Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is a habitat restoration project on over 8600 acres(!) in Central Iowa. But that’s not all! Visitors of all ages can go there to explore, learn, and view the wildlife.
The Prairie Learning Center, auto tour, and trails make it the perfect place to spend a day outdoors. And the good news is, it’s a short 30-minute drive from Des Moines.
About Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge
Neal Smith NWR started in 1990 with a grand mission:
The mission of Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is to actively protect, restore, reconstruct and manage the diverse native ecosystems of tallgrass prairie, oak savanna, and sedge meadow.U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service | Neal Smith NWR
The goal is to restore tallgrass prairie and oak savanna, as it was before European settlers came. The Fish and Wildlife Service also does education and research. Plus, they develop prairie and wildlife management methods.
Things to Do at Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge
View the Wildlife
The bison and elk herds draw visitors to Neal Smith NWR. Between 50-70 bison and 15-20 elk roam the 800-acre enclosure on the refuge’s north side. The herds have plenty of space to roam, meaning not all visitors see them while there. But there’s a good chance you will. The lucky visitor may even spot babies born each spring.
We can’t talk about the wildlife without mentioning the vast array of other species at the refuge. Many bird species, like meadowlark, short-eared owls, and harriers, call the area home. Then, of course, there’s always the chance you’ll spot a white-tailed deer, fox, or coyote!
Take the Wildlife Auto Tour
The five-mile driving tour extends through the 800-acre bison and elk enclosure. Also, look for birds, like owls, sandpipers, meadowlarks along the route. The great thing is, the driving trail is open year-round, so you can even enjoy the prairie in the winter months!
Tour the Prairie Learning Center
This small hands-on museum and visitor center is a must-see for all ages! Explore interactive exhibits, see a short film, and browse the bookstore. And while you’re there, get all your questions answered. It’s all free!
Plan ahead if you want to go through the visitor center. They have limited hours—check their website or call ahead before you go.
Tallgrass Trail is a paved loop around the visitor center. The easy, accessible trail has a diverse selection of prairie wildflowers! And in the late summer and early fall, you’re sure to spot butterflies there.
Around 10 miles of gravel and mowed hiking trails run through the refuge. Access most trails from the visitor center (except Basswood Trail, on the park’s south side). See the map for locations.
Prairie Parkway Bike Trail extends along Pacific Street (bike lanes) between the visitor center and Prairie City. The ~6-mile trail is a fantastic way to experience the prairie. Keep in mind, it’s an out-and-back trail (with hills!), so it is nearly 12 miles both ways.
Attend a program
Attend an interpretive program to learn more about prairie/oak savanna habitats. All programs are free!
Neal Smith NWR is also a popular place for schools to take field trips. Programming takes place in the visitor center, classrooms, and outdoors.
Seasonal hunting is allowed at Neal Smith NWR in designated areas and with a permit. You can hunt for upland game, turkey, game birds, and deer—seasons and species are restricted. Review the Hunting Regulations Brochure. And get your hunting permit at the visitor center (call for more info).
Take amazing photos
The prairie is ideal for excellent photos in all seasons! For some competition (and motivation), submit your pictures for the annual photo contest.
See the U.S. Fish and Wildlife PDF map and brochure here.
Links to more information
Things to Do Nearby
Thomas Mitchell Park a scenic 197-acre park 12 miles northwest of the wildlife refuge. Explore the park’s hiking trails, go fishing, or walk the creek while you’re there. If you want to stay awhile, there’s a campground with over 40 campsites.
Yellow Banks Park is a 552-acre park 13 miles west of the wildlife refuge. It offers sweeping views from the bluffs over the Des Moines River valley. Spend the day picnicking, hiking, or fishing at the pond or river. And stay in one of the campgrounds!
After a day at the prairie, you might want to stop for refreshments! You’ll find Goldie’s Ice Cream Shoppe and a couple of other food stops just up the road in Prairie City. Or head to Des Moines and stop by one of the restaurants along University Avenue in Pleasant Hill.
Visit Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge Today!
From Des Moines, take I-235 to the IA-163/East University Avenue toward the State Fairgrounds (exit 10A). Follow IA-163 east for about 20 miles. Take Exit 18 at Prairie City and turn left onto Hwy 117 S. Follow the signs toward Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge.
From I-80, take the Colfax exit (exit 155) and follow Hwy 117 S. for 8 miles to Prairie City. Go through town, take a right onto S. 96th Ave W, just south of town. Follow the signs toward Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge.