Outdoor Adventure at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge


Neil Smith Wildlife RefugeHave you been to the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge?

Where in Central Iowa can you hike through one of the rarest ecosystems on the planet, encounter bison and elk on a safari in your minivan, and come nose-to-nose with a bigger-than-life badger? Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, only 25 miles east of Des Moines, is a destination for nature lovers of all ages.

The Refuge features 5,600 acres of restored tallgrass prairie and woodland and meadow habitat. It is a kid-friendly place to connect with conservation. My family loves to visit in all seasons and at different times of the day.

My husband works for Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, an environmental nonprofit. We became members of the Friends of Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge group through one of his colleagues. Through our involvement, I’ve been inspired to share this special spot with as many people as I can. (And, I’m not going to lie, it doesn’t hurt that it’s also near Goldie’s, a fantastic family-owned diner known for its pork tenderloins and ice cream cones.)

Visit the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge Year Round

We’ll spend a freezing winter morning or sweltering summer afternoon wandering in the Prairie Learning and Visitor Center at the Refuge. We love exploring exhibits that showcase how native plants and wildlife fit thrive together in an ecosystem. My son likes to measure his height against the length of the prairie grass root system. He also plays in the faux badger den that makes you feel like an extra on “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”

Neil Smith Wildlife RefugeGet up close with a taxidermy bison and touch different bones and antlers. Watch for Nature Tots and family programming aimed at kids of different ages that highlight different topics. The gift shop there also has lots of great books and toys for little explorers.

Neil Smith Wildlife RefugeHiking and biking are popular at the Refuge. Get plenty of ideas for your pollinator garden and look for insects on the paths around the Prairie Learning Center. (Kids can check out a free backpack with binoculars and bug jars at the front desk.) Or go for shade with the loop through oak savanna. We loved riding Pedal the Prairie each year in June. The ride follows the bike trails from the Casey’s in Prairie City to the Nature Center. 

See Wildlife Up Close 

Bison Day (Aug. 3, 2019) is another favorite celebration. Although I do feel conflicted munching on a bison burger after marveling at the majestic creatures roaming in the Refuge enclosure.

bisonA drive through the Refuge enclosure is our most frequent visit. If we’re passing Prairie City, we often take a detour to see if we can get up close with the bison or elk herds.

Some of my most treasured evenings involve a traffic jam caused by Refuge wildlife. We’ll let the kids unbuckle and climb up into our laps as we sit peacefully. We watch the sun set and the bison amble across the dirt road. Sometimes, they’re walking right in front of our vehicle. These horned and hump-backed silhouettes would have been so familiar 150 years ago, before they were hunted to near extinction. And other times the bison and elk are at the far edges of the enclosure – brown specks on the horizon.

Foster Nature Appreciation

Witnessing the life cycle of the prairie through frequent visits to the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is a way for me to encourage my children to put down roots in this place. I want them to grow with a sense of respect and wonder at our place in this planet, so they can appreciate and advocate for nature.


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