails like the Clive Greenbelt, Walnut Creek Trail, and the Neal Smith Trail all have paved paths that offer a quick and quiet escape from the city. A short hike on Walnut Creek Trail on a crisp fall day followed by a trip to the nearby Des Moines Art Center is our perfect idea of a mental health day.
Winter (Skates and Sleds)
Just because it’s not shorts weather anymore doesn’t mean you need to hibernate for the winter. Trade in your sandals for skates and head over to Brenton Skating Plaza, Iowa’s premier ice-skating rink. Few things get the blood flowing and the holiday spirit charged up like a good skyline skate with a giant Christmas tree behind you. We’re talking some real Lifetime Channel Christmas movie vibes. Follow that up with a nightcap at nearby Hello, Marjorie to mark off the “finding romance in a cute town” square of your bingo card.
Seven Oaks offers not only skiing and snowboarding, but tubing as well. The best part? There are two triples chair lifts and two surface lifts to take you to the top of the hill for another run. The days of sweating profusely as you carry two kids and three tubes to the top of a seemingly never-ending snowy hilltop are no more! That leaves more time for tubing and more time down at the lodge, where you can enjoy burgers and cheeseballs, hot chocolate, mini donuts, as well as a selection of local, craft, and domestic beers on tap and in bottles. Fun rides, chill vibes abound.
If you read that last paragraph and found yourself thinking, “Wait, I actually like sweating profusely in the winter,” then might we suggest some snowshoeing or cross-country skiing? You can rent snowshoes and skis at Jester Park, which has nearly 5 miles of trails. There is also the Chichiqua Bottoms Greenbelt, known for its flat, groomed trails where you’ll likely see footprints of various critters, including deer, fox, and otters. Find more cross-country ski and snowshoe rentals to burn off those holiday cookie calories.
Still not convinced? For more visual inspiration, check our S’s Are Silent – Outdoors video.