We look for the alphabet in many things: car rides, neighborhood walks, songs from Encanto. The kids and I challenged ourselves to come up with the Des Moines ABCs to highlight some of our favorite destinations in and around the metro.
We further challenged ourselves to make them all outdoors.
26+ Things to Do Outside
For even more things to do in Des Moines, check out our A to Z Guide to Family Fun in Des Moines.
Ashworth – Greenwood Park: Technically, it’s Greenwood-Ashworth Park. The perfect combination of landscaped park and woodland trails, these parks give you plenty of space to roam. From the Sylvan Theater where all your outdoor playacting dreams can come true to the Clare and Miles Mills Rose Garden, there’s something for everyone. The splash pad is a must during summer.
Brenton Arboretum (Dallas Center) – My all-time favorite in the area. A playscape, lots of trails, a pond and creek, wildlife, and all the fresh air you can handle.
Capitol Building Grounds – The Capitol itself has a fun tour, but even if you just stick outdoors there’s quite the view. What kid doesn’t love racing down a steep hill and facing a potential faceplant on the cement walkway? There are also some memorial displays you might have missed on previous trips.
Des Moines Public Library – The DMPL will make my list every time, no matter the topic. If you’re avoiding the indoors, they still offer curbside pickup. You can also swing by the Pappajohn Sculpture Park if you head to the downtown location.
Ewing Park/Easter Lake – If you time it right, the Lilac Arboretum at Ewing Park is gorgeous. Even if you don’t, there’s a disc golf course, trails through the woods, a dirt bike course, the Ashley Okland Star playground, and more hills to race down. Drive down the street and Easter Lake offers its own lengthy list of activities.
>> Related Read: 10 Best Parks in Des Moines <<
Fort Des Moines Park – If fishing is your thing, check it out. Make a day of it and stop by after the zoo, which is a short drive away. I can usually talk my kids into the two-ish mile trail around the pond, and we can always count on greeting lots of insect friends.
Gray’s Lake – The two-mile path around the lake has been around a while but recent additions include a pedestrian bridge to downtown and a tunnel under Fleur Drive that gets you to Waterworks Park. Bring a two- or three-wheeled vehicle for the path and little legs won’t be a problem.
High Trestle Trail Bridge (Madrid) – As long as you respect the bikers on the trail, this bridge can blow your kids’ minds (and their bodies on a windy day). A short walk from the parking area gets you plenty of views and a perfectly safe experience to see the world from above.
Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge – The clear bottom on parts of this downtown bridge still freaks out my kids a bit but I love this experience. Head downtown to the Botanical Center and stop at the Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens. Explore the pavilion, wander the bridge, and hit up the Rotary Riverwalk Park on the other side.
Jester Park (Granger) – I never get tired of watching buffalo (or bison) move. Jester Park is a close-to-home option where I can do so. It also gives the kids a playscape to explore, turtles to find, and plenty of trails to follow. The visitor center is great and there are lots of rentals available to extend your experience. Camping is also an option here.
Kite Flying – Kites are a vastly underrated childhood experience. It’s actually pretty easy to make your own or pick up one for a buck and get an hour’s use out of it.
- Big Creek State Park will usually give you plenty of wind for a kite and then there’s a great wooden playground when the flight ends (or the strings become tangled).
- Sargent Park has room to run and a playscape and splash pad to enjoy.
- Every May, there’s the Kites on the Green festival in Johnston where you can see some pretty amazing kite displays!
Lake Ahquabi State Park (Indianola) – We came across this attraction by accident. It’s south of Des Moines but so beautiful, you won’t mind the drive. We visited in the fall and the kids had so much fun tromping through the leaves and veering dangerously close to the lake itself. It’s fun. It has a cool boathouse.
Murals – You’ve probably already noticed, but Des Moines has gorgeous murals throughout the city. It’s all part of Art Route Des Moines and it includes 87 pieces of local art you can’t see anywhere else. Check out the map here.
Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge (Prairie City) – Buffalo anyone? We were amazed by the views and the visitor center. You can learn a lot here! We even caught a buffalo wandering outside our car. It’s worth the drive.
Outdoor Living Room at Reiman Gardens (Ames) – Reiman Gardens does require an entrance fee but most of their attractions are outside. The Children’s Garden is lovely and you might find some inspiration for your own planting plans. There’s also a pretty great butterfly garden. Here’s another place where education and entertainment come together so subtly, you won’t even notice how much you’re learning.
Principal Riverwalk – Kids love to stroll/ride along a river while admiring the looming “skyscrapers” of downtown. It takes you right to the Lauridsen Skate Park, the nation’s largest outdoor skate park. You might even catch a mural along the way.
Quail Cove Park (West Des Moines) – Everybody loves a good neighborhood park, and this one has some fun hills. It also starts with Q, which satisfies our ABC list. You can also check out these other quiet spaces in Des Moines because let’s face it, kids (and the voices in your head) are noisy.
Riverview Park – By the time I had my third child, I was convinced I knew every kid-friendly Des Moines hotspot around. Then came Riverview Park, to my surprise. This place is so fun! You have to cross a bridge to get there because it’s a literal island, there’s amusement park-themed equipment, an unforgettable zip line, and local history to explore. My kids love this place.
Saylorville Lake (Polk City)- When my daughter says she wants to “go to the beach” (and we’re in Iowa), she means she wants to go to Saylorville. We usually explore the butterfly garden, the trails, and then climb/fall down the hill to the beach. There are many spots to enjoy on the lake and the mile-long bridge across is always fun.
Terra Park (Johnston) – Our kids caught their first fish in the pond here. There are a lot of places for bikes, skates, and scooters, and an off-road track around the lake. A rock path across a corner of the pond makes for fun tromping and the dock offers some limited water sports at certain times of the year. Oh, and there’s a treehouse playground. That’s fun, too.
Union Park – This park on top of a hill has plenty of history behind it. The beloved rocket slide might be eternally under construction, but when it comes back, kids everywhere will cheer. Summertime will see the heritage carousel in full swing and the splash pads are fun for all.
Voss, Carl (Trail) – It has a V so I’m counting it. The Carl Voss Trail is the nearly five-mile route from south Des Moines to Easter Lake. We’ve had so much fun as our oldest has become more confident on the bike trails and this trail ends in a park where the younger kids can join the fun. It’s recently been renovated so the path is in great shape and connects to the rest of the bike trails through Central Iowa.
Waterworks Park – This is a BIG park. Plenty of bike trails go through here, there are ponds, an elaborate fountain, an amphitheater, and a playscape the kids love. And there are miles and miles of open, grassy fields. I love this place. It’s quiet. And expansive. And wonderful for exploration.
Xrays at dentist – X is hard. Here’s a friendly reminder that you or your child (or your fear-ridden spouse) is probably overdue for a visit to the dentist.
Yellow Banks Park (Pleasant Hill) – Whether it was the nice weather or the fact that the kids were in a good mood when we went the first time, I really like Yellow Banks Park. There are hikes through the woods, spectacular views, hidden meadows, a picturesque lake, and playgrounds. Reserve a campsite if you want to make a night of it.
Zoo – Blank Park Zoo is the obvious choice here. It’s just the right size for little kids. You can make the rounds before most of them get tired and there are strollers for those that do. Plus, there’s a train. On our latest trip, we took advantage of the library’s adventure pass for free admission. Zombie Burger would work too. Yum.