10 Central Iowa Day Trips


day trips central iowa

Sometimes you just need to get out of town for a day. The great thing about Des Moines is that it’s centrally located, so there are plenty of places to visit and explore that are only an hour or two drive away. Check out these Central Iowa day trips for a fun change of pace. 

3 Tips for a Successful Adventure

  • Pack a picnic. Kids get crabby when they’re hungry (I do too!). Bring plenty of snacks or plan to find a park for a picnic. 
  • Bring a towel and a change of clothes. I don’t know about your kids, but if there is water, my kids want to be in it. 
  • Be flexible. Sometimes you have the best time when you have limited expectations and a loose plan. When you’re going someplace new to you, it’s fine to have a few places or things you want to try, but leave time for taking a detour! You never know what you’ll discover. 

Central Iowa Day Trips

Neil Smith National Wildlife Refuge

Did you know you can see Bison roaming just 25 miles east of Des Moines? Check out the Prairie Learning and Visitor Center and then drive around the refuge to see how many bison you can spot. 

Tip: Stop at Goldie’s Ice Cream Shoppe in Prairie City for ice cream on the way home. 


Learn about Dutch heritage as you wander the cobblestone streets of downtown Pella, located less than an hour southeast of Des Moines. Take pictures in front of the giant windmill, check out the shops around the town square, and tour the Scholte House Museum & Gardens. If you want to see tulips, don’t miss the Tulip Time festival in May, but the city is beautiful year-round. 

Tip: Don’t leave without a Dutch letter from Jaarsma Bakery!

The Amana Colonies

Seven colonies make up this German religious community located less than 2 hours east of Des Moines off Interstate 80. Park at the visitors center and then wander through the streets. Stop and watch craftsmen working at the Amana Furniture and Clock Shop or look at the looms at the Amana Woolen Mill.

Tip: Enjoy a classic family-style dining experience at the Ox Yoke Inn


Drive north on Interstate 35 for 40 minutes and you’re in Ames, the home of the Iowa State Cyclones. Kids will love exploring the beautiful Reiman Gardens. Walk around Iowa State’s campus, catch a show at Stephen’s Auditorium or a game at Jack Trice Stadium, or play at one of the town’s many parks

Tip: Plan to eat at Hickory Park Restaurant, known for its smoked meats. 

Trainland USA, Colfax

If you have a train lover in your family, head to the original operating toy train museum in Iowa, open Memorial Day through Labor Day. It’s 30 miles east of Des Moines, 2 miles north of Interstate 80.

Tip: Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad is another great destination for train lovers. 


Located 35 minutes South of Des Moines in Madison County, Winterset is a charming town known for its covered bridges. Make sure to stop at Clark Tower, a castle-like limestone structure. You can choose to walk or drive to it from Winterset City Park. The views from the top are stunning. There is also a fun hedge maze in the park and a covered bridge. 

Tip: Go for the Covered Bridge Festival held in the fall. 

Brenton Arboretum

Explore the beautiful trees, shrubs, and native prairie of Brenton Arboretum, 25 miles Northwest of Des Moines in Dallas Center. There is a great natural playscape for kids and walking paths throughout the grounds. 

Tip: It’s a great spot for family photos in the fall

More Day Trip Ideas

Visit the Omaha Zoo

Check out Kansas City

Spend the day in Clear Lake


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