If I told you that within a half hour drive of Des Moines you could experience an expansive Prairie Learning Center with fun activities for kids, see a sizable herd of bison and elk up close, and explore over 8,600 acres of prairie habitat...all for no admission fee, you would probably say that I am lying to you.
But I am not.
All of that - and much, much more - is available for you and your family at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City in Jasper County. The refuge is owned by the taxpayers of the United States and is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service within the Department of the Interior.
The refuge has existed since 1990 and was re-named a number of years ago in honor of former Iowa Congressman Neal Smith.
There are lot of Iowans, even central Iowans, that have no idea that this place exists. I know, because I've asked a lot of people recently. I have to admit, though I have known about it's existence for many years and have seen the signs along I-80, my recent visit on a Sunday afternoon was my first. Better late than never, right?
After having lunch and exploring the newly opened Outlets of Des Moines in Altoona, I hopped back on eastbound I-80 for a few more miles until I saw a brown sign directing me to exit. From there, it's approximately 10 to 15 miles off the Interstate. You have to make a few turns, but they do a good job with additional signage to ensure you stay on the right path.
I entered the Refuge at the edge of Prairie City, right off of US Hwy 163. There is a Casey's General Store nearby a park-like area that seems to be almost a welcoming spot for those planning to visit the Refuge. It's complete with some picnic tables, a map, some bathrooms, and most memorably - a gigantic statue of a bison. It's a great place to stop and get a nice keepsake family photo.
I decided that I would start my adventure in the Refuge by stopping at the Prairie Learning Center. There are, again, lots of signs to ensure you stay on the path.
Once on the path to the visitor/learning center, it's a very scenic drive.
The entire area has a dedicated bike lane for those who want to enjoy the drive on two instead of four wheels. They encourage you to keep your speed down and not to pass, but you'll want to take your time to enjoy the natural beauty anyway.
I was taken aback by the size and scope of the Prairie Learning Center. It's quite a building. There is also an extensive paved parking lot.
Once inside, you realize that they have a lot of programs, artifacts, artwork, and displays that utilize the space.
There is a store available for those who want a souvenir of their visit.
In one of the corners, you can look through a telescope to see animals enjoying the prairie.
They have a lot of great activities for children as well as a theatre that has informational and educational programming, though I did not take the time to view the presentation.
An older gentleman was volunteering at the front desk welcoming visitors to the center. There is an organization, "Friends of the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge", that helps support the goals and mission of the property. Take a look at their Facebook page and you can see they have a lot going on!
After enjoying the learning center, the gentleman at the front desk strongly suggested that I take the self-guided automobile tour route and look at the bison herd up close. This is a must do. In fact, you would be missing a lot by not doing this.
When I showed up, several of the bison were actually on the road. Naturally, I obeyed the sign, stayed in my car, and gave them plenty of room to roam.
Below, you can see some elk in the distance but none of them were close enough to get a great view.
Below is a view of the learning center from where the bison herd was at the time of my visit.
After watching the bison graze for a bit, I decided to head on out. They are truly beautiful creatures and it's neat to see them in their natural tall grass prairie habitat.
I was struck by this gorgeous, singular tree near the gates as I exited the refuge.
Honestly, you can spend an hour at the Refuge or you can spend all day - it all depends on how much time you have. There's so much to see and they have a lot of great programs happening all the time. I took a screenshot of their September and October events from their Facebook page. Lots to see and do year-a-round. I would love to come back and do one of the hikes sometime.
This was a great stop and I am glad I finally ventured out to enjoy this. Don't be like me and make excuses for not getting out to see this - get out there soon. Whether you are a solo adventurer, a group of friends, a couple on a date, or enjoying a family-friendly outing - there's something memorable for everyone.