Spending time outdoors has a ton of benefits. First, of course, it’s enjoyable. And research shows it’s an excellent way to improve your physical and mental health. That’s a win-win in our book! The good news is, there are many opportunities to experience nature in Des Moines and Central Iowa! So, to help you decide where to explore, we put together this guide of 30+ parks in the Des Moines area.
We’ll cover nature areas where you can explore gardens, green spaces, trails, and more. All parks are within about 30 miles of Des Moines. (We don’t include many small neighborhood parks here.)
Pssst…all the parks in Des Moines are great, but we have some favorites.
Our 10+ Favorite Parks for Outdoor Activities
Map of Des Moines Parks
Parks in the Des Moines area: The best of nature is right here
Des Moines Water Works Park is one of the largest urban parks in the United States. And, with almost 1500 acres of protected land and water, it has a range of outdoor activities. There’s something for everyone, including fishing, hiking, biking, and more! Explore the trails, crabapple arboretum, gardens, and natural playground while you’re there! Or, take in a concert at the amphitheater! (As a bonus, Gray’s Lake Park is across the street!)
Location: 2201 George Flagg Pkwy, Des Moines, Iowa 50321.
This 166-acre park is a beautiful place to spend a day. And, best of all, it’s within walking distance of downtown Des Moines! You can walk or bike the two-mile loop trail, hit the beach, rent a kayak or paddleboard, go fishing, and much more. (Don’t forget – Des Moines Water Works Park is also just across the street!)
Location: 2101 Fleur Dr, Des Moines, Iowa 50315.
The gardens are a beautiful and serene space to experience nature – right in downtown Des Moines! They’re on 1.7-acres along the Des Moines River. And they symbolize diversity and appreciation for the contribution of Asian Americans in Iowa. Also, they’re along the Principal Riverwalk, so there’s more to explore while you’re there!
Location: North of the Women of Achievement Bridge (see our article for parking).
If you’re in Des Moines, this one-of-a-kind outdoor art exhibit should be on your list. Stroll through the sculptures or take a guided or self-guided tour. It’s in Western Gateway Park, a 13-acre park on the west edge of downtown.
Location: 1330 Grand Avenue, Des Moines, Iowa 50309.
This one-of-a-kind 50-acre park sits on a bluff south of downtown Des Moines. Visit the overlook, walk or bike around the park loop, play tennis, and have a picnic (reservable shelters). A few features are currently under construction. But, soon, you’ll also get to ice skate or fish at the lagoon and play at a new natural playground.
Location: 1021 Davis Ave, Des Moines, Iowa 50315
Riverview Park is the site of a former amusement park! So, it has an amusement park-themed inclusive playground. And the amphitheater looks like a roller coaster. A paved trail surrounds green space around the stage and links to Neal Smith Trail and McHenry Park Trail.
Location: 710 Corning Avenue., Des Moines, Iowa 50313
This 51-acre park is excellent for all ages, with a formal garden, carousel, rocket slide, tennis courts, wading pool, green space, and more! And winter is a busy time too, with snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and sledding.
Location: 725 Thompson Ave, Des Moines, IA 50316
This 140-acre park in the heart of Des Moines has something for everyone! Hike or mountain bike the single-track trails through the woods or pick up the Bill Riley Trail to downtown. But that’s not all! There’s a pool, playground, spraygrounds, fishing pond, rose garden, tennis court, and more!
Location: 4500 Grand Avenue, Des Moines, Iowa 50312
With 486 acres of dense woodlands, Brown’s Woods is Iowa’s largest forest preserve. And it’s right in West Des Moines! Go there to explore nature on four miles of trails that vary in length and interconnect (so you can decide how far to go). Afterward, stop at the picnic area for lunch (near the trailheads).
Location: 465 SE Brown’s Woods Drive, West Des Moines, Iowa.
Raccoon River Park is a 632-acre park in West Des Moines, along the Raccoon River. And it’s chock full of outdoor recreational opportunities – trails, a beach, kayak rentals, fishing spots, archery, and more! Kids love the huge playground, and don’t forget the family dog – they’ll love the dog park.
Location: 2500 Grand Avenue, West Des Moines, Iowa.
This 260-acre state park is just minutes from Downtown Des Moines. It’s along the Raccoon River and is the perfect place to explore nature at its finest. Hike the trail, go fishing, paddle the river, and picnic under the shade of the massive walnut trees. The good news is that it also has an excellent campground for tents, campers, and RVs!
Location: 3155 SE Walnut Woods Dr., West Des Moines, Iowa.
This 469-acre park has a 172-acre lake – and it’s known for its exceptional trails, historic bridge, and boat rentals! There are opportunities for hiking, biking, fishing, boating, picnicking, swimming, and much more. Plus, several of the reservable picnic shelters have great views of the lake. (And it’s connected to Ewing Park via a paved path!)
Location: 2830 Easter Lake Drive, Des Moines, Iowa 50320
This 350-acre park has something for everyone – really! It has a disc golf course, lilac arboretum, Children’s Forest, Soap-Box Derby track, BMX tracks, a dog park, and an inclusive playground. You can also hike or bike through the woods on over 4 miles of single-track dirt trails. (And it’s connected to Easter Lake Park via a paved path!)
Location: 5300 Indianola Ave, Des Moines, Iowa 50320.
This beautiful 135-acre county park is on the southeast side of Des Moines. And there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy nature! Hike the trails, fish or paddle the lake, visit the arboretum, have a picnic, host a gathering (at a shelter), and more!
Location: 7200 SE 5th St., Des Moines, Iowa 50315.
This 40-acre state preserve is a unique area along the Four Mile Creek Greenway. A short, hilly hiking trail runs through the woods and is a popular area for birdwatching. The path connects to the 20+ mile-long Gay Lea Wilson paved trail.
Location: 1552 E 36th Street, Des Moines, Iowa 50317
This 60-acre city park has a lot to offer! Hike or mountain bike through the woods on the short single-track dirt trails. You can also picnic or play disc golf, basketball, or tennis! Also, kids love to play on the accessible playgrounds and spraygrounds!
Location: 3230 Easton Blvd, Des Moines, Iowa 50317.
This Urbandale park hosts outdoor sports, like softball and baseball, tennis, and soccer. And if you’re looking for a picnic spot and lots of green space, this is the place! The park has a pond, playgrounds, skatepark, gardens, public art, and paved trail access.
Location: 9000 Douglas Avenue, Urbandale, Iowa 50322
This 200-acre Johnston park is a great place to be outdoors. The eight-acre fishing lake is surrounded by green space, a popular spot for community programs. It has kayak rentals, a playground, hard and soft trails, a fishing pier, and an amphitheater. Also, several picnic areas invite you to relax and stay awhile.
Location: 6400 Pioneer Parkway, Johnston, Iowa 50131.
This 40-acre nature preserve is near the Jordan Creek Trail in West Des Moines. It’s known for its wildflowers and forest, where you can go hiking, disc golfing, and creek walking. Plus, future single-track trails are in the works!
Location: 350 S. 35th Street, West Des Moines, Iowa.
Purple Martin Lake is a hidden gem in West Des Moines! It’s a quiet place to go for outdoor activities, like fishing, hiking, and bird watching! The small lake also has a boat ramp for kayaks and canoes. Another nice thing is it’s only two miles west of Walnut Woods State Park!
Dale Maffitt Reservoir is one of Des Moines’ best-kept secrets! The scenic 200-acre lake is surrounded by acres of prairie and woodlands. And it’s a great place to hike, kayak, fish, picnic, snowshoe, and more! (Permits required to kayak.)
Location: 12460 Maffitt Lake Road, Cumming, Iowa, 50061.
This 136-acre state park is the perfect place to hike rolling hills and woodlands. The park has two playgrounds (one “hidden” playground!), wooded trails, creek walking, and picnic shelters!
Location: 6171 Northwest 2nd Street, Des Moines, Iowa, 50313
The 26,000-acre Saylorville Lake project conserves water and protects natural resources. But it’s also a premier outdoor destination in Central Iowa—the 6000-acre lake and surrounding land provide a treasure trove of outdoor recreation! Go camping, boating, fishing, hiking, biking, or relax and have a picnic and soak up nature. Saylorville has campgrounds, archery, disc golf, a marina, trails, boat ramps, and more.
Location: north of Des Moines, Iowa (the visitor center is at 8250 NW Horseshoe Rd, Polk City, Iowa 50226).
This 3550-acre Iowa State Park has an 866-acre lake – and you won’t run out of things to do! It has a marina, beach, disc golf, boat rentals, colossal playground, boat ramps, trails, and more. Go in the winter for snowmobiling, ice fishing, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing.
Location: 8794 NW 125th Avenue, Polk City, Iowa 50226.
Copper Creek Lake Park
A paved loop trail surrounds this scenic 40-acre lake, with access to the 20+ miles Gay Lea Wilson Trail. Also, a picnic shelter, playground, fishing spots, and seasonal paddleboard rentals are along the shores. And if you have a non-motorized boat, a boat ramp is near the parking area.
Location: 4390 E University Ave, Pleasant Hill, Iowa 50327.
Yellow Banks is a 552-acre park with sweeping views and bluffs over the Des Moines River valley! There you can go hiking, fishing, camping, picnicking, river paddling, and more! Amenities include ballfields, campgrounds, playgrounds, picnic shelters, boat ramps, and a pond. And the good news is, it’s just east of Des Moines!
Location: 6801 SE 32nd Ave. in Pleasant Hill, Iowa.
This scenic 197-acre park is just east of Des Moines and a great place to spend a day – or two, or three! If you want to stay awhile, check out the park cabin or campground. And, while you’re there, hike the trails, go fishing, creek walk, picnic, and more!
Location: 4250 NE 108th St, Mitchellville, Iowa 50169.
This 9000+ acre(!) greenbelt extends along 10 miles of former Skunk River oxbows. Its diverse landscapes, habitats, and wildlife are rare for Iowa. The park has a campground, wildlife viewing areas, a trap range, a historic bridge, and a dog training area. Go hiking, fishing, kayaking (rentals available), hunting, camping, and more! And in the winter, cross country ski the groomed trails.
Location: 8700 NE 126 Ave, Maxwell, Iowa 50161
This small, scenic park is just north of Des Moines. But don’t let its size fool you; it’s a great nature area! It has short dirt trails, a creek, a playground, and picnic areas. Plus, it’s the perfect place to park to access the paved Chichaqua Valley and Gay Lea Wilson Trails!
Location: NE 38th St, Berwick, Iowa 50032.
This 222-acre park is a former coal mine, making it one of the most unique (and scenic!) parks in the Des Moines area! A paved, 2-mile loop trail surrounds the lakes, and dirt trails wind through the woods and wetlands. There’s also a fishing pier, boat ramp, and picnic areas for visitors to use.
Location: 13084 Elk Horn St, Carlisle, Iowa 50047.
This 1100-acre recreation area is well known for hunting, fishing, and sunflower fields! Anglers enjoy lots of fishing jetties and two boat ramps (motorized boats at no-wake speeds). And visitors come from all around to see the enormous bright sunflowers each summer!
Location: 120th St, Van Meter, IA 50261
Prairie Heritage Park/Enabling Garden
Whether you garden or not, the Enabling Garden in Altoona is a must-see for kids and adults alike! Unique plants, garden structures, art, and a children’s garden are just a few highlights. Afterward, visit Prairie Heritage Park to explore the restored wetlands, trails, and wildlife. See the war memorial, walk the paths, and let the kids enjoy the spraygrounds!
Location: 1050 1st Avenue South in Altoona, Iowa 50009.
This 19-acre lake is a popular fishing destination that gets stocked with trout. It’s also a fun place for a picnic or stroll on the loop trail. Also, there’s a playground, access to the Chichauqua Valley Trail, and a nearby sports complex.
Location: NE 80th St. & Jr. Haines Pkwy, Bondurant, Iowa 50035.
This 10-acre wooded preserve south of Des Moines includes a short hiking adventure! The suspension bridge is worth the trip, and crossing it (again and again) is great fun for kids. Plus, the picnic area and fire pit are a great way to wrap up your time in the woods.
Location: 5689 Hempstead Pl, Prole, Iowa 50229
Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge is a 30-minute drive east of Des Moines but worth the trip! At over 8600 acres, it offers visitors the opportunity to explore and learn about nature (and wildlife!). The Prairie Learning Center, wildlife auto tour, and 10+ miles of trails make it the place to be outdoors. They also have public hunting areas and snowshoeing in the winter.
Location: 9981 Pacific St, Prairie City, Iowa 50228
This 140-acre outdoor museum has over 2200 trees set in a beautiful Iowa landscape. There are self-guided tours, trails, a natural playground, picnic areas, and more. Learn about the trees while you have an all-around excellent outdoor adventure!
Location: 25141 260th St, Dallas Center, Iowa.
Escape to nature today!
There you have it—all kinds of options for enjoying nature in the parks around Des Moines! If you want to relax, hit the trails, or experience the water, opportunity awaits. So, get out there and enjoy!
If we missed your favorite nature area or park, let us know! Then, we’ll get it added to the list.