10 Family Day Trips in Central Iowa


day trips in iowaSummer is a great time for an impromptu family day trip. 2020 is shaping up to be a summer unlike any we’ve experienced before. If your family is anything like mine, warmer weather gives us the urge to explore.

Sometimes you just want to pack up the family and head outside. Day trips in Iowa are a great way to spend a day exploring and still sleep in your own bed. Many places are located in the metro! Some destinations are parks, but some are just cool sites to see. 

Recommendations around social distancing seem like they will remain with us through the summer so please use your best judgment to keep you and your family safe. My family wears masks when we are out of the house; if your family does as well make sure to bring them with you on these trips since lots of other people are enjoying the great outdoors too.

Before you hop in the car for your trip, make sure parks and other tourist attractions are still open. Keep in mind that things like visitor centers and public restrooms may be closed. Don’t forget the essentials like hats, sunscreen, water, hand sanitizer, and bug spray!

10 Day Trips in Iowa

Day Trips Around Des Moines

Margo Frankel Woods

Location: 6245 NW 2nd St Des Moines, Iowa 50313

Located between Ankeny and Des Moines, Margo Frankel Woods park is a hidden gem. There are trails at Margo Frankel that make for great hiking. You can stay on the established trail or go rogue and discover lots of vegetation and maybe even some animals. There is even a stream for kids to splash in. 

Big Creek State Park

Location: 8794 NW 125th Ave. Polk City, IA 50226

Big Creek State Park has over 20 miles of paved trails that provide beautiful views. You can travel along the south beach of Saylorville Lake all the way into Des Moines. Big Creek is also a popular fishing spot in the metro. You can also swim and boat.  

Water Works Park

Location: Fleur Drive in Des Moines

Located across from Grey’s Lake, Water Works Park has over 1,000 acres of wooded area to explore. From bike paths to hiking you can make an entire day’s adventure out of this gem that is in plain sight.

Walnut Woods State Park

Location: 3155 SE Walnut Woods Dr. West Des Moines, IA 50265

Walnut Woods is a great place for a family that wants a shorter hiking experience. The park has over two miles of hiking area that takes you along the Raccoon River. If you are quiet enough you are sure to spot some wildlife in the beautiful walnut trees that abound in the park.

Saylorville Lake

Location: Saylorville Township

Saylorville Lake is just north of Des Moines. Spanning 26,000 acres, the Saylorville area has something for everyone. You can take a winding drive around the lake and enjoy the scenery.  There are hiking paths located all throughout the area, many of which lead to the lake. Saylorville is one of my family’s favorite places to explore; it feels like you can see something new each time you go. 

Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge

Location: Prairie City, Iowa

Distance: 20 miles east of Des Moines

Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge is really unlike anything else in the metro. You can hike on established hiking paths or drive the nature loop where you are sure to see buffalos! 

day trips

4 Day Trips Outside Des Moines

Field Of Dreams Movie Site

Location: 28995 Lansing Road Dyersville, Iowa 52040

Distance: 3 hours from Des Moines

This trip takes more commitment due to its distance from Des Moines but it is a great way to spend a day. Being able to see where a movie was shot in Iowa is a great excuse to make the drive. It is a must-see for baseball and softball lovers.

The Covered Bridges of Madison County

Location: Welcome Center 73 E. Jefferson St, Winterset, IA

Distance: 40 minutes from the metro

This is definitely a stay in the car tour since you do a bit of driving to see all the bridges. There are 6 different covered bridges to view. Your kids probably haven’t seen the movie “The Bridges of Madison County” but it is another piece of movie in small-town Iowa.

West Bend Grotto

Location: 208 1st Avenue NW, West Bend, Iowa 

Distance: A little over 2 hours from Des Moines

The Grotto of the Redemption is a beautiful sight. Designed by a Catholic priest who immigrated to Iowa from Germany, this site is actually composed of nine separate grottos, all with illustrations based on the life of Jesus. Even if you are not Catholic or even religious, these structures constructed with stones and gems are amazing works of art.

Union Grove State Park

Location: 1215 220th St, Gladbrook, IA

Distance: 1 hour and 20 minutes from Des Moines

Did you know there is a waterfall in Iowa? You can find one tucked away in northwest Tama County. Make sure to pack a change of clothes and towels. Your kids are sure to want to dip their toes in the falls that can be found after a short hike.

Feel like exploring all the amazing state parks around the state? Check out a complete list of Iowa state parks with more info here

What are your favorite family day trips in Iowa or beyond?

Check out our favorite hikes around Des Moines.


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